Watching Airplanes at Gravelly Point Park in Arlington, VA

Written by
Jason Barnette
Posted on
September 30th, 2014
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Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is a busy hub of aviation traffic, and you have one of the best views of the traffic of any airport in the country at Gravelly Point Park. The park sits directly at the end of the runway, and directly beneath the approaching path traffic. It’s a fun place for a picnic, a great place for a romantic date, and an exciting place for aviation enthusiasts.

Parks come in all shapes, sizes, and styles. Some parks sit atop the highest mountain peaks while other parks along the coast sit at sea level. Some parks feature miles of hiking and horseback riding trails, while other parks only features a few picnic tables. Gravelly Point Park is one of those small parks with only a single biking trail and a handful of picnic tables, but it has one thing not many others have: a stunning view of aircraft landing directly over your head.

Aviation parks like this one are not for everybody, but the day I visited it was quite busy with activity: families having picnics, a couple of joggers, a group of bicyclists, and a woman laying on a blanket near the trail. I drove here (and got lost once along the way) but as I noticed the group of bicyclists I wished I had ridden a bike over here. The wondrous Mount Vernon Trail is an 18-mile biking, hiking, and jogging trail that runs from the Key Bridge, along the Potomac River, to George Washington’s Mt. Vernon, the namesake of the trail. It’s certainly a fun way to get around the metropolitan area, and a great outdoor activity for solo travelers, couples, and families. It’s an 18-mile one-way journey, however it is only about a five mile round trip by bicycle from the National Mall to this park.

Because of the local residential neighborhoods in Washington and Arlington, the airplanes landing at Reagan fly along the route of the Potomac River almost until the final descent just a quarter of a mile from the runway. At what seems the last moment the planes will turn one last time, leaving the path of the river and aligning with the runway, which takes them directly over the park. It’s fun to watch the planes make these maneuvers, especially since they are so very close on final approach. The planes are only a couple of hundred feet above the ground at this point, so close you think you could reach out and touch them. Touching is not recommended.
A view of a plane landing over Gravelly Point Park, a public park with a view of planes landing and taking off at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, in Arlington, VA on Monday, August 18, 2014. Copyright 2014 Jason Barnette

With a few picnic tables, wide open grassy fields, and shady trees all around, this is a great place for a family picnic.

It’s noisy. If you think about it, these planes are enormous machines and they are so close to the ground at this point it’s almost like standing next to one. If you’re bringing children out here, or if you have sensitive hearing, I would recommend ear plugs or ear muffs to dampen the noise. Despite this, it’s a fun place to have a family picnic. There are a few tables scattered around the large grassy area of the park, which is actually quite peaceful during the few minutes between planes landing. During the peak air traffic times, planes land about every eight minutes.

I decided to find myself a comfortable patch of grass facing the runway and sit down for awhile. It was my last day of a four-day weekend trip to Washington, but it was also my birthday. I’m not entirely an aviation enthusiast, but I still enjoyed watching these planes land. If you are an aviation enthusiast, you just about can’t get a better view than right there at the edge of the park, facing the end of the runway. The planes didn’t lower their landing gear until the final course adjustment, so you actually had a chance to watch the gear locking into place almost over your head. The park is maybe ten feet higher than the runway, so you have a great view to watch the plane right until the tires touch the runway in a flurry of smoke. It’s fun, and along with the potential to ride here by bicycle it will definitely make my list of places to visit when I return to this city next year.

Getting to the Park

While Gravelly Point Park is a must-see area of the greater Washington, D.C. and Arlington area, it is also one of the most difficult to get to. You have a few options, but they all have their difficulties. Read through this carefully, because if you drive and use GPS navigation you’ll end up doing the same thing I did: getting lost at the airport.

1. Drive – I normally recommend against driving anywhere around the capital, but this is one time driving might just be better. Or at least easier. But it’s still tricky. Are you still with me? You can access the George Washington Parkway from either the 14th Street Bridge (coming across the water from Washington) or from the Airport Access Road (all points south). If you begin on the 14th Street Bridge, you’ll head south along the parkway and you will actually end up at the same interchange as the Airport Access Road. This is the tricky part. Once you exit the parkway (or if you chose Airport Access Road to start) you will cross a bridge over the parkway and find a traffic light intersection. Go straight, then exit to the right. If you miss this turn, you will end up in the airport traffic but don’t worry; although it moves slow, this traffic will eventually exit out onto northbound George Washington Parkway. If you made the turn, however, stay to the right through a second turn and you’ll find yourself on the parkway there. Once you’re on the parkway, look for a short exit lane on the right after the airport; this is the entrance to the park. Please don’t miss this turn, or you’ll have to do that all over again.

2. Bike or Hike – I prefer to explore the nation’s capital by bicycle, and you can reach the park this way, too. The trail runs right through Gravelly Point Park, which makes this an easy, fun, and recreational way to access this site. From inside Washington, you can ride your bicycle across the 14th Street Bridge, Arlington Memorial Bridge, or the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Bridge to access the trail. You can also access the trail using a Metro station: Arlington Cemetery, Reagan National Airport, and Braddock Road. However, be sure to read the Metro’s Guidelines to Bikes on Metrorail. The short version: you can take bikes on the Metro, but not during rush hour times.

3. Metro – If you don’t have or want to bike or drive, you can take the Metro to get there. Sort of. After all, this park is on the river so not exactly a bustling stop for the public transportation line. The only way you can reach the park by Metro is to take the Blue Line to Arlington Cemetery. Once there, walk back along the Boundary Channel Bridge, around the roundabout to the right, and then access the Mount Vernon Trail at a pedestrian crosswalk. It is about a 2 mile walk each way along the trail. If you look on a map you will notice the Crystal City and National Airport Metro Stations are closer to the park, however there is no way to walk there from these stations. The Crystal City station is across the George Washington Parkway with no crosswalks or pedestrian bridges. Although the National Airport station is on the same side of the parkway as the trail, there is no clear access to it without crossing roads on your own.

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