Walking to DCA, and driving away

[Part of an occasional series of FAQs about traveling to Washington, D.C. For more, please click on the “dc-faqs” tag above. Updated July 2019]

For those arriving/departing DCA on beautiful days like today, you might be interested in walking or cycling (perhaps using the marvelous Capital Bikeshare system) to DCA. It’s not just possible, it’s really pretty easy and fairly well signed. Indeed, it may be America’s most pedestrian friendly major airport. Note that there are multiple approaches, depending on where you’re coming from and where you’re going.

It takes about 20 minutes to walk to the airport from the nearest points of interest, which are Crystal City or Gravelly Point.

Where you’re going:
Concourse A is at the south end, Concourse C is at the north end, and B is closer to the north. Higher gate numbers are north.

As of this writing, American Airlines is at the north end (C/B), Delta, JetBlue, Alaska, and United in B, and everyone else in A.

Where you’re coming from:
1. From northern Crystal City, via the Mount Vernon Trail access at the Water Park/18th St. S., this map shows two route options:

DCA walk/bike access route

The yellow route is the signed route from the Mount Vernon Trail, without any grade crossings. It’s reasonably direct for cyclists approaching from the south, but for pedestrians from the north it adds almost 1/2 mile (and even more for people headed to the south pier or Terminal A).

The red route is much more direct for those coming from Crystal City (to the north) but requires jaywalking across a three high-speed roads, each one 1-2 lanes and with okay sight lines. Use extreme caution.

2. From southern Crystal City, or for the south end of the airport (Terminal A, south parking garage & car rentals), start at the sand volleyball courts and walk along the northbound exit ramp, over the Airport Access Road bridge, and follow the signs around the offices to the terminal.

There is a Capital Bikeshare kiosk next to the sand volleyball courts.

3. From points north along the Mount Vernon Trail, like Rosslyn, D.C., and Gravelly Point, you can also exit the Mount Vernon Trail into the airport employee parking lot at the airport’s north end. (There are usually US Airways Express regional jets parked behind the fence here, right next to the trail.) Just follow the sidewalk alongside the airport offices to Concourse C. [This area is currently closed for construction of a new north concourse.]

There is a Capital Bikeshare kiosk at the Gravelly Point parking lot.

(Another transportation option: Gravelly Point has a small boat launch; I’ve docked an inflatable kayak there, then walked it the one mile to DCA’s Metro station.)

4. From points south along the Mount Vernon Trail, the trail directly crosses a spur to Aviation Circle at the airport’s south end, by the Signature Flight Support building. Just exit the trail there and head north along Aviation to the concourses.

Once you’re on airport grounds, there’s adequate signage along the walkways, several outdoor bike racks, and a shuttle bus connects the concourse curbsides, rental car center, and Metro entrance. In most cases, walking is just as fast as waiting for the shuttle.

Driving away

DCA’s easy accessibility opens up another multimodal possibility: car rentals. In particular, Hotwire and CarRentals.com weekend-special rates from DCA can often be found for around $10-15 (+ required fees = $30); these rates are generally available Friday morning to Monday morning, and sometimes at the last minute on weekdays.

Note: At peak times, e.g., when daily car rental rates exceed $30-40, it might be cheaper to use Car2Go, Zipcar, or Turo. Plus, you might save the hassle of getting to the airport.

If you prepay online, check-in takes a few minutes at an automated kiosk, and the cars are parked upstairs; the entire process takes about 10 minutes. The car rental center is in the south parking garage, across from Concourse A and near the south exit of the Metro station (map).

Driving part way in

Coming to town by car, but don’t want to deal with traffic once here? Good move. However, parking will still be a hassle — particularly on-street, between residential permits, rush hour restrictions, street cleaning restrictions, bad signage, and assorted scratches and dings.

So how about park-and-ride? The problem with this approach is that you’re competing with countless commuters; hence, most areas within easy walking distance of Metro will either have paid parking or some kind of permit system. A quick glance at DC’s permit parking map confirms that nothing within a few miles of downtown has free-to-the-public street parking.

I think it’s worth a few dollars to not worry about being towed, sideswiped, etc. Indeed, there are some reasonably priced garages that allow overnight parking. (Overnight parking at Metro-run lots is so limited that it’s just not worth trying.)

  • Free weekend parking, Friday evening through Monday morning, at Crystal City. Very convenient to the Mall and DCA.
  • $7/day at New Carrollton. Better yet, many northbound Amtrak trains stop here, including those to BWI.
  • $8/day at Eisenhower Avenue. Close to I-95 for those approaching from the south, not a bad trip to DCA.
  • Maryland SHA runs a bunch of free parking lots for its commuter buses, but these are mostly pretty far from metro DC.
  • Free at Herndon-Monroe, with bus service to DC and IAD. Minor detail: the bus, and the toll road in front of the garage, are both expensive.
  • $4.50/day at Wiehle/Reston Station, on the same toll road.

Flying in: the river visual approach


The flight approaches to DCA fly over the Potomac River, in order to avoid noise impacts over the city and to avoid flights over “P-56” (aka the Monumental Core). If winds are from the south/east, flights will land from the north and take off to the south. Planes are closer to the ground during landing than during take-off, so if you have this landing you’ll be treated to fantastic views of central D.C. (on the left side) and Arlington (on the right side) in the last few minutes of flight.

As a planner, I find it fascinating to watch the cityscape unfold:
– the topographical shift, from hilly up by Great Falls through to Georgetown, then the coastal flats below
– the formal straight lines of the Mall and L’Enfant Plan, reinforced by the dense built fabric, and on the other side the curves of Arlington Cemetery and its riverfront roads
– tracing the lines of activity and development along roads like Wisconsin and Connecticut, and the Metro subway lines
– the D.C. skyline of public monuments and churches, and how close planes fly to Rosslyn’s office towers
– further out, the clear distinction between preserved farmland in Maryland and suburban sprawl in Virginia


4 thoughts on “Walking to DCA, and driving away

  1. Pingback: The Final Act for Portland’s $3 Billion CRC Highway Boondoggle? | Streetsblog.net

  2. Where can you leave a bike share bike at the airport? The closest station I found was a good distance away on foot in Arlington.

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