Paddle the Potomac: Around Roosevelt Island

By Angela Hazuda Meyers

For our inaugural “Hit the Water Trail” article, I chose to paddle around Roosevelt Island because it’s great for beginners and experienced paddlers. You can circle the entire island if you like, or just a small section, and it’s very easy to add additional mileage. The best features are the many put-in and take-out locations, the proximity to Georgetown (for a drink or lunch), the nice hiking trails on the island, and the incredible nature views along this part of the river.

First off, let’s choose where to put in. If you have a stand-up paddle board (SUP), you can put in from the parking lot along the GW Parkway. There isn’t a ramp, but you can find good access to the water if you’re experienced. If you need to rent or prefer a ramp, you can choose from Thompson’s Boathouse to the south or Key Bridge Boathouse to the north. There is a $5 fee for ramp usage (See “Stand Up! (With Your Pup” article on page 18 for details).

For this article, I’ll describe the route starting at Thompson’s Boathouse. From Thompson’s, you will head due west towards Roosevelt Island. Take your time (if you want) and enjoy what the river has to offer! You might see a turtle or two along the way, or some other pleasant SUP-ers. Then paddle around the north side of Roosevelt, towards Virginia, while keeping the island to your south side. (Basically, you’re going over the north hump.) Along this route you can look upriver, where you will get a great view of the Key Bridge and the area beyond it, called Three Sisters. In the summer, many boaters dock and hang out for the day by this peaceful trio of mini-islands. Looking over towards Roosevelt Island, you’ll see mainly greenery on the north side, and if you’re lucky, you may catch a blue heron or a crane fishing along the shore.

After passing along the north side of the island, start paddling south. Virginia will be on your right (or starboard side, if you want to be nautical), and the island will be on your left. You will notice a few places to head ashore, should you choose. As you paddle south, you will first pass the Roosevelt Island parking lot on your right (the tall buildings you see beyond the parking area are Crystal City) and then head under the pedestrian bridge that leads to the island. After this, you’ll paddle under the Theodore Roosevelt (Rt. 66) Bridge. As you reach the end of the island, start paddling to your left to head around the bottom of the island and back north.

This very southern tip of the island, after the Rt. 66 Bridge, does not have any easily accessible trail systems from the water. However, from this vantage you’ll get great views of the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, as well as the Arlington Memorial Bridge. Not bad for a photo op!

As you start heading north again, you will pass under the other side of the 66 Bridge and find an area where you can pull ashore on the island. In most locations, the hiking trail sticks close to the island’s edge, just in case you feel like being on terra firma. Off to your right, towards DC, you will see the Kennedy Center, The Watergate Hotel, and then the Georgetown waterfront and new waterfront park.

Still paddling north, you’ll pass a second area to pull ashore—which I prefer. It’s located along the rocks, closer to Georgetown. You can sit on the rocks here, relax, or have a picnic, and as a bonus this area provides easy access to the hiking trails. Accessing the Roosevelt Monument is easiest from the pedestrian bridge area and this rocky area.

When you’re ready, continue north and then back east across the river, over to the DC shore to return to Thompson’s Boat Center. You should find it soon after passing The Watergate. Once you’re ashore, you can congratulate yourself on a good paddling trip—and maybe find something to eat on the waterfront!


Distance: 3 mile loop.

Fido Friendly Features: Shaded, hiking available, gravel trails, water access.

Best time to go: Early morning to hit a sunrise and beat the crowds. Otherwise morning or evening to avoid the midday sun. Check the hours of the facility you are using.

Access: Parking available at Roosevelt Island Parking Lot, accessible only from the northbound lanes of the GW Parkway. Additional parking near the boat Centers; fees may apply.  

Note: Check out the American Canoe Association’s “rules of the road” for paddling, just to brush up on proper safety and procedure: After all, SUPs are classified as vessels by the U.S. Coast Guard:

Rated: 1 Paw. This water trail is very easy, no swift water, generally little wake, and you can choose your distance. You are along the ferry route however, so always remain aware of other boaters—and especially the ferry.