Activities Walking Washington DC

Best Parks in DC: Theodore Roosevelt Island

Theodore Roosevelt Island is a memorial to our "Conservationist President."

Best parks in DC always include Theodore Roosevelt Island (TRI). It is nestled in the pocket of the Potomac and hugged by the George Washington Memorial Parkway. This is a place to find solace and serenity. Here one can escape the blaring car horns and screeching brakes of Washington, DC’s traffic-snarled city streets. You can wander in a green refuge. This is also an educational place to visit for families.

The park also made the Curbed Washington DC’s “Top 12 D.C. area hikes.” It received points as “a quick retreat from the city” and “views of D.C.’s west side.” You can see The Kennedy Center in the distance.

Theodore Roosevelt Island offers a natural retreat in Washington DC.

National Park

TRI is managed by the National Park Service (NPS). Pre-pandemic, NPS rangers conducted tours. But you can still learn a lot about the island’s history with the signage. In 2019, NPS installed new signs (“waysides”) throughout the 88.5-acre island. They detail the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt (TR) as well as key historical events on the island.

I have seen a deer closeup on one visit. It is a birder’s dream. I photographed a heron at sunrise. Check out iNaturalist’s complete species check list for TRI.

“There are a few large mammals (like deer and foxes) that live on the island for all or part of the year. Many, many birds either visit the island year round (like woodpeckers, herons, and ducks) or stop in on their way between wintering and summering grounds (like warblers). There are a few snakes on the island. (None are poisonous.) There are lots of frogs and fish. And, of course, there are countless insects.” (TRI)

Friends of Theodore Roosevelt Island

The Friends of Theodore Roosevelt Island (FoTRI) advised NPS on the placement of the interpretive waysides on the island. The goal was to connect visitors to the rich history of TRI.  Also this brings to life how the entire island (not just the Memorial Plaza) is a part of TR’s Presidential memorial. FoTRI’s mission is to “honoring the legacy of our country’s conservation President.” It was established in 2015 in by a group of passionate volunteers eager to support the NPS’ ongoing efforts to preserve and protect the unique presidential memorial.

The National Park Service recently installed six new signs throughout Theodore Roosevelt Island.

Waysides at Theodore Roosevelt Island provide facts and history.

Theodore Roosevelt Association Gift

The island was given to the Federal government by the Theodore Roosevelt Association in memory of the 26th president. TR knew the personal enrichment gained by spending time in nature. As President, he championed John Muir’s vision of creating a national park system. This is why TRI should be included in any list of Best Parks of DC.

Did you know that TR is known as our conservationist President? He was responsible for creating the U.S. Forest Service. He also established 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four national game preserves, five national parks, and 18 national monuments by enabling the 1906 American Antiquities Act.

I believe his words are prescient:

We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune.” 

The island is a sanctuary for the nature-loving individual who knows the prescription of walking in the woods to solve any ailment—physical or mental. In my mind’s eye, the entrance footbridge metaphorically rises up and shuts off the island—transforming it into a leafy castle protected by its moat (the Potomac River). You can restore yourself in a quiet park. I like to linger in the woodland glen and ponder the cardinal’s song. Moreover, I might stumble upon a doe. And I always love to watch ducks glide across the Potomac River.

FoTRI Tour of TRI

I participated in the FoTRI’s Winter Walk. Naturalist Melanie Choukas-Bradley led the tour. She is the author of multiple books, including A Year in Rock Creek Park and The Joy of Forest Bathing. In September 2020, she published Finding Solace at Theodore Roosevelt Island. She describes how she spent a year of her life finding solace on the island.

“Washington D.C. naturalist Melanie Choukas-Bradley dives into the natural history and beauty of Theodore Roosevelt Island, an island wilderness less than two miles from the White House and a memorial to the United States’ foremost conservationist president.” (Book blurb)

Choukas-Bradley brings encyclopedic knowledge of trees and plant life in the Washington, DC area. But the tour also reveals her personal love affair with the island. Starting our tour, she explains the geological differences of the island. (She also conducts a walking tour of the U.S. Capitol Grounds for the U.S. Botanic Gardens. Here is the link:

Friends of Theodore Roosevelt Island offers walking tours.

Our walking tour stops at trees to examine attributes.

Best Parks in DC with Trees

Over the course of our 2.5-hour tour, we stop to survey numerous trees as well as examine their leaves. Some are whirligigs that can float in the air like tree fairies. Some trees on the shoreline are budding even though it is still winter. Everywhere we see the island’s wild life is active. We examine the teeth mark of a beaver that is building a new residence. A lone deer is feeding less than 10 feet away. She is unperturbed.

On the other hand, we sink a lot. Our path is a bog since it snowed three days earlier. We swish and slide in the mud. We can walk deep into the swamp and tidal inlet; there is a lengthy boardwalk.

Above all, we see lots of vegetation changes. There are willows, bald-cypresses and cattails. This section of the island also gives us up-close views of the ducks sailing across the water. I also spy a  raccoon in the forest beyond.

Wide Variety of Trees

I love the variety of TRI’s trees—sycamores, silver maples, black walnuts, bitternut hickories, cottonwoods, pawpaws and Shumard oaks. Melanie shows us ways to identify the island’s trees in the winter. She also calls our group’s attention to the hulking tree on the shore which she identifies as the “Grandmother tree.” A majestic tree, its limbs seem to hug the air. I think of the elderly woman standing guard over her brood of wild life.

Grandmother tree sits on the banks of Potomac River at Theodore Roosevelt Island, one of Best Parks in DC.

The Grandmother Tree keeps watch on island.

Best Outdoor Living Museum

The island will fascinate history buffs. The first island residents were the Nacotchtank Indians.

Later George Mason (signer of the Declaration of Independence) purchased the land. He constructed a ferry which linked Virginia to Georgetown. Later John Mason (his son) built a plantation.

During the Civil War, the island served as secret training grounds for the 1st U.S.C.T., a regiment of African-American soldiers. Over 1,000 former black slaves later found refuge on the island. Many helped to publicize their sufferings, including poet Walt Whitman. After the war ended, it served as a refugee camp.

Roosevelt Memorial

The Roosevelt Memorial Association purchased the island in 1931. It was renamed Roosevelt Island in 1932. Managed by the National Park Service, The park was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. It was dedicated in 1967.

Now this “memorial” needed to honor Roosevelt. Much work needed to be done for reforesting. The landscaping firm of Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. restored the island. There are over 35,000 indigenous plants, trees, and shrubs. I predict you will lose yourself walking in this urban wilderness. Or to quote TR:

“The beauty and charm of the wilderness are his for the asking, for the edges of the wilderness lie close beside the beaten roads of the present travel.”

Dog-Friendly Park

If you need to get off the beaten road, TRI is one of the Best Parks in DC. You have over two miles to walk. There are sections with boardwalks. You can also get into the scrub and wander to the water’s edge. Plus you can bring your dogs. It ranks as one of the Best Dog Parks in DC. WOOF!

P.S. You might want to buy your favorite dog a membership in Ruff Riders. FoTRI created Teddy’s Ruff Riders to commemorate Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. “TR would have loved knowing that four-legged friends were romping at his memorial,” according to the foundation.

Theodore Roosevelt Island is one of the Best Dogs Parks in DC.

Theodore Roosevelt Island permits dogs on island.

Free Parking at TRI

Theodore Roosevelt Island sits in the Potomac River near the Key Bridge. The only way to reach the island by land is from the Virginia side of the river via George Washington Parkway. But the island is actually part of Washington, DC. Free parking is available. But it can be difficult to find unless you arrive early.

The island is also easily reached by Metro (Rosslyn exit). It is a 10-minute walk from the Rosslyn Metro station. You walk toward the Key Bridge. Then a short connecting trail leads downhill from the downstream side of the bridge, across the parkway, and into the parking lot at Theodore Roosevelt Island.

Finally, you can also pay for parking in Rosslyn. Here is a full list of parking locations.

Fun Park Facts

The Friends of Theodore Roosevelt Island organized Moonwalks before the pandemic. The unique sights and sounds of the island at night definitely leave a lasting impression. The 1.5 mile hike is led by a National Park Service Volunteer who carries a flashlight.

Check out little known facts about Theodore Roosevelt Island in Atlas Obscura. This book always knows fascinating secrets about places.

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  • Nancy Hann
    November 28, 2020 at 8:04 pm

    I’ve been to DC many times, but we can never quite get to this Island. I’ll definitely add it to my list for spring. I didn’t realize there were beaver and deer there. Wow.