THEODORE ROOSEVELT ISLAND
In the 1930s, a neglected weed of an island in the Potomac River was transformed into a glorious memorial to Theodore Roosevelt, a president who, being an avid conservationist, appreciated the natural splendour of America perhaps better than any other leader before or since. The island was landscaped by Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. to resemble a native forest, and today it is popular for short hikes and bird watching (which Roosevelt would have loved, being a birder himself). If you’re feeling ambitious, use the island as a starting point for the Mount Vernon Trail, which snakes south along the river all the way to Washington’s house.
It wasn’t so long ago that the Potomac was given a “D” grade for pollution. A lot has changed over the past decade, though, and the city’s main waterway is now a popular spot for kayaking and paddle-boarding. There are multiple places to push off – and multiple grades, including some Class 6 rapids – but a good bet is the Key Bridge Boathouse in Georgetown, not far from Theodore Roosevelt Island. From there, you can head to the nearby city for a very different vantage point, or you can paddle upstream to explore lesser-known bends, all the way to Great Falls National Park. (Anything beyond Great Falls is an experts-only affair.)
See boatingindc.com; rei.com/events
ROCK CREEK PARK
Something like the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, Rock Creek Park is so enormous it is virtually impossible to see it all. There is a zoo, a planetarium, Civil War forts, mill houses and formal gardens. Indeed, it is so large that the park has parks of its own — Montrose Park, Meridian Hill Park. Hikers will find two primary trails, with dozens of subsidiary trails branching off like capillaries (make sure you take water and a map). But there is also horse-riding and cycling, and enough remnants of the past to make this a fascinating stop for history buffs. Keep an eye out for Joan of Arc, copied from a statue in front of Rheims Cathedral in France.
NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART
The National Gallery of Art might seem like an odd addition, but its beloved Sculpture Garden, opened in 1999, is filled with outdoor works every bit as stunning as the ones inside: think Louise Bourgeois, Ellsworth Kelly, and Sol LeWitt. On Friday nights in the summer months, a Jazz in the Garden concert series turns the park into a rowdy festival of African fusion or New Orleans Dixieland jazz. People work up a sweat by dancing as the sun sets, , accompanied by popular musicians such as Shannon Gunn (on the trombone) and the Bailsmen (doing vintage swing). See
CHESAPEAKE AND OHIO CANAL NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK
For a hundred years, until 1924, many towns and communities relied on a lifeline called the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal to receive their good and services. Beginning in DC and ending in Ohio, some 300 kilometres away, this canal was carved out of the earth with shovels and picks over the span of two decades – backbreaking labour. What remains today is an engineering marvel. Many of the 74 locks are now gone, rendered obsolete by the railroad, but it is still possible to hike from end to end, passing gorgeous stone bridges, original lockhouses and aqueducts, and through a kilometre-long brick tunnel. You can literally set out from Georgetown and stroll all the way to the American heartland.
NATIONAL ARBORETUM AND BOTANIC GARDEN
In 1927, at the encouragement of the country’s chief botanist, Congress passed an act founding a National Arboretum. The purpose was research, first and foremost, but it was also intended to create a kind of living museum. The result is a must for gardening enthusiasts, spread over just under two square kilometres and featuring a National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, as well as the original Corinthian columns from the US Capitol building. Pair a visit here with a stop at the United States Botanic Garden, also in DC, which is the oldest in the country and filled with species gathered from around the world over the past two hundred years. A model of the National Mall is tucked away in the glass Conservatory.
See usna.usda.gov; usbg.gov
Lance Richardson was a guest of Destination DC (washington.org)