Beach capital: Top 6 beaches along Potomac River (someday soon?)

For most of us, a trip to the beach starts with hours in traffic, traveling toward Maryland’s Eastern Shore or North Carolina’s Outer Banks — but, what if those beaches were along the Potomac River?

The Potomac Riverkeeper Network has identified six potential beach and swimming areas along the river — an aquatic trip back-to-the-future.

“A hundred years ago, more than 20,000 people a day used to swim at the Tidal Basin and Arlington Beach, but those beaches, which were available only to white people, were closed in the 1920s,” according to the Potomac Riverkeeper Network’s Swimmable Potomac Report 2022.

Swimming in D.C.’s waterways was banned in the early 1970s because of the city’s aging combined sewer system which routinely discharged 2 billion gallons of combined sewage and stormwater each year into the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, and Rock Creek.

But times have changed, and water quality monitoring shows the rivers are often clean enough to swim in.

In choosing where potential beaches could be, the group doesn’t just look at water quality. It looks at where beaches have been in the past, and it looks for places that already have parking and bathrooms.

Here are the six potential beach or swimming areas located along the Potomac River:

Gravelly Point Park: Today, Gravelly Point is a great place to watch planes take off and land at Reagan National Airport. In the 1920s, it was known as Arlington Beach and Amusement Park. It had sandy beaches, bathhouses and a full-scale amusement park. Despite its proximity to predominantly African American neighborhoods, including East Arlington and Queen City, the beach and amusement park were “whites only.”

East Potomac Park: Hains Point, part of East Potomac Park, has a terrific view of the airport, and The Wharf and is lined with cherry trees. It’s popular for walkers and cyclists.

Oxon Cove Park: On the Maryland side of the Potomac River, Oxon Cove Park is part of the National Park Service. It’s nestled in a cove and includes Oxon Hill Farm. Imagine a day of visiting a historic farm, then cooling off at the beach.

National Harbor: Just south of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, National Harbor has some of the cleanest water in the area, according to the Potomac Riverkeeper. With a nearby Ferris wheel, a bustling resort feel and parking — not to mention a casino just up the hill — National Harbor is on the list of potential beaches. This past weekend, the private WaveOne Open Water group held its 11th annual swim across the Potomac.

Jones Point Park: Just south of Old Town Alexandria, Jones Point Park is maintained by the National Park Service. It has fishing piers to cast for American catfish, rock bass and American eels. There’s parking, and the Mount Vernon Trail runs through the park.

Belle Haven Marina: You’ve probably seen the boats docked at the Belle Haven Marina while driving down George Washington Parkway. With boat rentals, adult and kid boating lessons, and a launch ramp and slips, the marina offers a protected cove for a future beach.

None of these locations would always be safe for swimming. With its antiquated sewer system, heavy rains flush sewage into the Potomac River. However, the District, with its Clean Rivers Project, is working on a upgrade to its sewer system that aims to reduce overflows by 96% when it’s completed in 2030, according to the Potomac Riverkeeper.

In addition, the City of Alexandria is on target to meet a 2025 deadline to upgrade its sewers and reduce sewage overflows dramatically, according to the riverkeeper.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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