Where to get a drink on a run around D.C.

We’re having some trouble with our water fountains. Many are not working and if they are, produce only a trickle. Let us know where and when you found such a fountain and RunWashington will try to get some answers about what is going on and when we can expect some repairs. Thank you!

Fountains compiled by Joanna Russo. New or broken fountain? Let us know here

It’s a simple expectation.  You press the button and water comes out.  Except sometimes it doesn’t.

After one too many betrayals, and with summer on the horizon, I decided I’d track down exactly when the fountains were turned on or off for several local trails. Surely there had to be a consistent policy?  And one for the bathrooms as well?

I was naïve.  As any local race director will tell you, the D.C. area is a splatter painting of administrative jurisdictions. It’s not surprising that there is no one group managing all D.C. area trails and associated support (water fountains, bathrooms, etc). What is surprising is that, even within the confines of a single path, different elements can be managed by different groups.

On the Washington and Old Dominion Trail (W&OD), for example, the trail itself is maintained by NOVA Parks, the new acronym for the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority (previously known as NVRPA). However, ownership of the fountains and bathrooms along the W&OD varies by location.  Some are maintained by NOVA Parks, while others belong to Arlington County or the towns of Leesburg and Vienna. Similarly, along the Capital Crescent, some facilities are maintained by the Montgomery County Department of Parks (MC Parks), and others by the National Parks Service (NPS).

The area commonly known as Rock Creek Park is actually two separate parks that share a border and a namesake. Within the confines of D.C., from the Potomac River to the D.C.-Maryland border, it’s known as Rock Creek Park and is administered by NPS.  North of the border, it’s called Rock Creek Trail and is managed by MC Parks.

The C&O Towpath is comfortingly simple – all 180 plus miles of it is maintained exclusively by NPS as a single park.  But then there’s Hains Point, also maintained by NPS, as a counter example.   Hains Point is officially four distinct areas: East Potomac Park, West Potomac Park, and the Martin Luther King Jr. and Thomas Jefferson memorials.  Only the King and Jefferson memorials are listed as official entities on the NPS website; neither East nor West Potomac Parks exist, if the NPS website is your guide.

A few calls to the National Park Service revealed that East and West Potomac Parks do in fact exist, and that they fall under the broader “National Mall and Memorial Parks” group.  (If you’re curious, the dividing line between East and West Potomac parks is Interstate 395, with East Potomac Park lying to the south and east of the overpass.) 

However, I was unable to get a consistent answer as to which group within NPS managed the facilities at East Potomac Park. And the complexity doesn’t end with the jurisdictional questions.  Even within a single park there can be different types of water fountains. The majority of the fountains in the DC region are seasonal, but some are “frost free” and thus left on year round. As for which are which? It varies by the location of the fountain, and in some cases, by the shape of it.

Sean O'Leary catches a quick drink at an NPS-run water fountain along the National Mall on Jefferson Drive. Photo: Dustin Whitlow/ D. Whit Photography
Sean O’Leary catches a quick drink at an NPS-run water fountain along the National Mall on Jefferson Drive. Photo: Dustin Whitlow/ D. Whit Photography


The frost-free fountains of the DC area include those on the Maryland side of the Capital Crescent trail, the fountain at Catoctin Circle in Leesburg on the W&OD trail, some of the fountains within Bon Air, Barcroft, and Bluemont parks on the W&OD, and some of the fountains within the D.C. portion of Rock Creek Park. In Rock Creek Park, the frost-free fountains can be identified by their appearance – square brown or green bases with stainless steel rounded basins. Within that park, it’s the older fountains that are embedded in stone or concrete that are shut off for the winter.   Frost-free fountains are the exception, though, and not the rule.

Most fountains along the local trails are turned on and off with the seasons – “winterized” is the official term.  The exact on/off dates depend on the trail. Along the C&O towpath and at Fletcher’s Cove, the fountains are turned on the last week in March, and off in mid-November. In the DC portion of Rock Creek Park, the seasonal fountains are on for a shorter period of time, from April through October.  And along the Maryland section of Rock Creek Trail, there are no set dates – the fountains are turned on or off to coincide with temperatures falling below or rising above freezing. Along the W&OD trail, the seasonal fountains include those at Shirlington (mile 0), West End Park in Falls Church (mile 7), Reston (between miles 17 and 18), and Lawson Road in Leesburg (between miles 32.5 and 33). These fountains are winterized between mid-November and mid-to-late March, with the exact dates determined by conditions.

There are also seasonal fountains within Bon Air, Barcroft, and Bluemont parks, which are available between March 15 and November 15. And the fountain at Maple Avenue in Vienna is on its own schedule. It’s turned off the day after the Vienna Halloween Parade in October, and on again during the last week in March. As for Hains Point, within both parks and both memorials all water fountains are winterized. This includes the fountains with a green/brown square base – though fountains with that appearance are on year round in Rock Creek, they are seasonal on Hains Point. There are no official on/off dates for the fountains on Hains Point, since the timing hinges on when temperatures are reliably above freezing. However, NPS targets the annual blooming of the cherry blossoms as the very latest date the fountains will be turned on for the year.

Of course, water fountains are only half of the runner’s biological equation.

Fortunately, the majority of bathrooms along DC area trails are open year round, though not necessarily 24 hours. But there are those that are locked for the season, or even closed generally, to the despair of runners in urgent need.

Within most National Parks Services facilities, including Fletcher’s Cove, the C&O Towpath, and Rock Creek Park DC, the bathrooms are officially open at dawn and closed at dusk year round, to match the hours of the park. There is one exception – the comfort station at Picnic Grove 10 in Rock Creek Park is closed on November 1 of each year and reopened on April 1, due to a lack of power and presumably heat at that station.

If you’re in need at that station come winter, your best bet is to run south a mile down Beach Drive to the comfort station at Picnic Grove 6. And though the facilities along the Towpath and in Rock Creek are only officially open during daylight hours, they may be left unlocked at other times, even 24/7 in the case of Fletcher’s Cove. Of course, even if the bathrooms are formally closed at those times, as long as they are unlocked, technicalities have little meaning to the desperate.

As for the section of Rock Creek Trail in Maryland? While there are bathrooms in park activity buildings near the trail, those bathrooms are available only to those who have reserved the building from Montgomery County Parks in exchange for a fee. For the rest of us, there’s shrubbery and Starbucks (in reverse order of preference for this author).

Along the W&OD in Virginia, there are bathrooms at both Bluemont and Bon Air Parks within Arlington. The bathroom at the western portion of Bluemont Park is open year round, while the bathrooms at Bon Air Park and the eastern section of Bluemont are off from November 15 to March 15.   On Hains Point, the bathrooms in West Potomac Park are affiliated with the Jefferson and King Memorials. These bathrooms generally open at 6 a.m. and close at 11 p.m. to follow the opening and closing hours for those parks, though they may also be open at other times, depending on park police schedules.     

But then there’s East Potomac Park. The schedules of the facilities along Ohio Drive remain a mystery.  According to the general information number for the National Mall and Memorial Parks, the bathrooms within East Potomac Park are opened and closed by the National Park Police at their discretion. However, the National Park Police in turn responded that they did not manage the bathrooms – the National Park Service did. Calls and emails to the media point of contact for the National Mall and Memorial Parks group went unanswered.  

This confusion, of course, is consistent with my general experience of the bathrooms along Ohio Drive rarely being open (and never when you truly need them).  The lesson here is that it is always best to have a back-up plan when running on Hains Point. And that’s really the general lesson here as well.  Though there is a general method to the madness, the actual availability of water fountains and bathrooms can be as unpredictable as the weather. The wise runner always plans ahead, with multiple fallback options.


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