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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Beautiful Autumn Walks Along Our River

In July I suggested a series of summer walks that got me a lot of thanks. So this month I decided to set out a similar set of hikes and walks along the Anacostia River; they take advantage of the changing colors of the foliage and the opening up of vistas.

Below are five suggested walks along sections of the River in DC. They start near where the Anacostia joins the Potomac and move upstream almost to the Maryland line.

Garden at The Point, a restaurant with a lot of outdoor seating from which to admire the river located at the end of Buzzard Point.

Buzzards Point
We start with a part along the River you are least likely to have hiked, in part because it is by no means beautiful from one end to the other.  But it is undergoing change at an historic rate, and that is why it should be seen and parts appreciated.

This is Buzzard Point, an area that starts at the Capitol Hill end of the rebuilt Frederick Douglas Bridge and the new soccer stadium in the north and runs between Fort McNair and the River to a point with a marina, new high-rise apartments with fabulous views of the rivers, and an award-winning restaurant called, appropriately, The Point.

The area between these northern and southern boundaries is a wasteland under conversion to a modern community of apartments, condos, restaurants and stores. But there is a lot of history here, not all of it glorious.  This part of the city has had a long time coming along – from the early farms of freed slaves (of which there is little left to see), to a major coal powerplant (remnants of which are to be made into part of a complex of new apartments).

On the north end, on the outer walls of the powerplant storage area next to the stadium are magnificent new painted murals celebrating the citizens from both sides of the bridge. The experience leaves you wanting to search for more before it gets covered over by new construction. And the trees along the water are breaking out in beautiful colors as autumn progresses.

Restored natural landscape along the River at Poplar Point.

Poplar Point
This hike is on the Anacostia side of the River and begins at Poplar Point just north of the Douglass/South Capitol Street bridge. This is a walkway along the River about 100 feet back from the water and along Anacostia Drive, SE, which carries very little traffic, so it is peaceful.

What makes it really special is that the Park Service has let the natural vegetation return to the area between you and the River. While there are a few trees, nearly all the rest is natural native plants spreading among themselves and producing a range of flowers, seed pods and leaves that is stunning, especially at this time of the year, when all is going from blossoms to seeds to leaves of many colors. After a quarter mile or  so the display is less dramatic, but it comes and goes all the way to the 11th Street Bridge.

Anacostia Park
Up-river on the same side, Anacostia Drive passes under Pennsylvania Avenue and ends in a parking lot at the Skating Pavilion and River Museum. This hike boasts vibrant autumn colors, and the magnificent pedestrian and bicycle bridge that starts there and heads up and over the railroad tracks that have just crossed the River, allowing you to look down on these nearby trees along the water like nowhere else in the area.

Once over the bridge there is a short walk in the woods near the water, but not so close that you can’t get away from any one else on the trail and slip down to be alone with the River.  The trail eventually passes under East Capitol Street and enters the next walk below.

Spectacular hiking and biking bridge over the railroad above the Anacostia Park Skating Pavilion, a roller skating venue  at 1500 Anacostia Dr. SE.

River Terrace Park
If you are planning a trip with youngsters and want to excite them, River Terrace Park is the place to go!  It is on the Anacostia side of the River and begins just south of Benning Road.  Or, as noted above, you can add it to a trip over the railroad from the Skating Pavilion.

This is a neighborhood park kept in excellent condition with picnic tables, a pavilion and terrific playground with new and interesting equipment. It has a number of colorful trees and vistas over the River and nearshore grasses as well as the open water to the north, which includes the Metro bridge over the River in the distance. It is a place that reminds you of what neighborhood parks and playgrounds used to be like.

River Terrace Park South of Benning Road in Anacostia

Kingman and Heritage Islands
Kingman and Heritage Islands, on the west side of the River across from River Terrace Park, are familiar to folks living on both sides of the River due to access from either the Benning Road bridge or the RFK Stadium parking lot.  But both islands are undergoing change as their invasive species are being replaced by a range of native plants.  It is an experiment to see if it is possible to retain a natural native landscape in the midst of a large city and surrounding suburbs.

The result is a reduction in the mass of vegetation and the emergence of a range of plants with interesting forms and colors.  Heritage Island is the first stop on the trail from the RFK parking lot and is less traveled and more intimate.  Kingman Island is much larger and more traveled; and only it extends below the East Capitol Street bridge. Both are worthy of periodic check-ins as they change over time with increasing dominance of native plants.

Colors Changing on Kingman Island

National Arboretum
Finally, the National Arboretum is over 400 acres of nature filled with trees and other plants from around the world. It is focused on improving species of all types and making them feel at home in a broader set of climate conditions and change.

There are many places to visit in the Arboretum that are especially beautiful in autumn.  River access and a broad range of trees and plants in autumn colors are best in the Asian Gardens; if coming by boat there is a dock on the river and gate access during open hours.  Beyond the Asian Gardens is a set of River overlooks from the dogwood gardens, with vistas opening up and colors appearing as leaves drop and autumn progresses.

Other places to look for color and/or emerging vistas include Springhouse Run, a recently restored natural stream taking the storm sewer emerging from under New York Avenue and using nature to treat it.  The new stream is so convincing that is has drawn beavers to build dams at points along it.

Trees Changing Color at the National Arboretum

Other Arboretum sites for fall visits include the demonstration gardens between the main office building and the open fields, the fields from there to the columns, the Youth Garden  (where a high tree walk is being designed for installation behind, providing access to all manner of colored leaves in the fall), and the trail above the azaleas (where you can see from the top the Capitol and beyond once the leaves start to fall and open up the vista).

So many places to go and enjoy the autumn are yours along our river, the Anacostia.  Let me know of other places you have discovered for fall walks; send to

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.

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