National Mall and Memorial Parks: A User's Guide

SERENE: All quiet at the Lincoln Memorial. (Photo: Stuck in Customs/Flickr).
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National parks are typically celebrations of nature. The National Mall and Memorial Parks unit of the National Park Service is a celebration of the achievement, and sacrifice, of men and women.

The National Mall serves as the front yard of a nation and has been the setting for history — the stage for a parade of American icons from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Forrest Gump.

The Washington Monument honoring our first president has been a tourist attraction since 1883. The 555-foot 5 1/8-inch tall obelisk offers a view stretching 30 miles.

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial, modeled after the Pantheon of Rome, was dedicated in 1943. The bronze statue of Jefferson, which is 19 feet tall and weighs five tons, replaced a plaster statue installed because of rationing of metal during World War II.

The Lincoln Memorial, dedicated in 1922, is built atop land created when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged the Potomac River. King made his “I have a dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, dedicated in 1997, spreads over 7.5 acres. There are four outdoor galleries, each representing a different term in Roosevelt’s presidency.

Moon over the Capital

There are also memorials honoring those who fought and died defending our nation: the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.


While many of the bits and pieces that comprise National Mall and Memorial Parks have been under federal ownership for hundreds of years, the park was officially established in 1965.

Things to do

Bring a camera, of course, but you may also want to bring your fishing gear. Constitution Gardens Lake is a catch-and-release fishing spot. The 6.75-acre lake holds largemouth bass, bluegill, and black crappie

You can also get an idea of how the Jefferson Memorial might look to a duck by renting a paddleboat and cruising the Tidal Basin.

The iconic Washington Monument, normally a must-see attraction, is currently closed to visitors so engineers can assess the damage caused by a magnitude-5.8 earthquake that shook the area, and much of the East Coast, earlier this week. The quake cracked one of the stones at the top of the monument.

Why you’ll want to come back

The dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial — originally scheduled for Aug. 28, but canceled for Hurricane Irene, will take place Oct. 15. Even if you can't make the event, you can plan a return visit to see the memorial, which includes a 500-foot granite wall engraved with King’s speeches and writing.

Flora and fauna

National Mall and Memorial Parks is an urban park system known for its trees. There are about 20,000 trees including the American elms that line the National Mall and the Japanese Yoshino cherry trees around the Tidal Basin that explode with blossoms each spring.

You won’t see much wildlife beyond the occasional squirrel, but 111 bird species have been documented in the park.

By the numbers:

  • Website: National Mall & Memorial Parks
  • Park size: 1,004 acres
  • 2010 visitation: 20+ million
  • Funky fact: The National Park Service has developed a National Mall app for smartphones that displays the user’s current location, highlights points of interest and provides walking directions to more than 70 sites.
This is part of Explore America's Parks, a series of user's guides to national, state and local park systems across the United States. W e'll be adding new parks all summer, so check back for more.

Inset photo of moonrise over the Capitol: erin m/Flickr