At a Glance
Hours: Daylight hours year-round
Tips: Bring a scope to view the reservoir. No restrooms at the reservoir. There are numerous restaurants and coffee shops nearby. If you plan to walk the Palisades Trolley Trail, wear sturdy waterproof hiking boots and consider carrying a hiking staff for use on the steep parts where bridges used to be.
Best Seasons: Fall, winter, spring.
Breeding Bird Atlas Blocks: Washington West SW, Washington West CW
Local MOS Chapter: No MOS chapters in DC, but Montgomery Bird Club & Patuxent Bird Club are in the neighboring suburbs. The Audubon Naturalist Society and the Audubon Society of DC cover DC.
Georgetown Reservoir & Palisades Trolley Trail
4600 Macarthur Blvd NW, Washington, DC 20007
The Georgetown Reservoir, built by the Army Corps of Engineers in the late 1800s to provide drinking water for Washington, DC, contains over 40 acres of open water that can be viewed through a tall chain link fence. The rectangular reservoir is located in a residential area of Georgetown and is situated at an angle with its long axis running northwest to southeast. One long side is along MacArthur Boulevard NW, and a sidewalk there provides easy viewing through the fence. The other long side is parallel to a trail known as the Palisades Trolley Trail that runs along the abandoned right-of-way of the Glen Echo Trolley Line. This natural surface trail does not provide a view of the water in the reservoir because it lies below the level of the reservoir dike. Still, the Trolley Trail itself is worthwhile: it has the feel of a country lane, though located within the boundaries of our nation’s capital, and provides good birding, particularly during migration, when the trees and shrubs that line most of the trail can be alive with sparrows and other songbirds.
Upon arrival at the reservoir (see Directions below), find a parking spot along MacArthur Boulevard or one of the nearby side streets. Then view the reservoir from the sidewalk along Macarthur Boulevard, being sure to get good looks at the dikes and the banks, where birds often rest. The entire reservoir surface is viewable from MacArthur Boulevard if using a spotting scope.
At the south end of the reservoir, near Elliot Place NW, is an iconic structure known as the Georgetown Castle Gatehouse, which houses the sluice gate that controls water outflow from the reservoir. The castle design invokes the logo of the Army Corps of Engineers, who built it about 1901. Near the Castle Gatehouse is a large lawn area bordered by young trees; this can be a good spot to watch the skies for hawks during migration.
If you walk west across the lawn, you will come to the grassy lane that is the Palisades Trolley Trail. The entire trail is just over 3 miles, from Georgetown to the Palisades neighborhood. As mentioned above, you can walk the trail to search for sparrows and other songbirds. Though usable by bicyclists and hikers, this trail is not maintained and has some very rough spots where streams have to be crossed or steep inclines negotiated, since bridges have disappeared in the more than 50 years since the trolley line was last used. If you walk northwest from the reservoir on the Trolley Trail, in about ¾ of a mile you will come to Canal Road and Reservoir Road near the entrance to Fletcher’s Cove and Boathouse on the C&O Canal. Or you can turn north here to enter Fort Circle and Battery Kemble Parks. The Palisades Trolley Trail continues northwest, running along or near city streets, to enter the Palisades neighborhood, ending in another mile or so at Galena Place NW.
If you walk southeast from the Reservoir, the Palisades Trolley Trail will bring you to Georgetown University and the south end of Glover-Archbold Park. If you follow the trail into the park, you will need to detour around the historic Foundry Branch Trestle Bridge, which is currently unsafe and unusable because of its deteriorating condition. There is a study in progress to determine the feasibility of paving or otherwise improving the Trolley Trail to make it a formal hiker-biker trail; the study includes whether to raze or restore the Foundry Branch Trestle Bridge.) If the paving proposal is carried out, parts of the trail may become inaccessible during construction, so before visiting, check the District Department of Transportation website at https://ddot.dc.gov/page/palisades-trolley-trail to determine the Trail’s status.
Over 150 species have been reported on eBird from the Georgetown Reservoir. There is currently no hotspot for the Palisades Trolley Trail.
Wintering waterfowl (27 species) and migrating raptors are the main ongoing attractions, but the reservoir is possibly most famous among birders for the rare gulls that it has hosted, including Black-headed, California, Yellow-legged, Iceland, and Glaucous. Pied-billed and Horned Grebes are usually present fall through spring, while Red-necked Grebes drop in during spring migration. Common Loons may occur almost any time from October through May or even later, while Red-throated Loons are seen less frequently, and usually in fall.
During fall migration or in winter, look for Field, Fox, Savannah, and Lincoln’s Sparrows along the Palisades Trolley Trail. The Trolley Trail can also be good for spring warblers. In summer, the Trail or the trees near the reservoir host both Baltimore and Orchard Orioles as well as other songbirds such as Eastern Kingbird.
On-street parking near the Reservoir. Read signs and obey posted parking regulations.
The sidewalk on MacArthur Boulevard makes Georgetown Reservoir accessible for those who are mobility-impaired. However, the Palisades Trolley Trail is a natural surface grass or dirt lane and is not suitable for wheelchairs or walkers. The Georgetown and Palisades neighborhood contain a plethora of restaurants and shops, making this a good location for birding dates and for families. The Palisades Trolley Trail has some single picnic tables scattered along its length. There are no MOS chapters in DC, but Montgomery Bird Club & Patuxent Bird Club are in the neighboring suburbs. Two organizations, the Audubon Naturalist Society and the Audubon Society of DC, hold field trips to birding spots in the District and the Greater Metropolitan DC region.
Undecided about walking the Palisades Trolley Trail? Check out the YouTube video posted by a local biker showing what the trail looks like from one end to the other. The natural habitat may convince you that the trail is worth a walk.
By car: We recommend using your favorite in-car GPS or a computer-based mapping program to get directions from your exact location to 4600 MacArthur Blvd NW, Washington, DC 20007. Be aware that some streets that access the Georgetown area are subject to lane reversals and one-way restrictions during weekday rush hours; see https://wtop.com/dc-transit/2018/12/primer-on-the-dc-areas-reversible-roads-and-high-occupancy-highways/ for details. If travelling west on MacArthur, the Reservoir will be on your left. Look for on-street parking on MacArthur Boulevard or on side streets. Obey posted parking restrictions.
By Metro and Metrobus: From Dupont Circle Station on the Metro Red Line, take the D6 Metrobus to a stop at the reservoir.
Washington, DC: Battery Kemble Park, C&O Canal – Fletcher’s Cove and Boathouse, Constitution Gardens, Dumbarton Oaks Park, East Potomac Park (Hains Point) and the Tidal Basin, Glover-Archbold Park, National Zoo, Rock Creek Park, Theodore Roosevelt Island
Montgomery County: C&O Canal – Pennyfield, Violette’s & Riley’s Locks, McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area (Hughes Hollow), Rock Creek Regional Park – Lake Needwood, Rock Creek Regional Park – Meadowside Nature Center & Lake Frank, Seneca Creek State Park
Upland Deciduous Lawn, Ballfields, Golf CourseUrban or Small Town Landscape Old Fields, Shrubby Meadows Freshwater Pond, Lake, or ReservoirRivers & Streams
Features:Bicycle Trails (Bikes may be prohibited on some trails)Free - No Entry Fee at Any TimeHiking/Walking TrailsPets AllowedPicnic AreaWater ViewWheelchair Accessible Features
Type:C&O Canal AccessCommunity and Urban ParksHiker-Biker Trails (Paved)Ponds, Lakes, and ReservoirsUS Army Corp or BLM