Winter Walks Along Our River

Our River: The Anacostia

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Frederick Douglas Bridge – The New from the Old

If the level of COVID-19 and political anxieties make you feel like you need some quiet time, consider a relaxing walk along the Anacostia either alone or with a friend.  There are five suggestions.

Frederick Douglass Bridge
First, you should see close-up the progress being made in construction of the new Frederick Douglas Memorial Bridge. Beginning this spring, the bridge will take South Capitol Street over the Anacostia in six lanes of traffic and separated double lanes for bikers and wide walks with overlooks.  The walkway over the south side of the old bridge is still open and as you walk or bike across you get spectacular overlooks of the construction and what to expect.  Other parts of this $441 million project will be removal of the old bridge and the addition of large traffic ovals surrounding active park areas at each end.  Enter from Anacostia by following the signs in the park along the River to the path under the old bridge lanes and curving to the left onto the old bridge walkway.  From Capitol Hill enter the bridge on the right side walkway at the intersection of Potomac Avenue and South Capitol Street below the baseball stadium.  The views over and through the construction are themselves spectacular and extend out over the Potomac and beyond.

Buzzard Point Mural

Buzzard Point
Nearby the bridge is an area that is undergoing remarkable and long-overdue change. Starting at about P St. SW and heading south is Buzzard Point, a long-neglected and underused part of the city.  Among the many stories giving Buzzard Point its bad name is the claim that it is where, in the time before cars and trucks, the dead horses were dragged and left for the buzzards and their friends to dine on.  True or not, it has a long history of underdevelopment with a few industrial sites and little more, even though the western portion down to Greenleaf Point is comprised of the very attractive Fort McNair.  There are two existing anchors – the new Audi Field Soccer Stadium on the north and the attractive James Creek Marina on the south.  Between these is a level and pace of development that is remarkable to see.  New apartment complexes are underway with plans to provide over six thousand units.   With broad riverside walks and planned “bustling gathering spots”, the new development is being pitched as “The Final Jewel in the Riverfront Crown.” New elements are arriving at quite a pace.  One recent addition is a spectacular block-long mural painted by Kaliq Crosby and Rose Jaffe. Located at the end of the old PEPCO substation north wall facing the soccer stadium., it honors iconic figures in DC history, including Frederick Douglas, Marvin Gaye and Eleanor Holmes Norton.  By the way, the plan is to keep the huge stacks on the PEPCO site, which will become a type of community center.  There is a lot to see and a lot going on in old Buzzard Point.

Natural Meadow on Poplar Point

Poplar Point
For those seeking a more peaceful walk with more exposure to nature, there is another site in the same neighborhood as the new bridge and Buzzard Point.  On the Anacostia side of the bridge and north along the River to the 11th Street Bridge is an area called Poplar Point.  Over the years it has seen a lot of use:  it was a Navy depot from the mid-20’s until 1993, with other parts used to grow trees.  For decades there have been plans to develop the area with housing, but nothing has emerged.  It is also the location of the Park Service offices that oversee all the agency lands and facilities along the River.  But whatever the future holds, for now the most pleasant aspect of Poplar Point is that the Park Service has allowed the natural meadows to return undisturbed to the riverfront, in many places a hundred feet or more between the walk and the River, with occasional paths through the grasses and other growth to the river’s edge.  In the winter especially, it is a remarkably pleasant mix of plants in shades of brown and tan and green in a variety of sizes and shapes and natural groupings.  The sidewalk along the meadows is straight along the road and there is little traffic.  All is calm, all is bright!

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens
The Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens on the Anacostia side of the River is the only National Park Service site focused on water plants.  Since most of the attention is to the lotuses and related plants when they are in bloom in summer, the Gardens are quite and peaceful in winter with respect to the number of visitors.  But they are alive with bird and animal life, the animals mostly in the ponds and the birds out over the marshes, which are accessible by wooden boardwalks.  The latest bird count is 236 species!  These are the largest isolated marshes in the area so they attract both native and migrating birds of all types.   There is also a very pleasant quarter mile trail out to the Anacostia from the center of the Gardens.

National Arboretum
The National Arboretum is comprised of 440 acres of plants of every kind.  There are three different places where the winter wanderer will get a special reward for seeking out nature.  First, there is the trail to Mount Hamilton, the high point of the Arboretum that is reached by turning right at the R Street entrance and heading up the grade a short distance to the parking lot on the left and the trail to the top.  Because Hamilton is covered in thick forest, there is no view from the top while the trees have leaves.  But in winter the leaves drop and the spectacular view of the city opens up, with the Capitol and the Washington Monument in the distance.  Definitely worth the climb.  Second, there is Springhouse Run, a recent project by staff and volunteers to take an old drain for a storm sewer coming under New York Avenue and heading for the Anacostia, and recreating a natural stream valley where it can cleanse itself and spread out and attract all manner of fish and other animal life, all on its way with the now cleaner stormwater to the Anacostia.  There are trails throughout the stream valley and much to see and learn about what we can do to capture nature’s ability to do good.  Finally, there are the Asia Gardens in the area overlooking the Anacostia.  These are fun to explore in winter for the views that open up and for the collections of rare Asian plants that are often in flower when nothing else can be found.  Plus there is a nice trail down to the River for those who want to extend their visit.

Those are all places waiting for you to brighten your winter days and show you many things you might not otherwise see in the course of a year.  And just getting out and away is a big part of it!  So enjoy!

Bill Matuszeski is a member of the Mayor’s Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River, and the retired Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program.  He also serves on the board of Friends of the National Arboretum and on Citizen Advisory Committees for the Chesapeake and the Anacostia.