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. It is one of the best places in the city to walk your dog.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.
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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.
You never know what animal or bird you might see on the island, especially if you arrive early in the morning. 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 checklist 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,” according to 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 “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 island was given to the Federal government by the Theodore Roosevelt Association in memory of the 26th president. Roosevelt 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 fish 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.
During a tour of the island, I 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 when it is winter. Everywhere I see the island’s wild life is active. I 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.
During each season, you will see lots of vegetation changes. There are willows, bald-cypresses and cattails. One section of the island gives me up-close views of the ducks sailing across the water. My dog definitely wanted to jump in the Potomac River. We also saw a raccoon in the forest beyond.
I love the variety of TRI’s trees—sycamores, silver maples, black walnuts, bitternut hickories, cottonwoods, pawpaws and Shumard oaks. But my favorite is the hulking tree on the shore which is known 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.
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. In 1748, he constructed a ferry which linked Virginia to Georgetown. Later John Mason (his son) built a Georgian Revival style mansion. He grew cotton and corn on his island plantation.
“Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe; Chief Justice John Marshall, and King Louis of France (the one who got guillotined) are all known to have visited the island.”Elliot Carter
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.
Theodore Roosevelt Memorial
The Roosevelt Memorial Association purchased the island in 1931 and renamed it Roosevelt Island in 1932. Today the NPS manages the island. The National Register of Historic Places added TRI to its list in 1966.
In 1967, NPS dedicated the property. There is a plaza with a sculpture of Theodore Roosevelt as well as a fountain and plaques.
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. “They conceived a ‘real forest’ designed to mimic the natural forest that once covered the island,” according to the NPS brochure.
There are over 35,000 indigenous plants, trees, and shrubs. I predict you will lose yourself walking in this urban wilderness.
“The beauty and charm of this wilderness are his for the asking, for the edges of the wilderness lie close beside the beaten roads of the present travel.”Theodore Roosevelt
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.
Since I adopted my Golden Retriever puppy (Parker) in June 2021, I frequently drive to the island for weekend hikes. Even when he was just three months old, he could manage to scramble over the logs and run along the boardwalk. Parker also insisted that we take regular rest stops at the park benches that are situated throughout the island.
It is also a great meetup place for dog walkers. Parker attracted a lot of attention as a puppy. We met one big dog that decided to play with him. Parker yipped and ran around him.
I also highly recommend the National Arboretum, the U.S. Botanic Gardens, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, Rock Creek Park, and the U.S. Capitol grounds for weekend dog hikes. Great Falls National Park is also one of the few national parks that allow dogs on the trails.
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.