Alexandria Celebrates Women: Founding the trail

Alexandria Celebrates Women: Founding the trail
The Mount Vernon Trail, shaped by Ellen Pickering and Barbara Lynch, is beloved by pedestrians and cyclists. (Photo/ Margaret Stevens)

By Gayle Converse

 Hosting more than one million pedestrians and bicyclists each year, Northern Virginia’s scenic Mount Vernon Trail has become one of the most heavily used multi-use trails in the nation thanks to the practicality, vision and leadership of two Alexandria women. 

As the environmental and fitness movements of the 1960s and 1970s emerged, bicyclists wishing to enjoy the scenery of the Potomac River shoreline were forced to share the road with automobiles on the increasingly busy George Washington Memorial Parkway. 

In 1971, the DMV area was already home to more than 100,000 bicyclists. National and Washington, D.C. local leaders were challenged to create “a model city for bicyclists.” Alexandrians Ellen Pickering and Barbara Lynch decided that a bike trail paralleling the motorway was the answer. They took it upon themselves to collect 700 signatures and approach the stewards of the GW Parkway, the National Park Service. 

Pickering and Lynch initially received discouraging news: trail funding and area precedents were nonexistent. But, the NPS did offer to provide gravel and grant a right-of-way on one condition: the women would need to provide volunteers to build the trail. 

In 1972, students, families, scout troops – and sometimes passing drivers – worked Saturdays through the winter to spread 4,200 tons of gravel. Four hundred volunteers, 5,300 hours of labor and $27,000 later, a new 4.5 mile, 6-foot-wide bike path linked Belle Haven Park to Memorial Bridge. Due to the new trail’s immediate popularity, the NPS extended, widened and paved the route. 

Stretching from George Washington’s estate to Theodore Roosevelt Island, the Mount Vernon Trail today is an 18.5-mile hub of Northern Virginia’s trail system. It’s part of the East Coast Greenway, the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail and the Arlington Loop. It has proved to be a vital recreation resource, wildlife sanctuary and regional transportation connection. 

Josephine Liu, a member of the Alexandria Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, has been commuting via bike on the trail since 2014. 

“Riding along the river is the perfect way to wake up in the morning and wind down after a long day in the office,” Liu said. “Although I’ve been on the trail thousands of times, there’s always something new to see. I’m extremely grateful to Ellen Pickering, Barbara Lynch and all the others who worked so hard to build and maintain the trail.” 

Trailblazer Ellen Pickering didn’t stop at the Mount Vernon Trail. She became a member of the Alexandria City Council between 1976 and 1979 and lobbied to preserve Alexandria’s waterfront and served as chair of the City’s Beautification Commission and the Northern Virginia Conservation Council. She was a member of the Alexandria Sanitation Authority, the Ad Hoc Committee on Potomac Yard, the Potomac Greens Task Force and the Open Space Steering Committee. 

Pickering was also an active member of the League of Women Voters and the Alexandria chapter of the American Association of University Women. Pickering won two Salute to Women Awards from the City’s Commission on Women. In April 2018, the Ellen Pickering Environmental Excellence Award was established to honor her legacy. 

In 2023, the Pickering Award was presented to the Friends of the Mount Vernon Trail, an Alexandria-based volunteer organization formed in September 2018, dedicated to the ongoing maintenance and improvement of the trail. The group dedicates weekends to removing invasive species, trimming overgrowth of vegetation, pressure washing slippery bridges and performing other route repairs. 

Since it became a philanthropic partner of the NPS in 2020, Friends of the Mount Vernon Trail has hosted 118 volunteer events where 1,908 volunteers have provided 5,425 hours to ensure the path remains safe for cyclists, runners and walkers. 

“The Friends of the Mount Vernon Trail would not exist without the legacy of Ellen Pickering and Barbara Lynch,” Cameron Taylor, a group volunteer leader and board member, said. “The words of Ellen Pickering, ‘We were just women who said, ‘Why don’t we?’ And we did!’ was the call to action for the formation of the group. Fifty-two years later, women are still having an impact on the trail. Among the volunteer leaders, half are women ranging in age from [their] late 20s to early 40s. [We] recently named its first Volunteer Youth Leader – a young woman at Alexandria City High School.” 

Alexandria Celebrates Women welcomes the group’s support and will honor Pickering and Lynch as ACW leads another historic walk on March 23. The event will start at 10 a.m. at 99 Canal Center Plaza. Along with promoting women’s health and the benefits of walking, the free event will provide expert narratives on women’s history. 

The writer is a founder of Alexandria Celebrates Women, a nonprofit commemorating the centennial of women’s suffrage and highlighting influential women throughout the city’s history.