From the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, it’s hard to tell that the swath of trees blocking a view of Virginia across the Potomac River is an island. It’s even harder to figure out how to get there, unless you’re leaving the Georgetown waterfront in a kayak — and ready to fight often-swift currents.
That’s because Theodore Roosevelt Island, a national park and fitting memorial to the country’s conservation-minded president, is located off the central tourism hub of Washington’s National Mall. In fact, visitors can only reach the island by foot from the Virginia side of the river.
“Most people don’t even realize this is here. But once they get here — wow,” Jennifer Epolito, a park ranger, said as we walked to the island across a footbridge from a small (but free) parking lot along the George Washington Memorial Parkway.
Behind us, the bustling skyline of Rosslyn, VA, faded as we approached a sea of trees, an urban oasis that Roosevelt would have adored — even if historians aren’t sure he ever set foot here.
As a president who conserved an average of 84,000 acres a day while in office, Roosevelt was also known for dragging diplomats and government officials on grueling hikes through the capital city’s “wild lands,” including Rock Creek Park. The now-national park north of the city’s center was among the first of many places considered for Roosevelt’s memorial before it landed on this island. (Roosevelt also has a national park named after him in western North Dakota, where his explorations of the Badlands greatly influenced his bent toward conservation later in life.)
After Roosevelt’s death in 1919, a memorial association formed in his honor first suggested a tribute located near the city’s Tidal Basin, forming the third point of a triangle with the White House and Senate buildings near the National Mall. Government officials liked the triangle idea so much, as Epolito tells it, that they decided to devote the space to one of the country’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, instead.
Meanwhile, Washington Gas and Electric owned this 88-acre island and had plans to tear down its trees to build industrial facilities. The Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Association intervened and bought the land in 1931.
Now, a nearly 20-foot-tall bronze statue of the president, raising one hand in his signature oratory pose, is at the center of the island, set off from the forest by a 30-foot-high granite backdrop. Granite monoliths on either side feature quotes from the president, and small reflecting pools form the edges of the semi-circle memorial.
Those jogging or walking the park’s three miles of trails could easily miss this striking sight at the island’s center. The easiest way to catch it is on the way in, by walking the park’s outermost trail counter-clockwise and taking the first left to follow signs for the memorial.
Many who frequent the island come simply to walk or jog the 1.5-mile swamp trail, a loop that circles the island and is easy to navigate. A third-mile-long woods trail cuts through the heart of the island and takes visitors by the memorial, while a 0.75-mile upland trail passes through the forest and around the site of a former mansion that stood during the 1700s, when the Mason family owned the island.
During guided walks offered on weekends from May to October, park rangers sprinkle in tidbits about both the president’s and the island’s history as visitors take in the views.
Archeological evidence shows American Indians used the island until the 18th century. Explorer John Smith was likely the first Englishman to step foot here during a quick visit in the early 1600s.
George Mason, author of the Virginia Bill of Rights, acquired the island in 1717 and established a ferry to it a few decades later. When his son, John Mason, took over the island, he turned the forested wilderness into a plantation estate, with manicured growing areas, slave quarters and a Classical Revival-style mansion named Analostan after the name American Indians may have used for the island. He also built an earthen causeway to connect the island to Virginia so that carriages could easily cross; a few stone remnants are still visible on the north end of the island.
During the Civil War, Union forces occupied the island and then used it as quarters for the 1st United States Colored Troops, an African American regiment composed of free black men and those who had escaped slavery. Those troops likely used the defunct mansion for target practice, which helped clear the way for a different interpretation of the island in the future.
After Roosevelt’s memorial association purchased the island in 1931, they hired renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., to replant and preserve the island “as nearly as possible as in its natural state,” according to records.
Members of the Civilian Conservation Corps, who carried out the planting plan from 1932 to 1947, were told to clear the island except for old-growth trees that presumably hailed from the days of its “natural state.” Olmstead planted indigenous trees (and, for some odd reason, invasive English Ivy) with the hope of returning the island to a relatively mature, stable forest — a wilderness fit to honor the country’s most adventurous president.
That forest still stands today. When a tree does fall, park visitors might notice it isn’t quickly removed. Park managers believe that Roosevelt would have “let nature be” and allowed dead trees to linger, as long as they didn’t block the path.
On a counter-clockwise walk around the island, the forest gives way to a tidal wetland where cattails and red-winged blackbirds reign. A bench along the boardwalk through the wetlands provides a break with views of the 175 species of birds that have been spotted on the island.
Here, horsetail plants, which historians believe American Indians used to scrub their cookware, jut up from the muddy river’s edge, along with the cone-shaped roots of bald cypress trees jut up from the muddy river’s edge.
A promenade from the well-maintained walkway juts farther into the marsh, making the city surrounding the island feel oceans — rather than a river — away.
Farther along the same path, visitors have made several of their own foot trails to the island’s edge, where views of ducks, geese and Georgetown remind them of their urban location (if the commercial airplanes flying over every few minutes didn’t give it away).
A rocky outcropping at one of these edges is the perfect place to hook up a paddleboat or set up a quick picnic. From here, something about seeing the city — but being just far enough away — is particularly therapeutic.