The National Park Service did not clear snow the Mount Vernon Trail after the blizzard, leaving it one of the most prominent uncleared trails in our region’s network. Better late than never, the agency says it might clear snow off the trail in the future.

The Mount Vernon Trail south of Four Mile Run on Friday, January 29. Photo by the author.

Snowzilla temporarily brought the region to a standstill with more than two feet of snow. The storm ended Saturday night and the digging out began in earnest that Sunday. Roads gradually became clear and Metro reopened with severely limited service on Monday, January 25.

Trails gradually became usable as well. Montgomery County plowed the Capital Crescent Trail on the Sunday after the storm, and Arlington cleared the Custis Trail and the District the Metropolitan Branch Trail that Monday.

By Friday, Alexandria had cleared the Potomac Yard Trail.

The Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) compiled a good list of which trails and bike lanes were cleared of snow and which were not after Snowzilla.

The Mount Vernon Trail was one of the trails left untouched. While not alone in this distinction, it stands out due to how important it is: it connects the District and the Ballston-Rosslyn corridor to Crystal City, Ronald Reagan Washington National airport, Potomac Yard, Old Town Alexandria, and eastern Fairfax County.

Why isn’t the Mount Vernon Trail cleared?

"It’s not the policy to clear snow from any of the trails in the National Capital Region,” says Aaron LaRocca, chief of staff for the National Park Service’s George Washington Memorial Parkway division, which includes the Mount Vernon Trail. A four-mile stretch of the Capital Crescent Trail that the park service’s Chesapeake & Ohio Canal division clears of snow is the one exception to this policy, he adds.

As for why this is NPS policy, he simply says: “It just hasn’t been something we’ve come up against in the past.”

LaRocca does point to the fact that the Mount Vernon Trail has a lot of curves and hills, something that makes clearing it of snow more challenging than the Capital Crescent Trail, which is built on a former railroad bed.

Previous Park Service comments on clearing snow from the Mount Vernon Trail have emphasised the multi-use aspects of the trail, such as for cross-country skiers and snowshoers in the winter.

Indeed, cross-country ski tracks were visible in the flat, open areas next to the trail between Four Mile Run and Old Town during a run on January 29. None were on the paved trail itself.

Cyclists use the trail in winter

Arlington County data shows 456 cyclists using the Mount Vernon Trail at its airport south counter just north of the junction with Four Mile Run on January 20, two days before Snowzilla hit. The high temperature that day was 30 degrees farenheit, according to the county.

Data from Arlington County.

The county’s 14th Street Bridge counter recorded 526 cyclists the same day, with some likely heading north on the Mount Vernon Trail or exiting to Crystal City or National airport before the airport south counter. 

The number of cyclists passing the airport south mark fell to zero during and immediately after Snowzilla. The number of cyclists remained low, rising to just three by the Friday after the storm, despite temperatures that ranged from 41 degrees to 51 degrees — at least 10 degrees warmer than the prior week — during the week after Snowzilla, the data shows.

The District cleared snow off the 14th Street Bridge pedestrian path on January 26.

The uncleared snow on the Mount Vernon Trail is the most likely explanation for the lack of cyclists on the trail during what was otherwise a nicer week to ride than the one before.

NPS is considering clearing snow

"We understand that we manage major commuter routes within the boundaries of the National Park, which is both a challenge and an opportunity,” says LaRocca, acknowledging the year-round usage of Mount Vernon Trail by bike commuters and other users.

The NPS is in the process of engaging with stakeholders and jurisdictions on “creative ways” to manage trail operations, including snow removal, he says. This includes meeting with WABA and attending a meeting of the Arlington Bicycle Advisory Committee.

Arlington County would be happy to meet and share best practices on trail plowing with NPS, a spokeswoman says. Nearly five-miles of the Mount Vernon Trail traverse the Potomac riverfront in the county.

The final plan, whatever that may be, will take a “holistic” approach to managing all of the NPS trails in the National Capital Region, says LaRocca. However, he was unable to commit to a timeline for when snow may be cleared from the Mount Vernon Trail or other federally-managed trails in the region.

That plan, ideally with a snow removal policy, will be welcome news to the commuters, joggers, walkers and tourists who use the Mount Vernon Trail throughout the year.

Edward Russell is an air transport reporter by day with a passion for all things transportation. He is a resident of Eckington and tweets frequently about planes, trains and bikes.