A wonderful way to begin a bike trip on the C&O Canal National Historic Park towpath, or to just bike around Washington DC and not have to worry about the hassles of coordinating transportation, parking, etc. is to go to via Amtrak and take your bike with you. While there are several Amtrak/ bike options, my wife and I began our DC to Pittsburgh bike trip on the Capitol Limited which runs daily from Chicago to Washington.
We boarded the Capitol Limited upon its’ arrival at the Cumberland (MD) station at 10:00 am for our scheduled 9:30 departure (Amtrak is notorious for being late). We loaded our bikes into the special “bike car” and boarded the train for a leisurely 3 ½ hour train ride to Union Station. The scenic train ride took us through the Potomac Valley with numerous bridges, tunnels and a stop at historic Harpers Ferry. The train even features an innovative partnership program between the National Park Service and Amtrak; the Trails & Rails program provides Amtrak passengers with volunteers who are knowledgeable and willing to share information about the region's natural and cultural heritage.
Once in DC, Amtrak deposits you at Union Station (worth the visit itself). Union Station is one of the busiest rail facilities and shopping destinations in the United States and is visited by over 40 million people a year. Once your train arrives at the station’s rail yard, your bike is handed to you off the train and you access the station via an escalator. Getting your bike on the escalator will give you true insight as to how rear-end heavy all the crap you packed in your rear panniers made your bike (a true thrill as my bike tried to flip over my head backwards)! At the top of the escalator, you enter the bustle of the Art Deco Union Station, (prepared to be wowed!) Food is available at the station with many of the usual chain restaurants that once finds in any suburban shopping mall.
Finding your way out to the west end of Union Station (look for the colonnades) is rather intuitive and simple and once outside, just look for the Washington Monument to get your bearings.
Union Station is located just North of the US Capitol building, where it is a quick ride to the Mall and all of the museums and monuments. DC’s Bike laws are confusing and It seems that even the police are not sure what laws apply where. In the District of Columbia, riding on the sidewalk is allowed outside the downtown central business district the boundaries of which stretch from Constitution Avenue NW and 23rd Street NW, north to Massachusetts Avenue NW, east to 2nd Street NE, south to D Street SE, west to 14th Street NW and back up to Constitution Avenue.
Outside of the Central Business District, it is legal for cyclists to ride on the sidewalk. The business district includes the National Mall east of the Washington Monument. However the Park Service which who is responsible for the Mall, says “Bicycles are welcome in the National Mall and Memorial Parks and bicycle parking is provided near each of the major memorials as well as along the National Mall. Please remember that riding your bicycle is not permitted within the memorials themselves. Please walk your bicycle through the World War II and Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorials” So can you or can’t you? We just ride cautiously and smile at law enforcement and had no problems. The crowds will actually mandate where you should walk your bike….and what’s your hurry anyway, the National Mall is beautiful with so much to see!
Tip: One of DC’s best kept secrets for food on the Mall is at the National Museum of the American Indian
On our way to the C&O Canal, we rode west on the mall to the Arlington Memorial bridge behind the Lincoln Memorial, where after crossing the bridge to Virginia, we accessed the Mt. Vernon Trail going north. The Mt Vernon is an 18 mile paved favorite of DC cyclists that features gorgeous views of DC and the monuments. It runs along the Potomac River in Virginia from Mt Vernon to 100 yeards south of the Key Bridge at Rosslyn, Virginia. We stayed our first night at the Key Bridge Marriott, just across the river from Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood and the beginning of the C&O Canal.
Another route to the C&O Canal from The Mall is to access the Rock Creek Park Trail north of the Lincoln Memorial before the Arlington Memorial Bridge. Heading north one passes the John F Kennedy center for the Performing Arts and the Watergate complex to the C&O Canal.
Try Amtrak, I highly recommend. You will find it a great way to start a bike trip or to just see the sights of DC on the many wonderful bike trails in this bike-friendly city!
Reservations for Amtrak are highly recommended as the “bike cars” hold a minimal number with the Capitol Limited carrying only 8. The cost for Amtrak travel is very reasonable with cost per person and bike from Cumberland to DC only $35!