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Day Trip: Hiking Around the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C.

By Jason Barnette | Travel writer and photographer with 15+ years of road tripping experience

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Maybe I shouldn’t use the word hiking to describe this little day trip in Washington, D.C. When I think of hiking, I picture the rugged terrain of the Appalachian Trail. Still, this is exactly what you can do around the Tidal Basin while exploring some monuments and memorials, enjoying the beautiful scenery, and learning about past presidents and influential people in our country’s history.

The Tidal Basin is an interesting piece of civil engineering dating back tot he 1880s. The basin’s purpose is to use the water from the Potomac River to fill up during high tide, cutting off water to the Washington Channel. Then, during low tide, the water captured in the basin floods into the channel. Of course, that is just the basic workings, but then again I’m a travel writer, not an engineer.

Today, the Tidal Basin is the centerpiece of a few monuments and memorials. It also provides the water for the nearby Reflecting Pool. There is a trail that loops around the entire basin, approximately two miles in length. Because it’s difficult to drive and park at most memorials in the city, the loop trail is important for accessing the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and George Mason Memorial.

This is not entirely a day trip. It’s little more than a half day trip, but “Half Day Trip” doesn’t sound so catchy. It will only take about an hour to walk the loop trail. When determining when to start and how much time you’ll be out there, you need to factor in your interest in the monuments and memorials. If you are an avid reader of every placard and inscription, this could take you about six hours to complete. If you have restless children who are hungry, tired, and have to pee, you can complete this in just an hour.

Take a look at the map below, and then start with the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. If you have a cellphone or tablet you take with you, be sure to download this rather fantastic PDF map from the National Park Service. Their map includes all the monuments and memorials in a high resolution map you can zoom in and out and scroll.

Start: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial

The Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC, on Sunday, August 17, 2014. Copyright 2014 Jason Barnette

The cavernous Jefferson Memorial, a fantastic place to spend time, at any time.

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial is a great place to start this day trip, though I will admit it’s a bit backwards. You could easily reverse this day trip and end your day here, but I have a reasoning for writing it as I have here. Because there are no parking spaces on-site, this is a memorial you will want to access by tour bus, taxi, or bicycle.

The memorial stands out above the local horizon, the large white dome easily viewable from the White House, Washington Monument, and National WWII Memorial. Once here, take a look inside to find a cavernous space with a statue depicting Jefferson in the center. Inscriptions cover four different sections of the circular interior walls, etched with bronze (when bronze oxidizes it sort of oozes a green color onto the surrounding white granite, something which you’ll probably notice when visiting).

After enjoying the interior of the monument, step out onto the front steps and grab a seat. The nice thing about the steps to these memorials is they serve double duty as steps and benches, and it is perfectly acceptable. Of course, try not to sit directly in front of the main entrance, but you are more than welcome to head off to the side and sit for awhile. This is a peaceful, tranquil place to enjoy the site of the Tidal Basin before beginning the hiking trip along the loop trail.

Once you are ready to leave, walk around the edge of the memorial facing west to find the loop trail. You won’t take the loop trail for very long at first since we are heading toward the George Mason Memorial. Just before you reach the Inlet Bridge, you will see a crosswalk heading across East Basin Drive SW. Cross over, and you will have arrived at the George Mason Memorial.

George Mason Memorial

The George Mason Memorial is tiny in comparison to the Jefferson Memorial you just left, but still one to enjoy. The memorial consists of a granite bench with a bronze statue depicting Mason, sitting there with a couple of books (probably a nod to the nearby George Mason University). While the garden and fountain (which wasn’t operational when I visited in 2014) date back to 1905, the memorial to Mason is relatively new, finished in 2002.

An interesting note about this memorial: it is one of only three locations on the National Mall where weddings are permitted (with a permit, of course). The other two locations are the west lawn of the Jefferson Memorial and the D.C. War Memorial (also known as the World War I Memorial).

When you are ready for the next leg, walk back across East Basin Drive SW to the loop trail. Turn left, and continue along the bridge and Tidal Basin.

View of the Tidal Basin

Night view of the Washington Monument across the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. on Sunday, August 16, 2015. Copyright 2015 Jason Barnette

The Washington Monuments reflects in the waters of the Tidal Basin.

The loop trail around the Tidal Basin splits into an upper and lower trail, both heading toward the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. Both trails are flat and easy to walk, but the lower trail is more scenic. The lower trail can also be more problematic after heavy rains since it has flooded from time to time, it can get a bit muddy, and there are many roots from trees sprouting up across the path. It’s still more scenic.

There are several benches along the lower trail, all under the of enormous trees. This provides you and the family some great places to take a break and enjoy the view. It’s peaceful here with very little traffic noise, although you will still hear the sound of planes flying over the river heading toward the airport. However, I will caution you: I was nearly hit by a softball from one of the fields behind the trail. Landed about three feet from the bench where I was enjoying the view. Would’ve been enjoying a headache if it had landed on my head!

Despite that one little detraction, this is “the” spot on the loop trail around the basin. From the left you can see the Kutz Bridge, Washington Monument, National Mall (and several construction cranes in 2014 as they build the new National Museum of African American History and Culture), then you can spot the U.S. Capitol Building between office buildings in the distance, and finally back to the Jefferson Memorial. I tried shooting a panorama photo here the day I visited, but the problem with partly cloudy days is the lighting conditions change frequently so I never could get 10-15 photos with the same conditions to stitch together.

I also realized this was the location of a photo I saw in the lobby of my hotel (I always stay at the Hyatt Regency Capitol Hill because of yes). At night, you catch stunning reflections of light in the water of the basin from the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial. I have not been here at night, but if you want a great view for a date or just a solemn place to chill for awhile, this is it. Halfway between East Basin Drive SW and the FDR Memorial.

After you’ve finished enjoying this serenity (I stayed for almost an hour) continue along the loop trail heading north, towards the Reflecting Pool.

Japanese Stone Pagoda

Just before you reach the exit to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial you will come across the Japanese Stone Pagoda. The pagoda was a gift from the mayor of Yokohama, Japan in 1957, and was dedicated at this site in 1958. It is located just off the loop trail around the Tidal Basin, with a great view of the nearby Washington Monument.

There really isn’t much else to see at this particular monument, but now comes a tricky part. Not entirely tricky, just a little decision you need to make. The loop trail continues along the Tidal Basin, running near the edge of the FDR Memorial. The pagoda is located at the “exit” of the memorial, though there is no particular entrance or exit. The memorial is organized in chronological order of FDR’s presidency, with the end at the pagoda being the end of his presidency terms.

So, if you decide to enter the memorial here (as I did) you will find yourself working backwards through time. The memorial is large with wide open spaces so you won’t exactly be pushing up against lines of people. However, if you decide you would rather see the memorial in the order it was meant to be viewed, continue along the loop trail for just a few minutes until you reach the other end.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

A set of statues depicting the Great Depression at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, DC, on Sunday, August 17, 2014. Copyright 2014 Jason Barnette

A set of statues depicting the Great Depression at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.

The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial is one of the most unique of all the presidential memorials in the city. It is entirely outdoors, and organized like a book to be read about the former president. The memorial includes dozens of quotes, inscriptions, and interesting moments from his life. It also includes several bronze statues of both the former president, the first lady, their dog, and a few scenes depicting American life during this time period.

The 10′ walls of the memorial create a bit of a noise buffer, keeping out most outside sounds and catching the rushing waters found in a couple of locations. One spot has a large waterfall with stepping stones. I’m not entirely sure you are meant to actually step on those stones (and I certainly wouldn’t) but I saw a few visitors posing for photos on them. Another location is a simple straight waterfall against a wall. I wanted to capture some great long exposure photos of these falls, but as soon as I broke out the tripod a ranger almost magically appeared to say tripods aren’t allowed. They are tripping hazards, I was informed. I’m still devising a means to capture these photos without the need of a tripod.

This is certainly a memorial that deserves some time. There are plenty of places to sit, contemplate, think, or just take a break from all the walking. There is a lot of information to read here, a lot to enjoy, and a lot to learn. My favorite scene from the entire memorial is a line of people waiting outside a soup kitchen to get food during the Great Depression. I have never felt so much emotion from a bronze statue as I did sitting there on a bench, staring at the scene. I spent a lot of time here during my first visit in 2014, and I even returned the next day to spend even more time.

Once you have thoroughly enjoyed my favorite memorial, you might find yourself at either end (depending on which way you decided to walk). Either way, hop back on the loop trail along the edge of the Tidal Basin, heading north toward the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial. The loop trail runs right along the memorial; you will see the towering relief of King when you arrive.

Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial

The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, DC, on Saturday, August 16, 2014. Copyright 2014 Jason Barnette

The towering relief carving of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial is one of the newest memorials in the city, opening on August 22, 2011. It is a clean, bright memorial made from a unique hue of granite that I thoroughly enjoy, despite the fact it contrasts with the person depicted. The memorial also stands right at the edge of the Tidal Basin, providing visitors with great views while enjoying the inscriptions on the 450′ stone wall.

The relief carving of King is made from a section of granite that stands out from the long wall, which depicts a mountain. An inscription reads “Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope,” a line from his “I Have a Dream” speech. The wall also contains dozens of additional quotes from his life. There are a few benches here, built into the beautiful landscaping, giving you a change to relax and enjoy the memorial.

The granite statue depicting King looks out across the Tidal Basin, though I don’t think it is looking at anything in particular. If you stand there yourself you can see the Jefferson Memorial across the water. From here you also have a fantastic view of the planes landing at the nearby Reagan National Airport.

If you need to use any restrooms at this point, there is a building located behind the memorial (from this perspective) across the street. It is only a few minutes’ walk and might be kinda necessary at this point. If you need food or drinks, you will have to walk all the way to the facility near the Korean War Veterans Memorial, about a ten or fifteen minute walk. It’s not far, and if you didn’t bring anything to eat or drink with you this is a great place to visit. This facility offers a wide variety of cooked to order foods like hamburger, hot dogs, and they have chips, snacks, and water.

When you are ready to continue the trek around the Tidal Basin, face the water and turn left onto the loop trail. It is only a few minutes’ walk to the sight of the First Cherry Tree Planting. During this particular stretch of the trail be sure to note the trees you are walking under; these are the infamous Cherry Blossom trees that become a focus of photographers, visitors, and festivals during spring each year in the city.

First Cherry Tree Planting

I would very much like to visit Washington, D.C. during the blooming of the Cherry Blossoms. I have seen so many photos, so I am challenged to find a way to capture the annual event in a unique way that has not already been done a thousand times. But more than anything, I just want to see them myself. While this day trip hiking trek around the Tidal Basin can be enjoyed throughout the year, I would say the single best time would be to coincide with these blooming trees.

The site of the First Cherry Tree Planting is located along the loop trail just before you reach the Kutz Bridge. There is a small plaque to the side of the trail noting the event, and an information placard detailing the interesting history of the cherry trees in the city. Did you know the first 2,000 cherry trees donated to the United States by Jokichi Takamine in 1910 had to be burned because they were infested with pests and disease? The trees surviving today along the basin are from a second donation of 3,020 trees received in 1912.

Even if you can’t or don’t take this day trip during the blooming of the cherry trees, it is still interesting to come across this particular site symbolic of the growing bond between the United States and Japan. It is even better that today that trees have grown so large they cover the area with shade, providing a respite during the hot and humid summer months. I found the shade under these trees comforting many times.

If you continue along the loop trail, you will cross over the Kutz Bridge. Watch out for bicyclists and other pedestrians. The sidewalk on the bridge is a bit narrow. Once you reach the other side, the loop trail heads off to the right and the final destination for this day trip.

Finish: Tidal Basin Paddle Boats

People explore the Tidal Basin in pedal powered boats near the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC, on Saturday, August 16, 2014. Copyright 2014 Jason Barnette

Visitors can get a fresh perspective on the Jefferson Memorial from the vantage point of a paddleboat on the Tidal Basin.

The loop trail winds along the edge of the Tidal Basin, about six feet above the water, as it continues toward Tidal Basin Paddle Boats, a private company that rents out paddle boats for use on the basin. Here you will also find a restroom facility, snack bar, drinks, and plenty of places to sit and rest from the long journey to arrive here. This is the reason I wanted to finish the day trip at this location: it’s a great place to end the day.

The boats from Tidal Basin Paddle Boats can accommodate 2-4 riders at once, and are fully pedal-powered. The boats cost $14/hour for a two person boat, and $22/hour for a four person boat. This would be a fun way to end a day with a date or your family. The basin is only about ten feet deep and has very little current running through it, which makes the experience on the water calm, soothing, and relaxing. It doesn’t take much human power to make it around the basin to see the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial and Jefferson Memorial from a different perspective. The rates listed for an hour rental at a time are really good because an hour is the perfect amount of time on the water. I stayed two.

You can also take advantage of the restrooms while visiting here, and walk around the corner to get a snack and a drink. This one does not offer cooked food, but rather just chips, candy bars, sodas, and water. There are a few benches and tables, but also really comfortable areas under the shade of cherry trees to enjoy a rest with a nice cold water.

If you insist on driving for this particular day trip, it is possible to park here, but I will warn you: it is expensive, and you must find a way to reserve a space online or you may not find anything when you arrive. If you want to try to park here, or if you have no desire to hop on the water after finishing this day trip, then this would be a good starting point. Once you reach the Jefferson Memorial it is about a 15-20 minute walk along the loop trail to return to the parking lot, or you can get a passing taxi that frequently waits by the memorial.

However you decide to take this day trip, I hope you enjoy the monuments and memorials, learn a thing or two, and capture some great photos. This is a beautiful area of Washington, D.C. that many people either don’t know about or don’t fully enjoy. I hope now that will change. Especially during the Cherry Blossoms blooming.

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