Wonderful Woodland Walk on the Grounds of the National Cathedral

Terri Carr

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Entrance to Olmsted Woods & Pilgrim Way (photo by author)

The pandemic has certainly turned a lot of people on to the idea of getting outside in nature. But some of us still spend way to much time tapping our devices, possibly wrapped in a blanket.

If you’d like to learn about local outdoor trails and paths that don’t require an hour’s drive and have virtually no risk of getting lost in the wilderness, read on below and keep an eye out for upcoming articles about inspring places to enjoy the great outdoors without going too far from your couch.

Olmsted Woods and Bishop’s Garden

Grounds of the National Cathedral, Washington, DC

While the National Cathedral grounds, especially the Bishop’s Garden, receive a steady stream of visitors, the surrounding Olmsted Woods is less advertised. It’s a free, condensed patch of ancient woods.

According to the All Hallows Guild which tends the cathedral grounds, Olmsted Woods is the last remaining patch of a once large oak and beech forest.

The woods are named for Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., one of the primary designers of the Cathedral Close in the early 1900’s. Olmsted noted the symbolism of an ascending path through the woods towards the cathedral. As one rises above the surrounding city, the cares of day to day life fall away.

My first encounter with Olmsted Woods was several years ago in warm weather when the trees were full of leaves. I was astonished to stumble upon this serene wooded walk right off Garfield Street near Massachusetts Avenue.

A short distance in from Garfield Street, visitors will see an information board at the start of Pilgrim Way. The path curves and winds downward, then up towards the cathedral and an enormous statue of George Washington on horseback.

Olmsted Woods covers about 5 acres of the 57 acres surrounding the National Cathedral. When I re-visited on a cold winter’s day, the bare trees made is easy to take in the whole woods.

Forget All Your Cares

Woodley Park in NW DC isn’t exactly Manhattan. But the traffic zipping between Wisconsin and Connecticut Avenue is a consistent source of noise and pollution.

But inside Olmsted Woods when the trees are in bloom, this little swatch of forest is a soothing respite from the cares of the world. The winding stone paths and tree canopy make this small patch of nature seem more sprawling than it actually is. For an hour or two, you can happily disconnect from all that is modern and manmade.

Strolling along, you’ll find an amphitheater built into the hillside facing a stone stage, a contemplative circle and countless shrubs and wildflowers. Unlike some parks, you won’t find any brightly painted signs or adornments throughout the woods or gardens. Benches and archways are made of bare wood or stone as if the groundskeepers are trying to keep the site as natural as possible.

The woods are freely accessible to visitors but you won’t encounter more than a handful of walkers in the woods. In the Bishop’s Garden and around the cathedral, you’ll find more activity and, of course, photography sessions as people use the graceful garden archways and gazebo as a backdrop.

In non-corona times, volunteers meet at 9:00 a.m. every Wednesday from April to November to maintain the grounds.

Entrance Parking

I entered from the parking lot at the intersection of Garfield Rd and Pilgrim Way. You can’t drive into the lot from Garfield. Instead, turn right onto Pilgrim Rd (Way) from Wisconsin Avenue, follow it until you come to the parking lot.

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