Theodore Roosevelt Island
Potomac River near the Key Bridge
Theodore Roosevelt Island is a National Park Service property located in the Potomac River. The 89-acre island is between the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Georgetown neighborhood of DC, and Rosslyn and Arlington on the western shore of the Potomac in Virginia. The Theodore Roosevelt Bridge carries US Route 66 over the south tip of the island, but there is no access to the island from the bridge. The entire island is dedicated as a memorial to Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, one of the earliest champions of conservation, who did much to preserve land across the nation. Access to the island is purposely limited in order to keep the island in a natural state. The island is open only to foot-traffic – no cars or bikes.
The centerpiece of the island is a formal memorial that features a statue of the President, four large stone monoliths with some of Roosevelt’s quotations, and two fountains. The remainder of the island consists of wooded uplands and swampy bottomlands, with a well-developed trail network and a boardwalk through the swamp (see trail map at link at left). Although the habitat on Theodore Roosevelt Island looks like it developed naturally, it is actually a planned landscape that replaced the remnants of earlier usage, including military encampments during the Civil War and experiments with dynamite during the Spanish-American War. The current wooded landscape was designed after the island became federal parkland in 1932. Because of its strategic location, the island serves as a migrant trap, and hosts a good diversity of birds during spring and fall migration.
There are three main trails on the island, each named for the habitat is passes through:
- The Swamp Trail is 1 ½-mile loop trail, the island’s longest trail. It encircles the edge of the island, passing through swampy woods and cattail marsh. The trail is part pea gravel and part boardwalk.
- The Woods Trail is a short, ⅓-mile trail that runs north-south through the heart of the island, passing through the Theodore Roosevelt memorial plaza. It is paved with pea gravel.
- The Upland Trail is ¾ mile long and also runs north-south, traversing the length of the island. It passes though upland woods and loops around the remnants of the foundation of an old mansion.
The island is accessed by a footbridge from a small parking area on the Virginia side of the Potomac River (see Directions below). At the base of the footbridge on the island, you will come to a T intersection where the Swamp Trail runs north and south. The memorial plaza is a short distance away, through a small strip of woodland. Begin by turning right to take the Swamp Trail heading south. At the south end of the Island, the Swamp Trail will turn east at a footbridge over a marsh. The marsh is a good place to check for rails, waders, shorebirds, and small birds such as Marsh Wren and Swamp Sparrow.
Continue to follow the Swamp Trail north into a wooded swamp. Here you may flush Wood Ducks or hear singing Prothonotary Warblers. As you walk the trail and boardwalk through the swamp, watch for opportunities to view the Potomac River to the east. Check the water and any mudflats for ducks, gulls, terns, and shorebirds. Gulls like to gather on the roof of the Kennedy Center across the River.
Continue following the Swamp Trail in a counter-clockwise direction around the island. Upon arriving at the memorial, you can take the Woods Trail or the Upland Trail, or both, to check the interior of the island for woodpeckers and songbirds.
After completing your tour of the island, return across the footbridge to the parking area on the Virginia side of the river. Here, you can pick up the paved Mount Vernon Trail, a hiker-biker trail that runs north and south along the river (see Mount Vernon trail map at the link at left). Follow the Mount Vernon Trail a short distance south to obtain a view of the tidal mud flats at the south end of the island, where a channel separates Little Island from the main island. Depending on tides and season, this area can be filled with an assortment of waterfowl, gulls and terns, or shorebirds.
Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation legacy: During his presidency, Roosevelt established the United States Forest Service, created five new National Parks, and established 18 new National Monuments. He also established 150 National Forests and numerous other protected lands. In total, Roosevelt was responsible for preserving 230 million acres, much of it by use of executive orders. While birding at the island, tip your hat to the President who did so much to preserve the lands that we all cherish.
About 205 species have been reported on eBird from Theodore Roosevelt Island.
Waterfowl are, of course, a specialty in winter, with 23 species reported. Be aware that after several days of below-zero temperatures, the waters around the island may be frozen and waterfowl would have dispersed to other areas. Wood Ducks are present year-round and breed in the area, along with Canada Geese and Mallards. Pied-billed, Horned, and Red-necked Grebes are also found in the waters off the island. Common Loons also occur in late spring through early summer, but in small numbers.
The number of breeding birds on the island is limited by its small size. Breeders on or near the island include Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Chimney Swift, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Green Heron, Osprey, Bald Eagle, Red-shouldered Hark, Red-tailed Hawk, Barred Owl, Belted Kingfisher, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Acadian Flycatcher, Eastern Phoebe, Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, White-eyed Vireo, Warbling Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Blue Jay, American Crow, Fish Crow, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Purple Martin, Tree Swallow, Bank Swallow, Barn Swallow, Cliff Swallow, White-breasted Nuthatch, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, House Wren, Carolina Wren, European Starling, Gray Catbird, Northern Mockingbird, Wood Thrush, American Robin, Cedar Waxwing, House Sparrow, House Finch, American Goldfinch, Chipping Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Eastern Towhee, Orchard Oriole, Baltimore Oriole, Red-winged Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, Common Grackle, Louisiana Waterthrush, Prothonotary Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Northern Parula, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler Northern Cardinal, and Indigo Bunting.
The island really shines during spring and fall migration. Some specialties to look for include Red-breasted Merganser, Common Snipe, rails, Little Blue Heron, terns, Bonaparte’s Gulls, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Swainson’s Thrush, and Rusty Blackbirds. Thirty-two species of warblers have been reported, most of these being migrants.
Although the footbridge to the island is wheelchair-accessible, most of the trails on the island are not, since they have gravel or dirt surfaces with occasional steep grades. The Mount Vernon Trail along the Potomac River on the Virginia mainland is paved and wheelchair-accessible. ◾ The National Park Service has provided a downloadable vintage brochure that gives some biographical details about Theodore Roosevelt as well as a history of the island and a trail map. ◾ The northern terminus of the aforementioned Mount Vernon Trail is at Theodore Roosevelt Island. From the island, the trail runs to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home. The trail mostly parallels the George Washington Memorial Parkway. ◾ The Mount Vernon Trail is part of the much larger Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, a network that covers 710 miles of the Potomac watershed. ◾ 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.
Shad Run is a special episode of Outdoors Maryland from Maryland Public Television that tells the story of the American shad fishery in the Potomac River and the fight to help the fish recover from pollution and overfishing. There is excellent footage of the habitats along the river, including at Fletcher’s Boathouse, an interview with the current owner of the boathouse, and a proclamation by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser naming the shad as the “Official Fish of Washington, D.C.” The footage of schoolchildren releasing shad fingerlings will tug at your heartstrings.
Park only in the designated parking lot adjacent to the footbridge to the island. The Park Police regularly ticket drivers who park on the grass.
Theodore Roosevelt Island can be reached ONLY from the northbound lanes of the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Virginia.
- From Anne Arundel County or Prince George’s County: Take US Route 50 west toward DC. Take the exit for I-295 South. In 3.9 miles, take Exit 1B-C to merge onto I-695 west toward I-395. In 2.3 miles, merge onto I-395 southbound. In 0.3 miles, keep left on I-395 toward Richmond. In 1.4 miles, take Exit 10C to merge onto the George Washington Memorial Parkway northbound. In 2.2 miles, after passing the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Bridge carrying US Route 50 and US Route 66 over the Potomac, turn right at the sign for Theodore Roosevelt Island and follow signs to the parking area.
- From the DC Beltway (I-495): Take Exit 43-44 for VA-193/George Washington Memorial Parkway/Georgetown Pike toward DC. Keep right at the fork to continue on Exit 43, follow signs for Geo Washington Memorial Pkwy/Washington. Continue onto George Washington Memorial Pkwy southbound for 9.5 miles. After passing the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Bridge carrying US Route 50 and US Route 66 over the Potomac, you will need to execute a U-turn to head north on the George Washington Memorial Parkway to approach parking area for the island. Take the exit toward Arlington Cemetery/Memorial Bridge. Turn right onto Memorial Ave. At the traffic circle, take the 2nd exit onto S Arlington Blvd. Use the right 2 lanes to take the ramp to I-66/I-495/Spout Run Pkwy/McLean. Then merge onto the George Washington Memorial Pkwy northbound and follow signs to the exit for the Theodore Roosevelt Island parking area.
The island is a 10-15 minute walk from the Rosslyn Metro Station on the Orange and Silver Lines. from the station, head north toward the base of the Key Bridge, where a short connecting trail leads downhill from the downstream side of the bridge, across the George Washington Memorial Parkway, and into the parking lot at Theodore Roosevelt Island. See the detailed walking directions and a route map on Google.
- Start at the Rosslyn Station, 1850 N Moore St, Arlington, VA 22209
- Head north on N Moore St toward 19th St N for 0.1 miles.
- Turn right to stay on N Moore St for 92 feet.
- Turn right onto US-29 N and continue for 112 feet.
- Turn left onto N Lynn St and continue for 295 feet.
- Turn right onto the Custis Trail and continue for 39 feet.
- Continue onto Mt Vernon Trail for 0.3 miles.
- Slight right to stay on Mt Vernon Trail. The parking area and the footbridge to the island will be on the left.
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