Created to commemorate America’s first president, it is fittingly the tallest structure in the swamp – and in a city of icons, it’s one of the most recognizable, as is the visage of George Washington himself depicted on every dollar ever spent. Despite the Washington Monument’s elegant, white, pencil-thin appearance, it’s hollow so you can take in the view from the top, too.
The Washington Monument
The slender, vertical, pointed form is a common style of monument. Historic obelisks exist in cities around the world in Luxor, Egypt; Paris, France; and St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City.
But Washington D.C.’s version, nearly 170-meters high, is the world’s tallest accessible stone structure. It was built before and after the Civil War era and completed in 1888 by both fighting and employing gravity. The walls are 15-feet thick at the base and thinner (1.5 feet) at the pointy top.
A Trip to the Top of the Washington Monument
What’s it like to go up into the 555-foot, granite, marble, and bluestone gneiss obelisk? The interior has a spiral staircase with 897-steps but, thankfully, there is also an express elevator – which makes stops on the way down, but more on that later. Interestingly, that elevator in the middle is supported by four iron columns, but those columns do not support the original stone, self-sufficient structure, which is a remarkable construction feat for its time. In a sense it’s been a work in progress ever since due to security necessities and mother nature.
An earthquake damaged the Washington Monument in 2011 which resulted in a closing of access for three years. In 2016 visitors were once again prevented from summiting while engineers embarked on three years of elevator repairs and upgrades. It’s all systems go now, seven days a week from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.
Getting In and Up
After visiting the Nation’s Capitol for work and pleasure a fair number of times, I woke up on an autumn Sunday morning in my room at the Dupont Circle Hotel with a little extra time on my hands. I didn’t have to head to Reagan Airport, which is virtually in the center of town, until 11:30 a.m. I wanted a stretch of the legs and it occurred to me that I’d never been up in the Washington Monument. I wondered if, on short notice in a weekend morning, it might be possible, so I checked with the concierge.
First-off, the tickets, like most monuments and museums in Washington D.C., are free.
I learned that advance reservations can be made online up to 90-days in advance for up to six people at www.recreation.gov or by calling (877) 444-6777. (Groups can get up to 55.)
I was too late to reserve a ticket in advance, but I learned there are “day-of” tickets available at a walk-up window below the foot of the monument on 15th Street starting at 8:30 each morning. I taxied over to the window, which is at the Washington Monument gift shop building (which is also your last shot at restrooms). There was a small line of people waiting for tickets just before the window opened at 8:30. It was early November, and I imagined the line for tickets each spring in cherry blossom season or during summer vacations might be much longer.
I moved to the efficient window where I learned the next tickets available for timed entry were at 9:30 – one hour away. A limited number of tickets are allotted for tour appointments scheduled each 30 minutes. I could have as many as four tickets if I wanted – there was no charge. The “tour” would basically consist of controlled access to the elevator and unlimited time at the top. You can ask for tickets for a tour appointment for later in the day if you wish. Within half an hour of my time at the window all of the days’ tickets had been allocated for right up through late afternoon and the window closed.
Location, Location, Location
The gift shop, ticket window, and restrooms are in the same small building at street level. The entry to the monument is visible at its base which is up a manicured, grassy hill via circular sidewalks.
Since I had an hour before the time I was to present myself up at the elevator, I decided to take a walk to the White House and back. An hour was enough – even with taking time to stop and snap photos from both sides of the Presidential mansion. The very recognizable South Lawn-view, though more distant that the view of the front door, can be seen from The Ellipse – a 52-acre, oval shaped grassy park between the White House and the Washington Monument. Along the loop walk to Pennsylvania Avenue and back I was also able to see the National Christmas Tree, Commerce Department building, the Treasury Department building, the Old Executive Office Building, and the striking, stylish Smithsonian National Museum of African American History.
Time to Climb
I had been concerned I might not make it back to the Washington Monument in time for my 9:30 a.m. timed ticket, but that was needless worry. A “9:30 appointment” means that you stand in line with the others who have been given tickets marked “9:30.” Those in line at that time are taken in groups of 15-20 or so, by a friendly National Park ranger into the door, through the security station metal detector, and to the interior elevator. This process takes the better part of the half-hour, so it’s first-come, first served. If you want to go up right at the appointed time, it’s best to arrive in line early.
The top of the hill at the base of the Washington is a very pleasant place to wait, however, and a good place to visit even if you don’t have a ticket. There are 50 American flags flowing in the wind surrounding the circular area at the top of the hill is like a paved patio and there is plenty of room to wander and linger. The elevated area offers panoramic views in all directions. I could see Arlington Cemetery, the Lincoln Memorial and the World War II Memorial down in one direction and then simply turn around and look all the way up the Mall to the Capitol Dome. The back of the White House is visible from the hill as are many of the Smithsonian buildings. Just remember it is outdoors and the sun, wind, and rain can play a part in your visit. High enough winds or thunderstorms close access to the monument. There is no water or food or restrooms on the hill. (The gift shop/restrooms are back down at street level.)
When it is your turn to enter a ranger near the door will give one last briefing about what you are not allowed to take through the metal detector and into the elevator. There is no smoking, eating or drinking; no strollers or large bags; and no animals, weapons, mace or explosives.
There is a small space beyond the metal detector next to a large, thick door that swings open slowly like a bank vault door. It led to a stone hallway and the elevator door. There is a looped video playing depicting construction, some Washington artifacts and depictions on the wall including the famed saying: “First in war; first in peace; and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
The elevator is spacious enough because only a certain number of people are allowed aboard at a time. There is a recorded greeting which plays on the way up with a few construction and design facts and historical notes. Once at the tiny two-level top, you can spend all the time you wish peering out the eight small windows – two per side – which have convenient little maps in front of them to tell you what you’re looking at below all the way to the horizon…and you can look virtually straight down, too.
In addition to all of the visible icons like the National Cathedral, Lincoln Center and Watergate Hotel, for instance, it is also quite interesting to view the planes landing and taking off over the Potomac River at nearby Reagan Airport.
Inspecting the interior of the monument is also intriguing. You can see the eight red aircraft warning lights from the inside, and some of the stone repairs are also visible. A metal staircase leads to the lower level which has kiosk corners of details of construction, historical facts, and photos of the monument during building and renovation efforts. 30 minutes in the peak of the pencil ought to be enough for most visitors, and since people leave at different times, you might encounter a small line for the lift down.
The Scenic Route Down
The ride down in the elevator, with glass windows, is surprising because the ride pauses twice briefly for passengers to view some examples of the 194 different memorial stones and artistic plaques from states, cities, and foreign countries and organizations which have been mounted on the interior walls of the monument. The friendly recorded voice describes where to look and what you’re seeing.
Once off the elevator and back outside, I could not help but look back up at the pointy top of the Washington Monument – and since I have been up inside, I have never looked at it the same way again. The Washington Monument tour is a simple, well-run experience well worth doing.