George Washington Bridge - Upper Level

Tuesday, December 27, 2011 |

It's back to the George Washington Bridge, the scene of two previous treks across the Hudson River, but this time it's a walk over the upper level of the bridge, all 212 feet up in the open air worth, rather than in the tunnel-like lower level. It was a rather breezy day after Christmas, around 40 degrees or so, thus a bit of a wind chill especially out in the open and, again, up in the air. Not an ideal day for a bridge walk, but not bad for early winter; and in the end we even took a drive over following the walk.

We--my wife and I had my son this time on the walk--started from the Fort Lee, New Jersey side, which has some parking pretty close to the bridge walkway that is on the south side of the bridge. We quickly passed by the guard who is posted at the beginning of the Jersey-side--not my ideal job location, and certainly not because it's in Jersey. We ran into the guard, or one of his compatriots, months ago on a detour after our walk out onto the lower level, when we checked out the upper level in preparation for this trek--back then he wasn't happy with our taking pictures of the bridge, telling us that no close-ups of the bridge were allowed and to focus our attention on the views off the side. So, we of course complied, and needed and received no attention from him this time. Fortunately, the security truck we saw newly parked next to his post as we came off the bridge was not for us.

So, how scary is it walking out on one of the higher and busiest bridges in the United States? I was relatively ok as long as I stayed on the car side of the walkway. The walkway was pretty wide as far as those things go, lots of room to let the bikers go by. Lots of room in case the dreaded rogue wind gust popped up in the direction of the railings. The railings were rather open, good for the views, I suppose, and were just high enough to offer some comfort. However, I still don't like my arms reaching down to touch the top of the railings. Have to work on that. Given that we've been out before on the lower level of this bridge, and were much higher up at the New River Gorge Bridge, I guess there's been some desensitizing--it just didn't feel all that high in the air. Nonetheless, the open railings, not all that high, and the undeniable height of the bridge, made this one the scariest bridge yet trekked, with an official scariness rating of 23--a 9 for height, 5 for length (about a mile long), 7 for width (the open and not all that high railings), and an add factor of 2 for the scary looking towers. That's the highest rating yet, exceeding the rating for the lower level of the GW bridge, and even the 876-foot-high New River Gorge Bridge.

So, we walked to the middle of the bridge, turned around and exited back off the Jersey side back to the car, and going to visit family on the New York side, I even drove over the bridge. The theory is that if you can walk over a bridge, then you can drive over it, too. So far, so good: no rejection of that hypothesis.

Bridge Day 2011: New River Gorge Bridge

Thursday, October 20, 2011 |

It's time to take bridge walking to new heights, to the third highest bridge in North America, the New River Gorge Bridge near Fayetteville, West Virginia. One day each year, on the 3rd Saturday in October, what they call "Bridge Day", the bridge is closed to vehicles and a festival takes place, with the main entertainment being the BASE jumpers, yes, parachutists who jump off a platform in the middle of the bridge into the gorge below. No sidewalks on this bridge, so this is the only day of the year to be able to walk on out. Going to Bridge Day 2011 was definitely a great experience. I was perfectly happy though to just walk out to the middle and watch the jumpers, with plenty of adrenalin for me coming from being 876 feet above the river below, over three times higher than say the George Washington Bridge or the Golden Gate Bridge. The views are quite breathtaking, and a great time of year for it with the leaves all around at full autumnal peak.

The New River Gorge Bridge is the 3rd highest in North America, topped only by Royal Gorge Bridge in Colorado and the recently-completed the O'Callaghan-Tillman Bridge near the Hoover Dam between Arizona and Nevada. The New River Gorge Bridge was completed in 1977, and the festival and BASE jumping started shortly thereafter. Fortunately, the bridge is mercifully short, at just over half a mile long. From the surface it looks just like a normal road, like a flat overpass for a four lane highway (2 lanes in each direction), but the great views off the side immediately remove any thoughts of being on a glorified overpass.

Why anyone would want to parachute off a perfectly good bridge is foreign to me, and a little disconcerting to see at first. But the 400 or so jumpers lined up for the opportunity. Unfortunately, one jumper was seriously injured when his chute did not fully deploy in time. But the jumping went on. Looking over the railing, we could see the jumpers trying to land in a small circle way below, just on the banks of the river, which if successful would net them $100. Most seemed to land in the drink, in the New River, where boats quickly pulled them out. There were also repellers going down from the bridge on long ropes.

Despite how disconcerted I expected to feel at such a height, I was pleasantly surprised on Bridge Day. The sides of the bridge were about chest level, just enough protection from a rogue wind gust, and the sides were almost completely solid. The bridge height also came on somewhat gradually, as the gorge widened out below, allowing some time for acclimation. Nonetheless, there were those jumpers who required renewed acclimation on my part.

We then took a bus down some little country roads to the bottom of the gorge, where we could see the bridge in all its glory, with the parachutists floating down. We also walked right through the area where the BASE jumpers were packing their parachutes for another jump, and we took the bus back up with those happy people.

I've been rating these bridge treks for scariness on a 1-10 scale for height, width, and length. But how to rate a bridge on height that blows my scale almost to the stratosphere, since every 20 to 25 feet has been worth about a point, with the idea being the highest bridges I could imagine going over, at about 250 feet, would be around a 10. But at some point, the added height starts to lose its power: can you really tell the difference between the 878 feet-high New River Bridge and a bridge that is say 50 feet lower? So, we'll arbitrarily give the New River Bridge a scariness rating of 15 for height, and combine that with a 3 rating for length, and a 3 for width (thanks to the high railings and solidity). That's a 21 total, certainly the scariest we've experienced yet. I'm hoping that future bridges will now seem like they are barely above the water below.

Taft Bridge

Sunday, September 18, 2011 |

Today was a great, early autumn-like day to take a walk across the Taft Bridge in Washington, DC. A true urban bridge, the Taft Bridge carries Connecticut Avenue over Rock Creek Park, traversing the Rock Creek gorge with the park (and yes, there is a creek) way below. The bridge was completed in 1907, and was originally called just the Connecticut Avenue Bridge. But William Howard Taft, as an ex-President and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, apparently walked over the bridge often, and it was named after him in 1931, the year after he died. (A bridge walker marvels about the presidential election of 1912, which pitted Taft against Theodore Roosevelt--namesake of the nearby bridge across the Potomac River--and the winning Woodrow Wilson--namesake of the area Beltway bridge over the Potomac.)

The Taft Bridge is a concrete arch bridge and is about one-quarter mile long. It is reportedly about 130 feet above the park below, quite believable given how small things looked down there. There is a great description of the history of the bridge from the Streets of Washington web site (, describing, among other things, how the bridge was originally called the "Million Dollar Bridge" because of its price tag (though it was actually 15% below that amount). There are also the great lion sculptures at each end of the bridge (2 on each side), which were replaced recently with replicas.

Walking over the bridge was surprisingly interesting, as the gorge opens up below and you can see quite a ways into the distance. Certainly worth the trip if you happen to be, say, at the nearby National Zoo. We walked on both sides of the bridge. You can see the Washington Cathedral in the distance off one side, and the nearly Duke Ellington Bridge off the other side. The railings are fairly open, and about upper-arm high (on me), thus allowing for the nice views or not providing a lot of protection, depending on your perspective. As for scariness rating, I'd give it a 12, with a 2 (out of 10) for length, 6 for height, and 4 for width (somewhat high, though open railings). Yes, height counts.

Case Memorial Bridge

Sunday, August 14, 2011 |

An 80 degree August day in Washington, DC, with just a good bit of humidity, is a great day to do a bridge trek. Today we went to the Francis Case Memorial Bridge, one of the lesser bridges in DC (not even earning a Wikipedia entry), but an important commuter artery nonetheless. The Case Bridge crosses Washington Channel, a tributary of the Potomac, and connects East Potomac Park in DC with the waterfront area of Southwest Washington. The Case Bridge carries I-395 and also the Southwest Freeway at that point, and is just northeast of the 14th Street Bridge. The Case Bridge is short, maybe 0.2 miles across, and certainly not very high. It can be accessed on foot from East Potomac Park (look for the tennis courts and the big white tent). East Potomac Park is a great area for biking and sightseeing and is very close to the Tidal Basin and the cherry trees, as well as the Jefferson Memorial. But we've got some bridge walking to do.

First a little history is in order. Francis Case was a senator from South Dakota, Chairman of the Senate's District Committee, who died in office in 1962. He championed DC voting rights and was an important player in the passage of the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution that gave DC residents the right to vote for President. He was also instrumental, apparently, in keeping the Teddy Roosevelt Bridge that crosses the Potomac River from going right over the middle of Roosevelt Island, and instead, in a compromise, rerouting the bridge to only the very southern edge of the island. (We've been there. Teddy Roosevelt Bridge Trek.)

Well, the Washington Post reported that the Teddy Roosevelt Bridge, completed in 1964, was already named for the President, so they named the newly built bridge over the Washington Channel for Francis Case instead.

The views from the bridge are surprisingly nice. There are lots of boats at a marina on the waterfront side of the channel right below. The Southwest Freeway is a very busy thoroughfare, thus it is certainly not a peaceful walk. I'd say that crossing the Case Bridge by foot would be an excellent addition to a family outing on East Potomac Park. A nice high railing (chin high for me) protects the walkers, and the walkway is good and wide. It earns a low scariness rating, with 1 for length, 2.5 for height, and (measuring the walkway and railings) a 3 for width, making for a 6.5 total scariness rating, one of our lowest.

George Washington Bridge, lower deck (take 2)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011 |

It's back to the George Washington Bridge for our second trek across the lower deck. On one Sunday morning every June, the lower deck of the bridge closes for a bike/run/walk as part of a fundraising effort for the American Cancer Society, with hundreds of people participating. We previously reported on last year's walk, and we couldn't pass up the opportunity to participate one more time.

The George Washington Bridge, of course, spans the Hudson River between New Jersey and New York. It is about a mile long and is reportedly one of the busiest suspension bridges in the world. The walk started from Fort Lee on the Jersey side, went across the bridge and then turned right around and returned to NJ, not getting off the bridge in New York. Midway across the bridge are signs saying you are now entering NY or NJ. Unlike last year, when it was quite a shock getting out onto the bridge at 190 feet or so above the water, with no gradual build up whatsoever, this year I was at least prepared. The lower deck of the bridge certainly lacks openness, since the roadway above makes for a bit of a tunnel effect. But there was no mistaking that openness off the side with a great view of downtown New York. It is clearly quite high above the water. Unlike last year, I did make a tentative check of the side railing and walked near the side for a while. Otherwise, though, I was the person who stayed in the exact center of the roadway.

You could hear the cars driving on the top level, just above us, and you could actually feel the bridge moving, but really only when you weren't moving. Some balance thing, I assume, with the clear, desired effect of encouraging you to keep moving.

For scariness rating (height/length/width, like the old mathematical formula for volume), the lower level of the George Washington Bridge gets an 8 for height, 5 for length, and 5 for width (solid, though open and not high side supports), for a total score of 18, the highest score we've given a bridge on our treks of the past year.

We do have thoughts of graduating to the top level of the George Washington Bridge, where a pedestrian/bike path hugs the side of the bridge. We did at least check it out this year, going just a little way out. The photo at the top of this post shows the entrance to the walkway to the upper level path. It looks doable, maybe, but the scariness rating will clearly go up.

Longfellow Bridge

Sunday, May 15, 2011 |

It was a great Sunday morning in May for a walk over the Longfellow Bridge, which traverses the Charles River and connects Cambridge with Boston. Now, this is a bridge with character and great views, certainly worth the effort of visiting. If the nearby Harvard Bridge (see earlier post) is for the students, then the Longfellow Bridge is for the more experienced adults among us. The stone and rusty iron bridge has four distinctive stone turrets built on it, giving the bridge the nickname of the "Salt and Pepper Shaker Bridge." The bridge not only carries vehicles (of course) and pedestrians/bikers, but also the red line of the Boston subway system. The group walkBoston couldn't have summed up the experience of trekking across the Longfellow Bridge more accurately: "As a pedestrian on this bridge, you enjoy a sensory feast. Smell the fishy, pungent river. Feel the vibrations of a Red Line train as it rumbles between Boston and Cambridge. Look at one of the best views of the Boston skyline."

The bridge was completed in 1906 and apparently has had little reconstruction work until now. In 2008, after a support beam was found in need of immediate repair, the red line trains were limited to very slow speeds, two of the four traffic lanes were closed, and one of the two sidewalks was closed. Although the immediate repair was made and those restrictions lifted, the bridge is now undergoing extensive rehabilitation. And it is getting a face lift as well, as the bridge is scheduled to have its rust removed and get its first paint job since 1953.

The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who lived during the 19th century, spent the last chunk of his life in Boston and apparently often walked across the prior bridge located at the same location. He wrote a poem about the previous bridge on that site entitled, simply, "The Bridge." And his poem about Paul Revere's ride ("Listen my children and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere....") is actually painted on a narrow strip on the sidewalk of the Longfellow Bridge.

I don't think a trip to Boston is complete without a trek across the Longfellow. And not a scary bridge walk really, assuming you forget about the disrepair of the structure. I give it a 2 for height, 2 for length at 0.4 miles, and 4 for width (given its wide sidewalks and solid, low chest high railings, though rust ridden), thus a total of 8.

Harvard Bridge

Friday, May 13, 2011 |

A family event in early May in Boston presented a great opportunity to do some Charles River bridge treks. First, it's a Friday afternoon stroll over the Harvard Bridge, often called the Mass Ave Bridge because it carries, of course, Massachusetts Avenue. The bridge, which connects Cambridge and Boston, was built in 1891, but reconstructed in the 1980s to the point of now looking completely different (and apparently now being structurally sound). It is not named after the University, but for Reverend John Harvard, after whom Harvard University is named. There is a college right next to the bridge in Cambridge, but instead of being Harvard, it is MIT, which moved to its current location after the bridge was originally built and named.

The MIT students have clearly claimed the bridge as their own. The bridge length is famously measured in "smoots," with painted markers on the sidewalk every 10 smoot-lengths, thanks to the efforts of a fraternity in 1958. As the story goes, and this story was confirmed to my satisfaction by a relative who graduated from there, the frat took one of its pledges, Oliver Smoot, and rolled him head over heels across the bridge, keeping measure of how many body lengths they had covered. The bridge is marked at 364.4 smoots long, plus or minus one ear, as measured by those mathematically-oriented students who apparently had an appreciation for potential measurement error. Using standard measurements, the bridge is about 0.4 miles long.

School was still in session , and the bridge was very popular with students. Lots of pedestrians and, to a lesser extent, bikes. Nice breezes, nice views out in the middle of the Charles. Certainly worth the trek. I will note that the bridge was very, very low -- I'm estimating about 15 to 20 feet above the water (based on my fine sense and a close assessment of photos showing people walking across where I can see how many body lengths it is down to the water). The railings were just a little above waist level, not very reassuring but we'll cut them a break with the water that close to the roadway. In a great movie scene, you may remember that the Sundance Kid (played by Robert Redford) refused to take a huge leap off a cliff into a river below in order to escape capture because, he finally said, he couldn't swim, to which Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) told him "Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill you." Well, Butch would have had to worry about swimming off the Harvard Bridge, given that the fall would be akin to a competitive high dive.

We'll give the bridge a scariness rating of 9, with a 2 for length, 1 for height, and a 6 for the low, open railings, though helped with wide sidewalks.

Manhattan Bridge

Sunday, February 27, 2011 |

On this night of the Oscars, we give the award for loudest bridge to... the Manhattan Bridge, which crosses the East River between northern Brooklyn and Manhattan's Chinatown. The bridge lies just north of the more well-known Brooklyn Bridge (subject of a bridge trek last year). The Manhattan Bridge does yeoman's work because it makes room not only for motor vehicles, but also pedestrians with a pedestrian walkway, bikes with a separate bicycle path, and subway tracks (hence the award). Despite a little cold weather in late February (definite cold weather bridge trekking garb required), it was time to take a walk across the Manhattan Bridge, and it didn't disappoint. It is certainly worth the time.

The pedestrian walkway lies on the south edge of the bridge, a little below the main car level, and the subway tracks are right next to the pedestrian walkway. How exactly a subway line goes over a river and not under it is beyond the scope of this discussion, but without a doubt a foot trek over the bridge has a definite urban feel because of those trains going by constantly. I'm pretty sure there was no subway station, however.

As a distraction from the loudness, the bridge provides great views down the East River. Through the protective fence along the edge of the walkway, we could easily see the majestic Brooklyn Bridge and also lower Manhattan, and we could make out the Statue of Liberty in the Harbor. The bridge also provides great views of the area of Brooklyn underneath the bridge, which apparently is known as DUMBO ("Down Underneath the Manhattan Bridge Overpass"). And the area underneath the bridge in Manhattan has a great collection of graffiti art on the buildings.

I will say that there was something "non-bridgeness" about the trek, because there was no open view across the other side. It was more of a feeling of walking in between a (very steep) river bank and a subway line--and I kind of associate subway lines with land. The openness of many bridges just wasn't there. But, yes, I knew it was a bridge, and I knew we were up pretty high.

The pedestrian walkway for the bridge is very utilitarian, getting the job done without much glitz. The walkways are pretty wide, 12 feet or so most of the way, and the fencing put up along the side clearly reduces the views at the relieving cost of security. There were two small cutouts for scenic observation areas, though the view was equally fine just about anywhere. It was our longest bridge trek thus far, at about 1.2 miles. The bridge is listed as having a clearance above the water of about 135 feet, and the walkways were on the lowest part of the bridge.

It is important to know the history of a bridge before trekking across it. This one was completed in 1912, so almost 30 years after the Brooklyn Bridge. The bridge was designed by Leon Moisseiff, who has the dubious fame as being the designer of the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge; that's the one that earned the nickname of Galloping Gertie and fell apart in a windstorm in 1940. That doesn't instill confidence, but the Manhattan Bridge has stood the test of time. We could feel a little movement, as I suppose we should on a suspension bridge, but nothing near galloping. This bridge gets a scariness rating of 14, with a 6 (out of a possible 10) for length, a 5 for height, and a mere 3 for width because of the lack of openness and the reassuring fencing.

Key Bridge, Washington DC (north walkway)

Monday, January 17, 2011 |

It's back to Key Bridge in Washington, which we walked across back in June, but this time we're going over the north-side pedestrian path. Have you ever gone over a bridge one way, and then coming back have it seem like a totally different experience, with different views, etc? Well, Key Bridge was like that for me, with views up the Potomac River and into Georgetown this time rather than down river to the monuments in DC. But I think there was more to it than that.

The last time I walked across, it was in June, a nice early summer day for Washington DC, about 90 degrees but with low humidity. Lots of people out using the pedestrian path. This time it was about 40 degrees out and, following a whole lot of days with freezing temperatures, the river below had a nontrivial layer of ice on it. There was no water movement on the surface, although it was clearly not "frozen over." I don't know if it's true or not, but I've heard it said that the movement of water below a bridge causes the brain of somebody looking down to have to keep re-equilibrating ever-so-slightly to keep balance, and causes some people dizziness or distress. I will say that looking down at ice seemed a lot easier for me than looking down at moving water. So, just like a walk down through the same nature trail must be a different experience every time, certainly for those who are into that sort of thing, so can be a walk across a bridge.

Proof that it was a layer of ice down there, a boat that I believe is called an "air boat" went up and down the river, under the bridge, while we were there (see photo above right). It kind of skimmed along the surface and was propelled, it would appear, by a powerful looking fan. Could be fun. Probably some serious wind chill, though.

So, a third of a mile walk across the river, then a third of a mile back. Not too long fortunately, given the cold. Maybe about 80 feet in the air. Nice wide sidewalks and high, though open, railings. I'll give it a lower scariness rating than going the other way, a 9 in total, because of the ice. So I guess it gets a rating of 3.5 for height, 1.5 for length, and 5 for width (those open railings), and a (seasonal) adjustment factor of -1 for the winter ice. I may have to check this side of the bridge out again after the thaw. But there will be more people out, and other things will probably be different, too. Never the same experience.

For more information on the bridge itself, see the previous post.