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D.C.=Dog City

by Tamara Somerville

© 2011

Whether President Harry Truman actually ever said “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog” is in dispute.  But Washingtonians apparently have taken the advice to heart:  America’s capital city is the dog-friendliest metropolitan area in the nation.

D.C.’s status as Dog City starts with the U.S. Capitol -- America’s dog-friendliest office complex. 

For as long as anyone can remember, dogs have been commonplace in the Capitol office buildings.  Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole’s Schnauzer, Leader, was a fixture in the Capitol in the 1980s and 90s.  The legendary Senate Democratic Leader, Robert Byrd, frequently invoked his Maltese, “Billy Byrd,” in speeches on the Senate floor (including a passionate denunciation of Michael Vick’s infamous dog-fighting atrocities).  

Senator Ted Kennedy’s Portuguese Water Dogs -- Splash, Sunny and Cappy -- were among the more famous Capitol dogs.  Senator Kennedy was a real dog person, he even carried dog treats in a suit pocket - to the delight of Potomac Valley Samoyed Club pup, Gidget.  One day while walking outside the Russell Senate Office Building, Gidget’s walk was interrupted by the distinctive, booming voice of the Senator from Massachusetts as he emerged from a doorway:  “What a MAGNIFICENT dog... may I give her a treat?” 

Gidget -- who grew up in Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s office -- has been bipartisan ever since.       

That dogs are at home all over D.C. is abundantly clear every morning and evening as thousands of residents and their pups take to the sidewalks, parks and dog-friendly cafes and restaurants.  During weekday lunch hours, professional dog-walkers can be seen managing several pups at once.  On weekends, dogs populate the many dog-friendly public and private venues in the metropolitan region.  Among the more notable:    

National Mall:  Open 24/7, the National Mall is at the center of architect Pierre L’Enfant’s 1791 design of the city.  The Mall is mecca for dog people to take their pups running, bikejoring/scootering or just for a long walk.  Stretching two miles from the Capitol to the Lincoln, the Mall is also an ideal location for owners of young puppies wishing to get them socialized with all kinds of people.  In one visit to the Lincoln Memorial, a young puppy likely will easily exceed the 100 people contacts that many trainers recommend for socializing during the critical “imprint” period (a puppy’s first 16 weeks of life).  The Mall’s leash requirement is (thankfully) rigorously enforced by the U.S. Park Police and dogs are not allowed inside the Lincoln or Jefferson Memorials or the Washington Monument.

Further bonuses for walks on the Mall:  the availability of water (drinking fountains, bathrooms and snack-refreshment kiosks) and, for owners who can have someone hold their pup, availability of bathrooms (at the memorials and Smithsonian Museums).

Haines Point/East Potomac Park:    This 300-acre peninsula is south of, and connected to, the Tidal Basin and Jefferson Memorial.  A popular picnicking and fishing spot connected to the Mall by road and sidewalks (including underneath the 14th Street Bridge), tagging Haines Point onto a National Mall walk adds a couple miles for the adventurous pups and dog owners eager for more of a workout.  Gidget and I also bikejor/scooter out here on our more ambitious days. 

Mt. Vernon: The magnificent estate of America’s first leader -- President George Washington -- is extremely dog-friendly!  PVSC members and their sammies frequently enjoy sitting on President Washington’s river-view porch to savor the scene and gentle breezes.  There are so many wonderful aspects to Mt. Vernon, especially from the dog owner perspective:  1) the grounds are 400 acres and beautifully maintained with huge expanses of lush grass, serene forests, gorgeous gardens, historical out-buildings and spectacular views of the Potomac River;  2)  Mt. Vernon is open 364 days a year (only closed for Christmas day) and gates open at 8:00 a.m.;  3)  the staff in our experience have been very friendly and welcoming of our Samoyeds;  4)  most tourists congregate around the house (in roped-off lines waiting to tour the president’s home) so you and your pup can have a fairly quiet stroll around the grounds.  Annual passes are $28 and well worth every penny.  For an additional $5, you and your pups can participate in one of the periodic “All The President’s Pups” tours led by docents steeped in the estate’s history as home to many working dogs and President Washington’s personal experience as a dog-person.  Mt. Vernon’s excellent website provides further guidance on the busiest and the quietest days to visit the estate.  If ever you see a caravan of vehicles ferrying Samoyeds southbound on George Washington Memorial Parkway, it is a pretty good bet that we’re headed to another great day at Mt. Vernon.   

Arlington National Cemetery:    Yep, dog-friendly.  Obviously, great care should be taken to respect this sacred ground.  In other words:  stay on the roads.  In addition to plenty of poop bags, take plenty of water.  There are miles of roads in the cemetery and no sources of water for dogs away from buildings.  There is a parking garage.  You can also walk to the cemetery from the Lincoln Memorial, via Memorial Bridge.  It is a spectacular walk, but not a good idea for dogs who may be spooked by a lot of traffic (on Memorial Bridge) and you will have to be careful crossing the road at the traffic circle on the Virginia side. 

Noise Trauma Alert:  Be especially mindful that military funerals are conducted seven days a week, and some of these services include the firing of cannons.  From personal experience I can tell you that cannonfire can scare the heck out of a dog -- worse than any thunderstorm.  We don’t walk there anymore because the last time Gidget about wore her paw pads off after some cannons unexpectedly went off near us.  It was a long, if fast, walk/run back to the car.  Because of the risk of cannon and rifle fire, I do not recommend this venue for most dogs but they are allowed so I included it.

What I do recommend is walking across Memorial Bridge and to the cemetery entrance.  From Union Station to the cemetery, and back, is 9 miles -- a fantastic walk.



National Arboretum:  With 450 acres, 9.5 miles of lightly travelled roads to walk on and miles more of pathways through forests and down to the Anacostia River, this venue is a favorite and easily accessible to residents of northeast DC (10 minute drive, give or take, from the Capitol Building).  The only problem with the fenced Arboretum is the relatively short hours for visiting (gates open only from 8:00a-5:00p).  Also, bring plenty of water because you’ll find faucets in only two places:  the administration building and the bathrooms near the Japanese Gardens.      

Rock Creek Park:  Lots of room to roam here with the main section containing over 1700 acres and with associated green spaces is over 2000 acres.  Administered by the National Park Service. 

Great Falls National Park:  This very popular 800-acre park has been a big part of my Samoyeds’ lives in DC.  It and the C&O Canal across the river are our favorite places in this region for easily accessible day hikes-walks.  Just 14 miles from my home on Capitol Hill, you’d think it was 3000 miles out west in the rockier sections of the Mather Gorge which the park surrounds on the Virginia side of the Potomac River. 

In this park you are also walking in the footsteps of George Washington.  In between being America’s heroic Revolutionary War General and our first President, George Washington was president of  the Patowmack Company, the entity he founded to build the Patowmack Canal -- what he envisioned to be America’s gateway to Ohio and the rest of the continent west of the eastern seaboard.  You and your pups can walk in the remnants of Washington’s vision and what was state-of-the-art engineering in its time.

With 15 miles of hiking, biking and horse riding trails, you can enjoy a full day of walking at Great Falls NP.   Friends and I walk here year-around, on hot summer days arriving at 7:00a when the park opens.  In winter, we’ll bring thermoses of coffee and at a turn-around point on Difficult Run (a small river that empties into the Potomac) we’ll sit in the middle of the water on an outcropping of rocks and watch the steam come out of our cups and our pups.

We arrive at the park when it opens (7:00a) because by late-morning on nice weekends there will be a line of cars waiting to get in.  There is a $5 entrance fee, or you can get a $20 annual pass for the park.  For the past decade, I’ve been getting the annual pass ($80) which provides access to all national parks and federal lands. 

Riverbend Park (Fairfax County):  This 400-acre park abuts Great Falls National Park and is connected by the Potomac Heritage Trail (2.5 miles of which is within Riverbend).  Whenever we walk upriver from Great Falls NP we walk along the Potomac through Riverbend.  The Potomac up this way has a very different look -- it is much wider than downriver in the Mather Gorge.  The trail to Riverbend is mostly flat and an easy walk.  One of the nice features of this walk, especially in the mornings after coffee, is that Riverbend has restrooms that open early.

C&O Canal: On the Maryland side of the Potomac and across from Great Falls NP, the C&O Canal National Historic Park encompasses the 184.5-mile long canal.  The Canal’s “milepost 1” is in Georgetown.  This is our other favorite close-in day hike destination and we’ve walked-bikejored-scootered the first 20 miles of it. 

Our other favorite sections of the C&O Canal (that we’ve explored so far) are out at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia -- about 90 minutes from DC.  The PVSC has sponsored several club walks out there and they are always a lot of fun.  We park at the train station there and walk across the Potomac River on a train bridge (on the separate pedestrian walkway).  Note:  getting down the metal stairs on the other side of the bridge is not easy for all dogs (especially those who, like myself, have an issue with heights). 

A better note:  one of the cafes across from the Harper’s Ferry train station gives free ice cream to dogs.

Next to the National Mall, the C&O is our favorite place for bikejoring and scootering in the fall, winter and early spring.  Here we nearly always see beautiful herons resting elegantly on a rock next to the water, or swooping down to catch a fish.  We also look for turtles sunning on logs and the occasional fox stalking ducks.

We typically park at the Canal’s milepost 12.6 (Old Angler’s Inn on MacArthur Boulevard) or at milepost 14.3 (Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center).  And then we’ll hike (or bikejor-scooter) for an hour up or downriver and return to the car.  Going upriver from the Visitor Center we typically pass Swain’s Lock (milepost 16.6) and turn around at Washington Redskins football team owner Dan Snyder’s home which oversees the Potomac. 

As with Great Falls NP, we like to get an early start at the C&O Canal -- simply because we enjoy the quieter nature of the walk around sunrise.  By mid-morning, you are sharing the “towpath” with significantly more pedestrian and bicycle traffic.  The towpath is most crowded downriver of the Tavern Visitor Center toward the falls overlook and the popular “Billy Goat” trails.  Whichever direction you walk, keep your eyes and ears peeled for speeding bicyclists.  Don’t let your dog loose here or on too long of a leash. 

There are also a number of side trails along the C&O Canal, such as the three “Billy Goat” trails (A, B, C) and several miles of trails on the north side of the canal.

Roosevelt Island:  This tiny jewel (88-acres) opens at 6:00a and is situated in the Potomac River across from Georgetown and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.  It is just west of the Roosevelt Bridge and is accessed from the GW Parkway northbound.  The island’s 2.5 miles of trails make for a pleasant year-around walk, some of it on new raised wood walkways that elevate you over the swamp area.  Bring your camera, the memorial area is an interesting combination of a large concrete moat, 17-foot statue of President Theodore Roosevelt, two large fountains (refreshing for Samoyeds on a hot day) and four large stone monoliths containing Roosevelt quotes.  

Because of its proximity to the GW Parkway and Mt. Vernon bike path, this is a popular destination and like so many recreational things in DC, best done early. 


Eastern Market:  Located on Capitol Hill (7th Street & North Carolina Avenue SE), Eastern Market is Washington, D.C.’s oldest (136 years) continually operated fresh food market.  On weekends throughout the year, there is also an outdoor, dog-friendly flea market featuring over 100 vendors. 

Eastern Market is a favorite of Capitol Hill residents and a worthy destination for people outside the Beltway, too.  Neighbors and I often make the 15-minute walk across the Hill with our dogs and will grab coffee at Port City Java and/or lunch at the wonderful Mexican-Salvadoran Tortilla Cafe with outside dog-friendly tables and the best salsa I have ever had (made fresh daily, as are the tortilla chips).

In addition to the classic flea market finds, there are artists and vendors featuring all kinds of goods (including Alpaca hats that look suspiciously like Samoyed hair).  And if you like crepes (of the breakfast, lunch and dessert varieties), pickles, fresh donuts or wine, you’ll find that all here, too.

For us, Eastern Market is the payoff of a long walk, whether from our homes on the Hill or perhaps a longer trek from a parking place at the Capitol Reflecting Pool.  If you are really bold, you can try finding a parking place near Eastern Market -- it may require some patience but your odds are improved -- you guessed it -- by arriving early.  The flea market starts at 9:00a on Saturdays and Sundays and goes strong until mid-afternoon, maybe later.

Canine Cruise:  Not something you’d do every week but once a year or so it is fun to go with your pup on the “Canine Cruise” that docks at the pier at the Old Torpedo Factory in Old Town, Alexandria, Virginia.  The Potomac Valley Samoyed Club has been doing this cruise for the past few summers and we have a blast -- perhaps more on the dock before and after the cruise than on the cruise itself.  The boat goes up and down river (under the new Wilson Bridge). 

Caution for noise-sensitive dogs:  the boat’s whistle can be unnerving.  I asked the Captain to ease up on both the horn and the volume on his microphone.  Gidget’s very noise-sensitive (especially since the cannonfire at Arlington Cemetery). 

Before or after the cruise, Old Town Alexandria is always a great dog walk.    

Shenandoah National Park:  About 80-100 miles from Washington, D.C. (depending on which park entrance you go to), Shenandoah NP is probably the dog-friendliest national park in the United States.  It is a favorite of many in and around DC for day hikes and longer visits.  For Gidget and I, it’s camping mecca.  We frequent Big Meadows Campground, which sits at 3700-feet elevation and cools at night, even on the hottest days of summer.  I always pack fleece for those trips - spring, summer and fall.

The two lodges in the park -- Big Meadows and Skyland -- have a limited number of dog-friendly rooms.

For hiking trail suggestions, I highly recommend Falcon Guides’ “Hiking In Shenandoah National Park.” 

Virginia State Parks:   Virginia is for dog lovers, and it is DC dog peops’ good fortune to be nearby.  As far as I know, Virginia has the dog-friendliest state parks in the nation.  All campgrounds and cabins are dog-friendly, all year around.  Our favorite is Douthat State Park (see photos and more information on that at www.SamoyedMoms.com).  

West Virginia state parks are pretty dog-friendly (allowed in campgrounds, but not cabins) and Maryland’s state parks are getting more dog-friendly (some parks, some times of the year) but are not yet nearly as dog-friendly as Virginia State Parks. 

Within two hours of DC, check out Virginia’s Westmoreland and Shenandoah River State Parks.  Douthat is 220 miles away but well worth it for a four-day or longer stay (especially if you and your dog like lakes).

These dog-friendly destinations are just the beginning of all this area has to offer for dog peops and their pups.  Many restaurants in the city and the suburbs and exurbs, are now dog-friendly.  And we have been to dog-friendly wineries, a dog-friendly pumpkin patch and so much else.  Google “dog-friendly” and “Washington, D.C.” and you find that you don’t have to leave your dog behind to have fun.