Exploring the National Mall in Washington, DC

The NPS's National Mall and Memorial Park, known as The National Mall, has a large collection of monuments and memorials dedicated to past presidents and wars.

Written by

Jason Barnette


April 23, 2018

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COVID-19 has changed the world. The tourism industry has been one of the hardest hit areas of the global pandemic. Local restaurants, museums, state and national parks have all changed hours of operation, procedures, and some have gone out of business altogether.

Please verify current operations of any places you want to visit mentioned in these articles, and contact me if a business has permanently closed so I can update the article. Thank you and stay safe out there!

From my elevated viewpoint at the back of the Capitol my gaze wandered from the nearby Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, across the long span of lush green lawns, to the towering Washington Monument, and finally the Lincoln Memorial in the distant background. This was the “grand avenue” Pierre Charles L’Enfant included in his design of the city of Washington. Today it is called The National Mall, and it is maintained by the National Park Service.

For a few years now I’ve had a goal to explore everything on The National Mall. The Grant Memorial and Capitol Reflecting Pool, along with my favorite discovery The Summerhouse, are now maintained by the Architect of the Capitol so they didn’t count toward my goal. Instead my journey began as soon as I crossed 3rd Street onto the area officially called The Mall.

My last visit to The Mall was just after the NPS had finished a multi-year renovation. New marble curbing clearly defined the lawn, fresh gravels filled the walking paths, and the lawn had been replanted after a new irrigation system was installed. It was lush and green and provided that much needed natural space in the midst of a concrete jungle.

The view of the Washington Monument at night from across the Tidal Basin. Can you see the difference between the blocks used in the bottom one-third and top two-thirds?

The Washington Monument is a great structure for many reasons. It’s a monument dedicated to our first president who led the way during the Revolutionary War, it’s the tallest monument in the city, and it’s also near the center of The National Mall. It’s a great way finding point to know where you are in relation to everything else; find the monument, and you know your way back to the center.

I have still not been able to ride the elevator to the top of the Washington Monument, and now I’ll have to wait a few years before I can try again. The NPS is replacing the elevator so for the time being I’ll just have to admire it from the ground. A ring of flags, one for each state in the union, surrounds the base of the monument that sits on a slight knoll. My gaze up the monument from the base always stops about one-third of the way as I’m reminded the construction was halted for several years surrounding the Civil War and when it resumed the builders had to use stone from a different quarry, making the upper two-thirds of the monument a slightly different shade of color.  

The vaulting rotunda of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial.

The Tidal Basin, a small lake fed by water from the Potomac, is surrounded by monuments and memorials and, fortunately, a walking path. Even from a distance the large white dome of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial captures attention. But it’s not until you are standing inside the rotunda that you really understand this memorial is big, really big. I always wonder why they built them so big?

It’s rare that I don’t see a national park ranger at one of these memorials. Sometimes they are on crowd control like that one time a group of tourists tried to climb the Jefferson statute for a photo op, and other times when they are on janitorial duty picking up the trash. But other times they are ready to answer the flood of questions that come their way, such as the time I pointed to the engravings on the wall of the Jefferson Memorial and asked, “What is that green stuff streaking down the wall?” The ranger began his lengthy explanation with, “That’s an excellent question. It’s part of a chemical reaction with the copper used in the engravings…”  

One of the reasons I loved exploring The National Mall is because it’s a great outdoor space. While the Jefferson Memorial and Lincoln Memorial are “indoor”, the rest are mostly “outdoor”. Of course that means it will rain, snow, bake your head in summer heat, and freeze your ears in the winter, but there is still something pleasant about exploring outdoor monuments where the sky is literally the limit of the ceiling.

Bronze statue of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at his memorial along the Tidal Basin.

The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial is one of those. While other memorials in the city are the tallest or biggest, the FDR Memorial is the longest. From the northwest end, where the visitor center, restrooms, and gift shop are located, to the southeast end, the memorial retraces the twelve years of FDR’s leadership through the events that defined his presidency. One of those events is depicted with a line of bronze statues of men standing outside a doorway waiting for a ration during the Great Depression. With trees providing a bit of shade, water fountains a bit of background noise, and the high walls a bit of seclusion, it’s no wonder this is my favorite memorial in the city.

Presidents aren’t the only thing memorialized on The National Mall; there are also a few memorials dedicated to various wars. The World War II Memorial is the largest with a massive water fountain the center with engravings for the Pacific theater on one side and Atlantic theater on the other. The Korean War Veterans Memorial, one of the more recent, uses an interesting design; 19 stainless steel statues represent all branches of the military along with a highly-reflective granite memorial wall so that when you stand in just the right position the reflection of the statues makes it appear as though there are 38 (the war lasted 38 months).

The black granite memorial wall at the Korean War Veterans Memorial is meant to reflect the stainless steel statues to double their number.

Perhaps the most-visited war memorial is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The tall black granite wall engraved with the names of those lost during the war has long been a big attraction to the city for family members, surviving veterans, and even the casual tourist. But while many are drawn to the wall I am always drawn to The Three Soldiers, a bronze statue representing a Caucasian, African-American, and Latino soldier during the war, and the nearby Vietnam Women’s Memorial, depicting a scene in which three uniformed women tend to a fallen soldier.

With other memorials like the towering figure at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the small domed DC War Memorial, and dozens of other statues, it’s easy to see why it would take days if not weeks to fully explore The National Mall. During my four years of week-long visits to the capital I have yet to do it all. With the pedal boats on the Tidal Basin and long row of Smithsonian Museums it’s easy to get distracted from exploring just the monuments and memorials.

This is America’s front yard and we have used it to remember the greatest presidents, the fallen men and women in military service, and a beautiful green space to make sure the entire experience is enjoyable and unforgettable. The official name given by the National Park Service is the National Mall and Memorial Parks, but we just call it The National Mall.

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