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The National Park Service refers to the national parkland that extends from the Capitol to the Potomac River, encompassing the memorials, Washington Monument, National Mall, and West and East Potomac parks as the National Mall and Memorial Parks. The National Mall and Memorial Parks has its own telephone number, tel. 202/485-9880, and website, www.nps.gov/nama.

The National Mall

As part of his vision for Washington, Pierre L'Enfant conceived of the National Mall as a bustling ceremonial avenue of embassies and other distinguished buildings. Today's 2-mile, 700-acre stretch of land extending westward from the base of the Capitol to the Potomac River, just behind the Lincoln Memorial, fulfills that dream to some extent. Ten Smithsonian buildings, plus the National Gallery of Art and its Sculpture Garden, and a stray government building (Department of Agriculture), stake out the Mall's northern border along Constitution Avenue and southern border along Independence Avenue. More than 2,000 American elm trees shade the pebbled walkways paralleling Jefferson and Madison drives. In a single year, more than 25 million tourists and locals crisscross the Mall as they visit the Smithsonian museums, hustle to work, pursue exercise, participate in whatever festival, event, or demonstration is taking place on the Mall that day, or simply go for a stroll, just as L'Enfant envisioned, perhaps.

What L'Enfant did not foresee was the toll that all of this activity might take on this piece of parkland. In recent years, visitors to the Mall often have been dismayed to see an expanse of browned, rather than green grass, crumbling walkways, and an overall worn appearance. The National Park Service maintains the land but struggles to keep up with needed repairs and preservation work, mostly due to lack of sufficient funds, despite monies from Congress and from the Trust for the National Mall, www.nationalmall.org, the Park Service's official fundraising partner. A third organization called the National Coalition to Save Our Mall (www.savethemall.org), made up of professional and civic groups as well as assorted concerned artists, historians, and residents, advocates for a public voice in Mall enhancement decisions, and for more support from Congress. These organizations don't necessarily agree on their visions for the Mall.

The Mall Gets a Makeover -- The beauteous National Mall is showing its age. But help is on the way! You may notice construction areas and fencing in different locations around the Mall, in some cases obstructing the way to a landmark you'd hoped to visit. Just know it's all for a good cause: Improvements underway or completed by the time you visit in 2012 are updated signage and maps on the National Mall; a new, permanent screening facility to replace the makeshift temporary structure at the Washington Monument (lots of arguments about this one, with some wanting the center to go underground); and permanent, more attractive security barriers put in place at the Lincoln Memorial and repairs made to the memorial's Reflecting Pool and walkways. One other upgrade you may be interested in: The Mall is wired for free Wi-Fi service, so app-up and bring your smartphone!

Albert Einstein Memorial, 22nd Street and Constitution Avenue NW

In a grove of holly and elm trees at the southwest corner of the National Academy of Science grounds, you'll find this dear memorial displaying the slouching figure of brilliant scientist, great thinker, and peace activist Albert Einstein. He sits slightly bent and sideways, upon a granite bench, leaning on one hand and holding in the other a bronze sheet of paper on which are written mathematical equations for which he is famous. At his feet is a celestial map. His gaze looks worn and warm. The statue measures 12 feet in height and weighs 4 tons, yet children cannot resist crawling upon it and leaning up against this man.

The Major Memorials

The National Mall and Memorial Parks' major memorials honor esteemed presidents, war veterans, founding fathers, and, as of Aug. 28, 2011, a civil rights leader.

All of these memorials are located in picturesque West Potomac Park, which lies at the western end of the Mall, where it borders the Potomac River and encircles the Tidal Basin. Unfortunately, none of the memorials lies directly on a Metro line, so you can expect a bit of a walk from the specified station.

The easiest thing to do, if you're up to it, is to walk from one landmark to the next. I've organized just such a tour, detailed below. Or, you can go by Tourmobile, which continually picks up and discharges passengers at each of these sites throughout the day and allows you to purchase a ticket in advance or as you board, whichever works for you. Still another alternative is to bike the sites. Every memorial site has a bike rack.

Touring the Memorials on Foot

I've designed -- and tested -- the following walking tour of the memorials, ordering the stops in a sequence that I believe makes most sense in terms of logistics and geography. The beauty of it is that you can easily tinker with this tour to suit your own purposes. The Washington Monument is the only site that has limited hours and requires a ticket; otherwise, the memorials are open 24 hours to the public, which means that you can follow this tour at 5am or 5pm, at 2 in the morning or 2 in the afternoon. Some believe the best time to visit the memorials is at night, when they're illuminated in all their imposing white-stone glory and the crowds have thinned. Use common sense, though. The memorials may be lit up, but not necessarily the lanes and pathways leading to them.

Before you start the tour, here's what you need to know:

  • Dress for the weather: light clothing, shades, and sunscreen in summer; a hat, gloves, and warm jacket in winter. The Washington Monument and the memorials are mostly set in wide-open spaces, with little to no protection from the elements.
  • The National Park Service manages all of these properties and maintains information about each of them, including upcoming events, at www.nps.gov/nama. Scroll down the page to click on the names of sites.
  • Park rangers are on hand from 9:30am to 11:30pm year-round, except at the Washington Monument, which is open 9am to 5pm Labor Day to Memorial Day, and 9am to 10pm Memorial Day to Labor Day.
  • Restrooms are located inside the ranger lodge/ticket kiosk at the bottom of the hill from the Washington Monument; in the basements of the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials; at the back of the information and gift shop of the FDR Memorial; in a building beyond the National World War II Memorial information lodge; and at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial. Visitors to the George Mason Memorial use the restrooms at the Jefferson Memorial; visitors to the Korean War Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial use the restrooms at the Lincoln Memorial.
  • Eat well before you head off on the tour. The National Park Service prohibits food and drink inside all of the memorials and at the Washington Monument. It allows refreshment kiosks and vendors, but only at a distance. Refreshment and souvenir kiosks are located across 15th Street from the Washington Monument's ticket booth; on Daniel Chester French Drive between the Lincoln Memorial and the Korean War Memorial; on Henry Bacon Drive across the street from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, with another on the other side of the memorial; and in front of the Jefferson Memorial. These are rudimentary services, selling beverages, sandwiches, ice cream, and the like -- just enough to refresh you if you're feeling faint.
  • The tour will take about 3 to 4 hours and cover 3 to 4 miles.
  • Best times to take the tour: weekdays, evenings, and off season (mid-fall through winter) to avoid crowds, early or late in summer to avoid the heat.

This tour starts at the Washington Monument on 15th Street NW and ends at the National World War II Memorial on 17th Street NW.

Starting out: Take the Metro to Metro Center (13th and G sts. exit) and walk west 2 blocks to 15th Street NW. Have breakfast, lunch, or dinner at the Old Ebbitt Grill, which opens early and stays open late. Then walk about 1/2 mile to the Washington Monument.

Washington Monument

Return to 15th Street and head up the hill, crossing Independence Avenue SW and following the signs for the Jefferson Memorial. You'll pass the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on your left, the Tidal Basin and paddle boats on your right. This will be your single longest walk on the tour -- about a mile or less. Go around the bend to find the:

Jefferson Memorial

Follow the memorial's front path back out to East Basin Drive, turn right, and go around the bend to the:

George Mason Memorial

Recross East Basin Drive to find the opening that leads to the Tidal Basin pathway. Follow the path about 5 minutes, enjoy the spectacular view of the Tidal Basin and the capital's skyline, until you see the sign for the FDR Memorial. You'll be entering the memorial the back way, but go ahead and follow the lane and then walk all the way through to the entrance of the:

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

Now return to the Tidal Basin path and follow it north to reach the capital's newest memorial.

Washington, D.C. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial 

Walk to the traffic light and cross Independence Avenue. Turn right and walk a short distance to the clearing that leads you back to the D.C. War Memorial, which President Herbert Hoover dedicated in 1931. Continue to the walkway behind the memorial and turn left to follow the main lane toward the Lincoln Memorial. But first, you'll come upon the:

Korean War Veterans Memorial

Next, tour the:

Lincoln Memorial

Walk from the Lincoln Memorial toward the Reflecting Pool, but turn left and proceed toward the information kiosk, then right, to follow the path that leads to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. You pass first a life-size sculpture of three Vietnam soldiers by Frederick Hart. Near the statue, a flag flies from a 60-foot staff. Another sculpture, the Vietnam Veterans Women's Memorial, depicts three servicewomen tending a wounded soldier. Continue until you reach the:

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Now, turn back toward the Reflecting Pool and follow the shaded lane about half a mile east, making sure to walk as far as 17th Street, to visit the:

National World War II Memorial

Reward yourself. From here, you should head east on Constitution Ave. to 15th St., and follow 15th St. back to the Penn Quarter and its many restaurants.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.