We moved quickly, a light mist falling then settling on the surface of the reflective pool. The October morning was quiet, the silence punctuated only by the incessant questions from my 5-year-old, pedaling on the trailer-cycle behind me. Who is Martin Luther King? Was he really a king? When are we going to eat lunch?
I half-answered the questions, the other part of me amused by a little girl slumped over a concrete bench. She appeared to be about seven but could have been any age or gender. Indeed, we saw them everywhere on the National Mall: children paralyzed by exhaustion, eyes glazed over. The little energy-ridden terrors transformed after a few days or a week of walking endless miles.
Washington DC is a must-visit, bucket-list destination for many families. Unfortunately, the standard visit includes walking mile upon mile, and for parents with young kids, usually choosing a few key things and skipping the rest.
Luckily, for cycling families, Washington D.C. happens to be a great place to bike while experiencing “American” history. Our family recently visited the city for a few days. While there, we discovered that biking D.C. is not only possible it is actually preferable to other modes of transportation. We were able to quickly tick off all the tourist attractions while doing what we like doing best: riding our bikes.
Visiting the National Mall and Memorials
Like many tourists, we were staying outside of the city and needed to commute in. We had hoped to take the commuter train, but discovered bikes are only allowed on certain trains and only two at a time. We were a little nervous about driving in, but it worked out fine — thanks to our bikes.
Because we had them, we were able to park farther away from the city center and avoided circling for a prime parking space. We dropped our car at the far end of East Potomac Park and rode the mile or so to the edge of the National Mall. Slightly off the beaten path, we enjoyed the sights and sounds of D.C. My 5-year-old had fun watching kayakers navigate the Potomac, spotting planes taking off and landing at Reagen International Airport, and even discovering an empty playground.
Once at the National Mall, we were able to quickly cruise from the FDR Memorial to the JFK Memorial to the Lincoln Memorial and beyond. While you’re not allowed to ride your bikes INSIDE the memorials, it is easy (and encouraged) to bike between them. There were plenty of places to lock our bikes while we were busy sight-seeing.
If your child is interested in doing the National Parks Junior Ranger program (highly recommended!), they will be required to visit many of the memorials in order to complete their booklets. I’ve heard from other parents that this can take several DAYS to complete. With our bicycles, however, we were able to easily earn his badge in a single day.
In addition to using our bikes for transportation, the bike ride itself was enjoyable. We had fun cycling along the reflecting pool, eating a picnic lunch at one end, and hiding from a passing rainstorm under a large Cherry Blossom tree (sans blossoms).
Fortunately for us, we were visiting in October, which meant that the tourist traffic was manageable. Biking here might be quite different during peak tourist season. Even our visit mid-week versus the weekend was noticeably different. On Saturday, there were large tour groups and protests and plenty of obstacles that made cycling more challenging. If you have a child that doesn’t do a great job maneuvering traffic, you may be better off keeping them on a bike seat or in a trailer. We used our trailer-cycle and that worked quite well for weaving thru foot traffic.
The Smithsonian Museums
We also enjoyed using our bikes to visit the Smithsonian Museums. Just like during our visit to the Memorials, we were able to park well outside of the hustle and bustle of the city and ride our way in. The museums are a fair distance apart, so if you plan on doing more than one in a single day, having a bicycle will help speed things up. We easily found bike racks outside of the museums, and once inside there are lockers for your helmets, backpacks, and other cycling gear. Although the signs outside said “no food or drinks,” we were allowed to bring our bag in with food and water bottles. We just put it in a locker.
The White House and Other Nearby Attractions
A bit further away from the crowds of the National Mall, we found that cycling around downtown Washington D.C. was very enjoyable. We were able to bike around the White House and did a scenic tour of less-frequented buildings like the National Reserve, the IRS, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Unlike the National Mall, the rest of downtown was more bike-friendly on the weekend when there weren’t as many people around. (The National Mall, on the other hand, was MUCH busier on the weekend).
Bike Rentals and City Bikes
We had our own bikes along with us on the trip so didn’t have to deal with renting, but that is an option–as are the local city bikes. I’ve listed a couple of shops below that offer bicycle rentals. Of course, finding rentals for kids is a bit more tricky. If they are small enough, a front-mounted bike seat works well as a carry-on airplane item. (We’ve done this several times over the years).
- Capital Bikeshare (city bikes): https://www.capitalbikeshare.com/
- Bike and Roll (shop offering rental bikes including kids bikes and trailers): http://bikeandrolldc.com/rentals/
- Bikes to Borrow (cargo bike rentals): http://www.bikestoborrow.com/
While we had no trouble navigating D.C., if you are worried about it, hire a guide. Recess Outings is a small mom-owned business that offers family-friendly tours of the city. They’ll also take you places we never made it: neighborhoods and waterways that are further off the beaten path. They offer all the gear you’ll need, including bikes with rear-mounted Yepp seats.