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Thread: Union Station to National Zoo with Kids

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    Default Union Station to National Zoo with Kids

    Hello! I am a cycling activist visiting Washington DC from Vancouver, BC. We are staying in a hotel near Union Station starting this weekend for 9 days. I am thinking of riding through the National Mall area and north through Rock Creek to the National Zoo. I have two kids, aged 7 and 9, who will be on their own (rented) bicycles. The plan is to ride to the Zoo and hang out there for the day, then ride back.

    1. Please let me know if I am insane.
    2. How long would this ride take (Googlemaps estimates it as 45 minutes). The kids can easily take a 10 km ride (1 hour).
    3. Are our bicycles safe locked up at the Zoo for hours?
    4. Is the path hilly/difficult/bumpy? We are renting from Bike N Roll.

    I might even ride to National Cathedral as well if it isn't too bad?

    Thank you for your help.

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    Welcome to DC!

    My answer is that it depends. Are you and your kids comfortable riding in urban traffic (getting to the mall and across streets on the mall, getting to Rock Creek Park, etc.)? Those are also some congested areas with lots of pedestrians, tourists, etc. Quite possibly you will be doing a lot of passing, as well as getting passed by other cyclists, and at places the Rock Creek Trail is right next to the parkway (I mean mere feet), and those cars go whizzing by at pretty high speeds. As long is this won't rattle them or you, it would be okay.

    I would think it would take a bit longer than 45 minutes with kids, but your kids might be more intrepid than mine.

    I think from the mall to the zoo is a general uphill, but very gradual and not steep at all. You would want to go in the rear entrance off Beach Drive (I think there is a trail that gets you there from Rock Creek Parkway -- others correct me if I am wrong). If you want to go to the main entrance on Connecticut Avenue, you would be introducing a steep and long hill, as well as some on-street riding (and those are BUSY streets).

    Be sure to take good locks and bikes that are not too fancy.

    National Cathedral is at the top of a long and somewhat steep hill from almost anywhere in DC. If you are a fit adult cyclist it should be no problem. I would hesitate with the kids, especially if you are coming all the way from Union Station.

    As an alternative, you could take them cycling on the mall, maybe over to East Potomac Park, for some lower stress riding, and just take metro to the zoo.

    Have fun!

    Liz
    Last edited by eminva; 03-05-2012 at 07:07 PM. Reason: West Potomac Park might be okay, too.

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    I would recommend the easiest route with kids would be to cross the National Mall and continue over to the Rock Creek trailhead near the river. The trail runs north along the parkway with direct access to the lower entrance to the zoo. Just inside the zoo near the Zoo police station there is a bike rack in a secure location, assuming you've got locks. En route you will be on a congested path, but it is more joggers than cyclists. It's not nearly as wide as most multi-use trails so passing can be iffy in places. This should be an interesting ride for kids, as there are numerous spots you could pull off at to explore the creek or to take a look at a very old hillside cemetery. As you approach the zoo area you will pass under the Duke Ellington Bridge which is a magnificent span. Zoo entrance will be on your left, less than a mile after the bridge. Watch out for cars turning in and out of the area. If you wanted to take the kids to the cathedral too, you could walk the bikes up the hill from the zoo to Connecticut Ave. Go South a few blocks and turn left on Woodley Rd. When it becomes Garfield Street there is a marked bike lane, and it will get you there. This is an on street route, and may or may not be appropriate for kids, but Garfield and Woodley aren't too hilly, and aren't heavily traveled outside of rush hour. You might also be interested in exploring one of the U.S.'s finest urban parks, Rock Creek, by bike north of the zoo. On Saturday and Sundays Beach Drive is closed to vehicular traffic from a mile or two north of the zoo all the way to Maryland. The route is unlike anything you could imagine in a city-steep wooded cliffs, rushing water, boulders, etc... With two full street lanes open to cyclists and runners, there is plenty of space for everyone, kids included.

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    Thanks for the help, Eminva. My husband and I are regular cycling commuters (and he's a competitive cyclist and I'm a triathlete), but the kids are *not* comfortable in traffic yet. I am now thinking trail-a-bike, which would be perhaps a drag for them with the loss of control, but better in the traffic and also in case they simply poop out or throw a fit. Then we would not be stuck somewhere on the trail.

    Are DC drivers well behaved around cyclists? In Vancouver proper, they are fairly tolerant, but leave the city and it can be frightening how much motorists hate cyclists.

    I became excited when I saw there was a pool in East Potamac, but alas, it is an outdoor pool! The kids will never forgive me for booking a pool-less hotel and I thought for a minute I was saved. Thanks for the suggestion--looks like an ideal and safe place to bring the munchkins.

    As for National Cathedral, I am wondering if it is even worth it taking a 7 and 9 year old, when we only have really 8 days of exploration and 12 Smithsonian museums to cover.

    It will cost $144 plus taxes to rent 4 bikes for 4 days. Not sure if it is worth it when we are within decent walking distance of the Mall.

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    While I hate to discourage you from renting bikes, I think it will be a little difficult for kids that age to bike from the Mall to the Zoo. I live pretty near the zoo, and I've do the ride from the Mall-ish to the Zoo up the Rock Creek trail. That's actually not too difficult - it is a hill, but it's mostly pretty gradual, and if you make sure you bike to the bottom of the Zoo rather than the top, you miss the big hill. The bottom of the Zoo is right on the Rock Creek trail. There is no real bike parking that I'm aware of, though.

    The problem is actually biking near the Mall. Aside from the Pennsylvania Avenue cycletracks, the Mall is not really a great place to ride. You and your husband would be fine in traffic, but I wouldn't be comfortable riding with kids there. For reference, I have a 1 year old and a 3 year old who I regularly pull in a trailer (mostly to and from school/daycare), and I've never taken them near the Mall on a bike.

    If you can do the trail-a-bike, that would probably be better. Although I might be over-cautious, as my kids are much younger and obviously not ready to ride in traffic. I don't really know how a 7 and 9 year old would do.

    As for drivers - they're not bad, and getting better. Now that we have a flourishing bikeshare system, drivers are a lot more conscious of bikes. And I find that I get more room from drivers when I'm pulling the kids than when I'm on my own.

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    Quote Originally Posted by karencoutts View Post
    Are DC drivers well behaved around cyclists? In Vancouver proper, they are fairly tolerant, but leave the city and it can be frightening how much motorists hate cyclists.
    I would say the same holds true here. If you and your husband are regular commuters, you should feel very comfortable riding within DC. As for the kids, the trailer cycles sound like a good idea.

    You can also get a lay of the land once you get here and decide what to do. Like you, I like to cycle in new places, but in DC there is so much to see and do, you probably won't feel like you missed much even if you see the sites via metro and foot. You could get up early one morning and take a self-guided tour on Capital Bikeshare by yourself if you want to say you biked DC.

    Liz

    P.S. There is an indoor public pool near Eastern Market, but it might be set up just for lap swimming; not really sure.

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    Quote Originally Posted by eminva View Post
    P.S. There is an indoor public pool near Eastern Market, but it might be set up just for lap swimming; not really sure.
    It's mostly lap swimming but there's a smaller shallow area set aside, they do water aerobics and such. They also close it some afternoons for the Masters swim team, you'd have to check the schedule.

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    Wilson Aquatic Center in Tenleytown has a huge 50m pool set up for lap swimming, along with a 15 person hot tub, and a sizeable kids only pool set up with all sorts of fun water accessories. They have bike parking available and are close to the metro as well.

    http://app.dpr.dc.gov/dprmap/details.asp?cid=3

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    I, too, have a little one, so I haven't biked with the true "kid" set. That being said, I would DEFINITELY rent the bikes for touring around the Mall.

    The blocks in DC are long, and walking even a few blocks takes longer than it does in most cities. Many tourists -- in fact, even many locals -- don't realize how long the blocks are near the Mall, and think that it will be a quick trip between points A & B. It's generally not. I have walked around the Mall with kids that age, and it easily takes 10 minutes to get from one museum to the other on foot. Ten "are we there yet/I'm hungry/I really want to go to Air and Space" minutes. The advantage of being on a bike is that those 10 minutes turn into 3-5, and that's going very slowly, on the sidewalks, avoiding tourists. Pre-kids, my husband and I would often hop around to the various museums via bike, and it was great. You can get around quickly. Bike parking is pretty easy and relatively safe during the day (Bike and Roll will give you a run down of best practices and I think provide U-locks). I'd even say it's the only way to comfortably get around the Mall.

    On the Mall, you're allowed to ride on the sidewalks. The sidewalks are wide, but there are a number of tourists (this time of year it's not too bad -- if someone is coming in the summer, my advice would be different). As long as your kids are responsible (i.e. you can trust them to pay attention and not run into pedestrians or out into the street), they should be fine on their own bikes. If you have any doubt, the trailabike option is probably best.

    In other places in "downtown" DC, you're not supposed to ride on the sidewalk (I think the rule is if you're over 18). You could get a ticket. But I've never seen anyone get a ticket, and if you're riding slowly and being respectful of pedestrians, you should be fine. There are also enough small streets between Union Station and the Mall that you should be fine on the street for those few blocks. There are a few museums off the Mall (National Building Museum is a must in my book, though they're now charging for the exhibits). You can talk through the exact routes you want to take with someone at the hotel or bike shop -- I think you can get to all of them on less-busy streets, but ask.

    You could get to the Zoo via only the Mall and the trail through Rock Creek. That trail gets narrow and doesn't have the best pavement, so it depends on how comfortable your kids are on bikes. You could also ride to the Zoo, visit the Zoo, push your bikes up the hill (no riding in the Zoo) and Metro back to Union Station. Bikes are allowed on Metro during non-rush hour times.

    A better use of a day on bikes might be to take Memorial Bridge (behind the Lincoln Memorial) to the Mount Vernon Trail (be VERY careful at the street crossings -- never assume cars will stop just because they are supposed to). Take the MVT south, you'll bike along Gravely Point which is just under the flight path for National Airport. It is awesome. Continuing on you can come back along the 14th Street Bridge, which will put you right by the Jefferson Memorial. You could bike around the loop at Haines Point -- it's on road but there are very few cars on that road -- the views are great, but it's a 5km loop, and adding that onto the rest might be too much for kids.

    So short answer: I'd definitely rent bikes for enough days to (1) do the tour described above and (2) cover the museums you want to cover. Oh, and drivers are ok, but I'd always assume that bikes are invisible to them, and drivers will not follow the law. When they do see you and follow the law, you will be pleasantly surprised!

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    To add to the already good advice:

    Another option is to rent bikes in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. It's a nice little colonial town with plenty of low-traffic streets, and connections to bike trails along the river. The trail to the north goes along with river and takes you to a great view of DC on the other side. The trail to the south leads to George Washington's home, Mt. Vernon. The home and grounds are open to the public (not free though).

    Bike and Roll has a rental shop in Old Town:

    http://www.bikethesites.com/Location/

    It looks like they'll be opening for the season just in time for you.

    It's a short drive from DC, or you could get there by Metro. The shop is a long walk or short bus/cab ride from the Metro station.

    If you're going to combine cycling with museums and monuments on the Mall, it could be frustrating because some are so close that you might as well walk. Trailer cycles are a good idea but I don't know if you can rent them anywhere.

    Also, keep in mind that the kids will be tired after a day of walking around doing whatever you do, so the bike ride back could be tough.
    Last edited by baiskeli; 03-06-2012 at 10:18 AM.

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