Chain Bridge

Sunday, March 18, 2012 |

Yesterday was a beautiful March Saturday in Washington, DC, perfect for a walk across a bridge, and we chose the Chain Bridge. This quarter-mile bridge crosses the Potomac River, connecting the far north parts of Arlington,Virginia with Washington, DC. It was the site of the very first bridge crossing the Potomac between DC and Virginia, a wooden covered bridge built around 1800. Time and floods have required several replacements over the years, including three chain suspension bridges in the first half of the 1800s from which the current one gets its name, and others built on stone piers in the mid 1800s that are still used for the current bridge, which was completed in 1939. Just north is Little Falls and, further up, Great Falls, areas with rapids popular with kayakers. The river remains rather rocky at Chain Bridge, and it is only recommended for small craft with knowledge of the narrow and shallow channel.

We could park on the DC side of the bridge, where there were a small number of parking spots on the Clara Barton Parkway. The ground slopes steeply down to the river. Some intrepid people trekked down there and were either fishing or just hanging out on the rocks. The area is relatively natural; for example, we could see a number of turtles on this 65 degree day sunning on the rocks and horizontal branches below. There are also steps down to the C&O Canal towpath, which is next to the Potomac River on the DC side of the bridge.

The views from the bridge were of the natural scenic variety--no national monuments here. Lots of rocks below, lots of nature. The sidewalk on the bridge is moderately wide, with a side railing at about neck level for me, very safe for walking you'll be glad to know. The ground slopes quickly downward, so while the bridge is level, what starts out as just a few feet above the ground eventually becomes a bit of distance to the water below--I've seen it written that the bridge is 50 feet above the river.

Of course, as with most pedestrian bridges on roadways, the cars are somewhat distracting. It is an urban bridge, so speeds aren't all that high, but nonetheless the cars are but a short railing away from the sidewalk. Nonetheless, the bridge is a nice addition our series of DC bridge walks, given the natural beauty of the area below. If you like that sort of thing, you should definitely head a little further north to the Falls, on either the DC or Virginia sides, where there are parks to hike and see the big falls and kayakers navigating them.

As for the scariness of Chain Bridge, the cars seemed scarier than anything, in some cases speeding across the bridge, though the short railing provided needed protection. The steep drop-off of the bridge as it gets to the river does provide some excitement and certainly a nice view of the area. The bridge is very short, though, and the river part shorter yet. We'll give the bridge a scariness rating of 7, with a 1.5 for length, 2.5 for height, and 3 for width (the main issue being not enough distance from the cars, not our usual issue). That makes it one of the calmer walks we've undertaken. Following the previous walk over the George Washington Bridge, this was quite mellow.