Posts Tagged ‘Potomac Heritage Trail’

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The Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail

I took advantage of the mild weather preceding the storm expected for this weekend and went for an early morning ride today on a scenic portion of one of the southern sections of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail.  The part of the trail where I explored this morning is located about 20 miles south of D.C., between the northern edge of the Julie J. Metz Wetlands Bank just south of Neabsco Creek, and the Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, in Prince William County, Virginia (MAP).

The trail, also known as the Potomac Heritage Trail or the PHT, is a designated National Scenic Trail corridor spanning parts of the mid-Atlantic and upper southeastern regions of the United States. It is comprised of a network of trails that will eventually connect numerous historic and cultural sites and natural features of the Potomac River corridor in D.C. and the local surrounding area, as well as in the Upper Ohio River Watershed in Western Maryland and Pennsylvania, and a portion of the Rappahannock River Watershed in Virginia.

Unlike many long-distance hiking and biking trails, such as the Appalachian Trail (which the PHT crosses near Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia), the PHT is a general route with numerous side trails and alternative routes.  Some of the routes even run parallel to each other, such as the Northern Neck Heritage Trail in Virginia and the Southern Maryland Potomac Heritage Trail, which parallel each other on opposite sides of the Potomac River.  The PHT includes approximately 800 miles of existing and planned future sections which, when completed, will all be connected. However, at the present time many of these trails and routes are still separated, connected to the others only by roads.

Development, construction, maintenance and preservation of the natural surface portions of the PHT is sponsored by The Potomac Heritage Trail Association in cooperation with other trail advocacy groups, as well as support from the National Park Service and the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority.   Among the trail advocacy organizations are a number of local groups and clubs, including the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club; Great Falls Trail Blazers; Fairfax Trails and Streams; Southern Prince George’s Trails Coalition; and the Oxon Hill Bicycle Club.

The PHT network follows some of the original paths once explored by George Washington, and you can follow the same routes today.  Whether by bike, on foot, or by horse or boat, the PHT provides almost limitless opportunities to explore the contrasting landscapes between the Chesapeake Bay and the Allegheny Highlands, and the many historic sites in between.  But if you’re looking for biking opportunities on the PHT which are closer to D.C., try exploring the The C & O Canal Towpath and the Mount Vernon Trail.

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[Click on the photos above to view the full size versions]

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The Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge

You would think that a mile and a quarter long, multi-span drawbridge which carries a twelve-lane interstate highway used by more than a quarter of a million vehicles every day would not be a very good location for riding a bicycle, but that is not the case with the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge.

The Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge, commonly referred to as the Wilson Bridge, was planned and built as part of the Interstate Highway System created by Congress in 1956. Construction of the bridge began in the late 1950s, at which time it was called the Jones Point Bridge. It was renamed the “Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge” in honor of our country’s 28th President in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as part of that year’s centennial celebration of Woodrow Wilson’s birth on December 28, 1856. President Wilson was an advocate of automobile and highway improvements in the United States, and during his presidency reportedly spent an average of two hours a day riding in his automobile to relax and, as he would say, “loosen his mind from the problems before him.”

The Wilson Bridge opened to traffic on December 28, 1961. First Lady Edith Wilson, the widow of President Wilson, was supposed to have been the guest of honor at the bridge’s dedication ceremony honoring her husband on what would have been his 105th birthday. However, she died that very morning at the family home they had shared in northwest D.C.

The Wilson Bridge as it was originally constructed was designed to handle between 70 and 75 thousand vehicles a day. But by 1999 the bridge was handling 200,000 vehicles a day. This caused not only traffic issues but serious maintenance problems as well. Despite undergoing continuous patchwork maintenance beginning in the 1970’s, and being completely re-decked in 1983, the overuse took its toll and in 2000 construction began to replace the bridge with two new side-by-side drawbridges. The massive $2.357 billion construction project utilized 26 prime contractors and 260 subcontractors employing 1,200 full-time workers.  The 230 thousand ton, 1.2-mile long structure was completed almost a decade later.

The Wilson Bridge currently consists of two parallel bridge structures, each with 17 fixed spans and one 270-foot twin double leaf bascule span. The northern span carries the Inner Loop of the Capital Beltway, which is comprised of Interstate 95 and Interstate 495, while the southern span contains the beltway’s Outer Loop.  And with eight leaves, each weighing four million pounds, giving the drawbridge 32 million pounds of moving mass, it is the biggest drawbridge in the world.

Connecting the city of Alexandria, Virginia, with National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Prince George’s County, Maryland, the Wilson Bridge also crosses the tip of the southernmost corner of D.C., giving it the distinction of being the only bridge in the United States that crosses the borders of three jurisdictions. The 300-foot mid-span of the western portion of the bridge is also the shortest segment of Interstate Highway between state lines.

But to me, one of the most impressive features of this massive structure was the forethought to make it bicycle friendly. The northern span of the bridge includes a pedestrian and bike passageway known as the Wilson Bridge Bike Trial. The 3.5-mile trail extends from Oxon Hill Road across the Potomac River to the Huntington Metro Station in Virginia. The trail connects to the network of trails, including the Mount Vernon Trail at Jones Point Park in Virginia.  And future plans call for it to connect with the Potomac Heritage Trail in Maryland. The trail has a steel railing on the north side called the bicycle barrier and a concrete barrier with a short steel railing on top called the combination barrier to separate the bikeway traffic from the highway traffic. The trail, which opened on June 6, 2009, is approximately 12 feet wide, with “bump-out” areas where users can stop to observe views of D.C. and Old Town Alexandria.

The Wilson Bridge Bike Trial has a speed limit of 10 m.p.h., which is a good idea due to the bridge’s many steel joints that can damage bike tires and rims at high speeds. The speed limit for bikes is also a good idea since the trail is also used by many pedestrians.  While riding on the trail it’s also a good idea to remember that it is a drawbridge and may open periodically, so paying attention to warning lights and bells is necessary. The trail is closed between midnight and 5:30 a.m.  It is also closed during snowstorms, so much like the D.C. area, it has had a rough go of it this winter.

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