Great Runs in Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C. is one of my favorite running cities. A run on The Mall and the Lincoln Memorial, and then out to the FDR and MLK Memorials, is one of the most inspiring runs in the world. Washington is beautifully laid out for runners, with miles of paths around its most visited destinations, and then radiating outward to Virginia and Maryland. Washington is very much a walking city, and the main streets and sidewalks radiating from the Capitol are wonderfully wide. In addition to some wonderful routes in the heart of the city, there are beautiful paths along Rock Creek Park and following the old B&O railroad.
Washington is a fairly flat city. You won’t find a lot of hills on the iconic routes. Summers are famously hot and humid and winters are generally snow-free. Catching the Ellipse during Cherry Blossom season the first two weeks in April, should be on any runner’s bucket list.
The Iconic Routes
- The National Mall
- The Memorials
- Embassy Row
- Rock Creek Park
The National Mall
4.3 miles MAP
The National Mall is one of the most iconic and inspiring runs in the world. The run “to do” is along the cinder paths between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, incorporating the Washington Monument, with the buildings of the Smithsonian flanking you on either side. Even though it’s not a long run, there are three “sections”: between the Monument and the Capitol; around the Monument; and then from the WW2 Memorial to the Lincoln Memorial. Approaching the Lincoln Memorial, you can choose to either run right along side the Reflecting Pool, or along the beautifully canopied pathway. It is tempting to run, Rocky-like, up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, but the National Park police discourage it (and the steps are slippery!). The core run is 4.3 miles, and can be part of the longer run that includes the Ellipse out to the Jefferson, FDR, and MLK memorials. It is also a treat to do this run at night, with the major sites all illuminated.
3.7 miles, with options. MAP
This is also one of the most unique and inspiring runs anywhere, incorporating scenery, history, and beauty. The core “Memorial Run” starts near the Washington Monument, and takes you on the approximately 2-mile pathway along the Tidal Basin, out to the Jefferson Memorial, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, and the Martin Luther King Memorial. Crossing back over Independence Drive, you’ll pass by the the Korean War Veteran’s Memorial, then the Lincoln Memorial and Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, concluding at the World War Two Memorial near the Washington Monument. This route is about 3.7 miles and can be accessed from numerous locations. You can also add the National Mall section, which is a little over 1 mile between the Washington Monument and the Capitol (~2.5 miles RT).
4.6 miles RT. MAP
This is another one of the unique runs in the world. So-called “Embassy Row” takes you along Massachusetts Ave. from Dupont Circle, ending at the National Cathedral off Wisconsin Ave. You’ll see 150+ embassies, the US Naval Observatory (home of the Vice President), and other important landmarks. The sidewalk is wide and the route is pleasant, featuring a steady uphill of 377 feet between mile 1 at Rock Creek Park and mile 2 at Wisconsin Ave. You can add to the run by continuing along Massachusetts Ave. about another mile to American University, or by joining the trails of Rock Creek Park. Some key landmarks, heading north from Dupont Circle:
- 0.3 miles Phillips Collection, at Florida Ave.
- 0.5 miles Woodrow Wilson House, on right
- 0.75 miles Embassy of Japan, on left
- 1 mile Rock Creek Parkway
- 1.5 miles British Embassy, Naval Observatory
- 2 miles St. Alban’s School
- 2.3 miles National Cathedral
Rock Creek Park
Various Options. See table below. MAP
Rock Creek Park is a bit off the beaten track of the running trails surrounding The Mall and the monuments, but it is a hidden gem. On those hot Washington days, Rock Creek park is a wonderful opportunity to run along a shaded pathway and enjoy the lush Washington foliage.
There are myriad options for running in Rock Creek Park. Doug Hay has published an excellent guide. The principal running path is the Rock Creek Trail, which is mostly paved and is about 10 miles in length. The two particularly recommended runs in Rock Creek Park are:
- South Section. ~5 miles. The southern section runs from Pierce Mill (intersection of Tilden and Beach Dr. NW) down to the Memorial Bridge. The paved path winds its way down the park, for the most part sticking pretty close to both the creek and Beach Drive. You’ll run by the National Zoo, the Kennedy Center, and reach the Memorial Bridge. Connect with the Memorial trails and the Mount Vernon trail.
- North Section. ~4.6 miles. This heads up to the Maryland border from Pierce Mill, mainly paralleling Beach Drive. On weekends and holidays, the ~4 mile section of Beach Drive is closed off to cars.
There are many additional options in the park — tons of wooded hiking and trail running options, horse trails, and so on.
Georgetown Connector Trail
One key thing to know about in the Georgetown area is the Georgetown Waterfront Park trail. It is a key connector between the Rock Creek Park and C&O Canal trails to the north and west, and the Mall/Memorial trails.
There are wonderful running trails just outside the District, in Virginia and Maryland. A few highlights:
- The C&O Canal Trail. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Trail is a 184 mile (!) tow path that runs along the Potomac River all the way to Cumberland, MD. Very flat, crushed stone surface. The C&O is accessible from Rock Creek Park, and is also one of the best running options if you are staying in the Georgetown area. MAP
- The Mount Vernon Trail. Part of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail. A 17 miles paved hiking/cycling path in Northern Virginia that travels between Rosslyn and George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon. Section closer to DC that runs by the airport. Points-of-interest include George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon, Olde Town Alexandria, Arlington National Cemetery, and the local’s favorite Gravelly Point (at the north end of National Airport’s main runway). MAP
Try to stay within a mile or so from some point along the National Mall, if you can. Basically the rectangle west of the Capitol/Union Station and south of K Street. If you end up a little beyond that, you can always use the Metro or do a Capitol Bike Share drop off. If you are staying in the Dupont Circle area or further north, Embassy Row and Rock Creek Park are good running bets. If in the Georgetown area, lovely sections of the C&O Trail and the Rock Creek trail are accessible. If you are staying over the border in the Alexandria, Virginia area, connect to the Mt. Vernon trail.
The best running stores in the D.C. area are:
Potomac River Running Store. The best option near the Mall/Memorial area. Super helpful folks. Also numerous suburban locations
Georgetown Running Company. Best independently owned running store in the Georgetown area.
Nike Georgetown. Numerous group runs, training runs.
Athleta, Nike Store, Lululemon are also all in Georgetown.
Best bets in Dupont/Rock Creek/Embassy row area are:
Pacers Running Company. On 14th St. They also have locations in the Navy Yard & Alexandria. Numerous free group runs throughout the week and also paid coaching/training runs.
Fleet Feet DC. In the Rock Creek/Adams Morgan area. Numerous group runs.
Pacers Running Company has group runs throughout the week, nearly every morning and evening and on Saturday morning. Schedule
Fleet Feet has group runs in the Adams Morgan/Rock Creek park area. Sundays at 9am, and Ladies Night Wednesdays at 6pm. Schedule
Potomac River Running Company has “all comers” fun runs and on Wednesdays at 6:30pm and other events throughout the week from their F St. store. Schedule
Nike Georgetown has numerous group runs throughout the week. Registration required. Schedule
DC Road Runners is the most important running club in the area. They require membership but anyone can try their Saturday morning long runs.
Marine Corps Marathon. October. The “Marathon of Monuments” is of the more famous marathons in the country. 20,000+ runners annually. Loved in part because it’s flat and takes place entirely in D.C. A 10k takes place simultaneously.
Navy Airforce Half Marathon and Navy 5-miler. September. Popular race along Rock Creek trail and monuments.
Rock and Roll Series. March. DC version of popular series. Marathon, Half, & 5k. Course goes up into Maryland.
Cherry Blossom Festival 10-miler. First Sunday in April. Very popular, occurs during height of Cherry Blossoms. Lottery.