“We were just women who said, ‘Why don’t we?’ And, we did!” – Ellen Pickering
On April 15, 1972, the Mount Vernon Trail was born. On that day, the efforts of two Alexandria women, countless volunteers, and the National Park Service came to fruition and one of our region’s now most-popular trails opened to the public.
Prior to 1972, people on bikes who wanted to travel along the Potomac River on the Virginia side had to ride on the George Washington Memorial Parkway. The environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s supported bicycling as an earth-friendly transportation option, and the DC region had 100,000 bicyclists. On Sundays, one lane of the Parkway was dedicated for cyclists, but it wasn’t enough. These bicyclists needed somewhere to ride.
Bicyclists’ need for space was building momentum. On May 15, 1971, people on bikes rallied down the closed Rock Creek Parkway. Speakers called for DC to become “a model city for bicyclists.” In June that same year, the George Washington Memorial Parkway was closed for a “bike in” event.
This is where Ellen Pickering and Barbara Lynch began their quest to build the Mount Vernon Trail. The two had chatted earlier that spring about a bike trail along the Parkway. It appealed to both of them because Barbara’s husband could use it to commute, and their families could enjoy it on the weekends. Ellen later served on the Alexandria City Council and fought to preserve Alexandria’s shoreline, but in 1971, she and Barbara were just getting started, gathering signatures for a petition to build this Mount Vernon bike trail.
They gathered over 700 signatures and sent them to Jack Fish, an assistant director at the National Park Service, who agreed to meet with them. Unfortunately, there was no money for a trail and no precedent for a trail on park land. However, he did agree to provide the right-of-way and gravel if Pickering and Lynch could provide the volunteers needed to do the building.
So Pickering and Lynch organized 40 volunteers, the Park Service provided some shovels, and every Saturday that winter they spread gravel. The volunteers were families, kids, Scouts, and students—even passing drivers sometimes stopped to help. After months of work in the bitter cold with 400 recruits, 4200 tons of gravel, 5300 hours of labor, and $27,000, 4.5 miles of a new 6-foot wide gravel bike trail connected Belle Haven Park to Memorial Bridge.
The trail soon surged in popularity, and expansions were in order. The National Park Service secured funding to extend the trail 7.5 miles to Mount Vernon using fly ash from PEPCO, which was completed in 1973. This section was 8-feet wide and cost $135,000, and received help from the U.S. Army Engineers to build the boardwalks and bridges. A few short years later, the trail was paved.
- 1978: NPS built 1.8-mile paved section from Alexandria Avenue to Waynewood Avenue
- 1978: Airport Authority connected the trail to the airport’s bike parking
- 1980: Army Corps of Engineers connected Four Mile Run Trail to the Mount Vernon Trail
- 1983: Potomac River Generating Station funded a cantilevered trail section around its east side
- 1988: NPS expanded the trail to Roosevelt Island, where a new bridge connected it to the Custis Trail
- 1988: Trail segment was built in Fort Hunt Park which had previously been on-road
- 1992: Crystal City Connector Trail opened
- 1994: Arlington County begins building connections between Mount Vernon Trail near Memorial Circle and the sidewalk along Washington Boulevard
- 2007: Bridge over north entrance to National Airport was rebuilt and trail was widened.
- 2009: Woodrow Wilson Bridge connects with the Mount Vernon Trail
- 2011: NPS rebuilt the Humpback Bridge, widened the trail, and added a barrier. NPS also added trail tunnels for safer passage between Columbia Island Marina and the trail.
- 2012: NPS realigned the trail at Memorial Circle
- 2013: Woodrow Wilson Bridge approach was rebuilt
- 2016: Trail was realigned and widened next to the Airport
- 2017: NPS rebuilt Roosevelt Island Parking lot to widen the trail and smooth curves
Today, the Mount Vernon Trail is an 18.5-mile anchor in our region’s trail network with approximately one million annual users. It is part of the East Coast Greenway and the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, as well as the Arlington Loop. That we have this amazing trail for recreation and transportation is thanks to these two trailblazing Alexandria women. As the Washington Post reported, Pickering humbly downplayed their important contributions: “We were just women who said, ‘Why don’t we?’ And, we did!”
For further reading on the history of the Mount Vernon Trail: