Spring Break 2020: Washington DC
After backing out last year, we decided it was time to tackle DC. We wanted to see it all in a week. Is that possible?
We booked a site at Pohick Regional Park in Lorton, VA for the week. Pohick is about a twenty minute drive from the blue line train at Franconia-Springfield Metro Station, a drive that we would make almost everyday during our visit. Pohick feels like a nice state park campground. Offering large wooded sites and a mixture of electric, water and electric, full hookup, rustic cabins, and deluxe cabins, the park offered sites for a variety of campers. The campground connects to a network of trails offering easy access to hiking and walking/biking paths as well as a path to the George Mason Historic Home.
This area is known to house several nesting bald eagles and we spotted a few during our visit. The park also had a very new playground that our kids enjoyed. Committed to continuous improvements, they added a gaga ball pit during our stay. We think Pohick was a great location for our trip - close enough to visit the sites daily but remote enough to relax under the stars at night.
As mentioned above, we took to the Metrorail system. On our first day, we bought a seven day unlimited pass. This was more access than we needed and we could have saved money buying passes and reloading as we went, but the unlimited pass did make it easy. We learned that you need to make about 21 trips in a week for the pass to pay for itself, we likely fell just a couple short. We also learned that parking at the station is cheaper if you load money onto your pass and pay with this. We did use the train to get into and around DC daily and felt comfortable and safe riding and switching lines. We did research about other modes of transportation in and around DC, but this way worked perfectly for us.
We spent a lot of time in and around the National Mall.. A full loop around the Mall is five miles. We spent our entire first day exploring the grounds of the mall. Over the course of the week, we visited the Lincoln Memorial, Korean War Memorial, World War II Memorial, Washington Monument, Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the White House, and the US Capitol.
We arranged a tour of the Capitol was our Sentor's office. Unfortunately that tour was scheduled for Friday, March 13, 2020 - the first day government buildings in DC were to be closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, many tourist were staying away and we were able to get a walk up tour on Thursday so we still got to tour the Capitol. Our guide shared that the Capitol had 7000 visitors scheduled the day of our visit and he suspected fewer than half participated.
Arlington National Cemetery
Our tour of Arlington included changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is a special event to witness. We also visited the final resting place of John F Kennedy Jr., and the World War II Memorial Iwo Jima.
We took full advantage of the Smithsonian sites. We could have spent more time at each, and would have loved to have seen all 17 museums, galleries, gardens, and zoo in DC. We started our exploration of the Smithsonian sites at The Castle, which offers an excerpt of all Smithsonian properties.
We visited the Portrait Gallery and enjoyed the presidential portraits. The National Air and Space Museum was undergoing renovations during our visit, but we still got to see many of the exhibits, including the 1903 Wright Flyer. At the National Museum of Natural History we saw the Hope Diamond and walk through the Butterfly House. The National Museum of American History has a great display of the Star Spangled Banner.
We felt fortunate to get last minute, same day tickets to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Following the guidance of an employee, we were told to either visit the upper levels, focusing on culture, or the lower levels, focused on history: slavery to freedom. We elected to see the culture floors and enjoyed the exhibits, but in hindsight regret that we didn’t instead see the history levels. Due to COVID-19, many of the interactive exhibits on the upper floors were closed to help maintain a sanitary atmosphere. This is one of the many museums we feel like need another visit.
Our final Smithsonian stop was the National Zoo. We got to see Pandas and enjoyed that This, like all Smithsonian properties was free. The National Zoo was good, but we still love the St Louis Zoo most of all.
We visited Union Station for a quick walk through. We hopped off the Metrorail at the Pentagon exit to see 2/5 of the location and would have walked over to the National 9/11 memorial, but the path and/or memorial was closed for renovation. We walked into the Cannon Building, which is office space for Representatives just before it closed to the public. We got into the National Archives Rotunda to see the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. We didn't book a tour of Ford's Theater, but we did walk past the theater.
Perhaps our overall favorite spot to visit for the entire week was the Library of Congress. This library would be number one on our list of places to make a return visit to on our next visit. We were blown away by the beauty of the Reading Room as well as the Gutenberg Bible. The art, architecture, and grandness of the Library of Congress made it too much to take in in just on visit. They do have a great handout of things that you should see if you have a limited amount of time for your visit.
To take a break from the miles of DC walking, we took a day trip to Annapolis. Maryland's House and Senate were in session, but we still got to check out the Maryland State House. We may have felt closer connected to our founding fathers in the Maryland Capital more so than any one place we visited it DC. We stood in the room where Washington resigned his commission as Commander in Chief, and learned that this building was the building where Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman were emancipated.
We walked to the US Naval Academy and toured the visitor's center and museum, walked Porter's Row, and took pictures with Billy the Goat on the beautiful campus. We stopped in Old Fox Books and had a cup of Brown Mustache Coffee while the kids browsed. And we walked the shops near the waterfront.
We had a massive lunch at Chick and Ruth's Delly. The menu was was big it needed an index and the portions were equally oversized. Somehow the kids were able to find room for ice cream at Annapolis Ice Cream Company.
Although we didn't do the level of research and meal planning we typically do, we found a lot of good stuff to eat. Our meals were more reactionary to where we were or where we were headed as opposed to researching and finding the perfect place. One of our first meals were the food trucks on the National Mall. These are perfectly placed so you don't have to detour your sightseeing to grab a meal. The selection is good and there is something for everyone. We found tacos that were not cheap, but hit the spot.
We grabbed Chick-Fil-A at least one night en route back to the campground, and tried Glory Days Bar and Grill on another such night. We stopped by Whole Foods on several occasions for salad bar, hot bar, or sushi rolls.
We found a few places that, just like Library of Congress, are top of the list for a repeat visit. Number one on that list is Bibibop. Bibibop is a fast spreading fast casual experience like Chipotle but with Korean rice bowls; we can't wait for a location to come closer to us. More authentic to the DC experience is the lunch we had at Commissary. The food, location, and experience at Commissary was so good. We were there while the President was addressing the nation from the White House and it made the experience even more special to think this was happening less than one mile from us. Finally, we enjoyed ice cream, again, at Pitango. Pitango had a great selection of dairy free options, so at least our ice cream monsters were happy.
As we live and work in a rural community in the midwest, being in DC as the COVID-19 pandemic went from simmering under the surface to a national state of emergency--grab all the toilet paper and groceries--was alarming. We started hearing stories mid-week of the way our normal mode of operation would be upended. Cancellations of social events, our Capitol tour, races we had signed up for, and school started to crowd our inboxes. We decided to make the most of the remainder of our week. As other chose to cancel their tours, we were able to see more than we hoped. But we saw the impact on the city as the trains went from maximum capacity on Monday to nearly empty on Friday.
We were ready when it was time to head home Saturday.
DC was an epic adventure. Exhausting on the scale of Disney with the walking, we covered a lot of ground in a week.
Typically we have our next camping destination and more mapped out when we return from one trip. We currently do not and fear that our other epic summer 2020 trip is in jeopardy. People, keep calm and wash your hands.
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Shane and Jessica
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