When I visit cities, I like to walk. I will walk until my feet hurt and I get blisters, but I rarely get sick of walking someplace new if there’s ample time and my feet are up for it.
Washington DC is a great place to walk. It’s clean, it’s pretty, there’s plenty to see, and public transportation is usually nearby if a trip needs to be cut short. I feel like I’ve walked over enormous swaths of metro DC in past visits there. On this most recent visit, I really wanted to walk someplace I hadn’t managed to visit yet: Theodore Roosevelt Island.
I was in town for work meetings, and hoped to make it there one evening after work. It almost didn’t work because it rained both evenings. The first day it rained pretty hard, so I instead visited the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum since I hadn’t been there since 8th grade. It was pretty cool, but still not my thing; I’ll take the Natural History Museum any day. The second night was my only other change, and it was spitting rain and calling for massive thunderstorms all night. The weather was bad and looking to get worse, so I went back to the hotel. Bummer. Luckily, a bit later I looked out the window and realized that the weather didn’t seem to be as bad as predicted. I checked the weather again, and it was now just overcast and a small chance of rain. So off I went!
Teddy Roosevelt is a conservation superstar, and so it’s fitting that his memorial is 88 acres of woods spread across two islands (TR Island and Little Island) in the middle of the Potomac River. It’s fitting to his conservation legacy (including the creation of several national parks, monuments, and forests) that the island that formerly had a mansion, gardens, and farmland has reverted back to forest and is pretty wild by urban standards—the island has only a single monument area to TR and then a network of trails through the woods.
When I made it there, the passing rain and storms had left the weather especially hot and humid. Walking through the forest with all the different trees, plants, and vines, felt like a being in the jungle.
There is a fairly large monument to TR in the middle of the island, but it’s not maintained. There are a number of large pools and fountains that have been drained, leaving the area feeling abandoned. The lack of visitors also contributed to the somewhat desolate feeling. While DC’s Mall is teeming with school groups and tourists, I only saw three other visitors on the island, probably due to a combination of rainy weather, time of day, and (mostly, I suspect) the relative difficulty of getting to the island.
Like many places I like best, the only people on the island are there because they want to be and took the time to get there.
There were a million kinds of trees– things I don’t see Upper Michigan and can barely remember learning to identify: catalpa, holly, honeylocust, sycamore, hornbeam. Also, enormous oak and black cherry trees. There were birds and an amazingly constant and loud buzzing of what must have been thousands of cicadas in the forest canopy.
It was amazing how remote the island felt even though it’s just a teeny distance from the big city. Other than the low drone of traffic in the distance and the relatively common flyover of planes from the nearby Reagan Airport, it felt pretty remote. If a person wanted solitude, it would be very easy to go off trail one or two hundred feet and feel very far removed from the city and other people. If it weren’t against the rules, I would even suggest it as a pretty sweet place for some (guerrilla) camping!
I’m really happy that I went out of my way to visit the island and see what was (or, as it turns out: wasn’t) there. For a person who said “The farther one gets into the wilderness, the greater is the attraction of its lonely freedom,” this semi-remote island seems like a fitting memorial, a teaser for the more the expansive wild and working lands that TR helped conserve.
Travel deets: Theodore Roosevelt Island is free to visit and open 6 am to 10 am. Walk there from the Rosslyn Metro station (note that it’s not well signed—walk north toward the Key Bridge and then head right/east on the Curtis/Mt. Vernon trail near the road intersection with the Lee Highway), bike via the Mount Vernon trail, or drive. From the parking area, cross the foot/bike bridge. Be ready for actual woods experience. There are supposedly restrooms somewhere on the island (although I didn’t notice them), and I suspect that the water fountains may not work (although I didn’t check). The trails are well-maintained but not marked to tell you where you are, so bring a map or use your smartphone to keep from getting lost.