The Wash
A sign on the Zoo Loop Trail's gate reads "Bike Path hours: 7 a.m. to 5 p.m."
The Zoo Loop Trail's hours of operation posted on its gate. (Ileana Garnand / The Wash)

Reopened Zoo Loop Trail’s hours of operation draw congressional criticism

The operating hours of the recently reopened Zoo Loop Trail in Rock Creek Park has prompted complaints from the community — and D.C.’s own congressperson. Safety issues are at the forefront of both the zoo and the community’s concerns.

The recently reopened Zoo Loop Trail in Rock Creek Park has received criticism from both the community and a member of Congress for its hours of operation.

A man in the foreground runs on the Zoo Loop Trail. A woman with a dog is further down the tree-lined path.
Pedestrians use the Zoo Loop Trail. (Ileana Garnand / The Wash)

The half-mile trail, which runs through the southeastern edge of the National Zoo near the Duke Ellington Bridge, is open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. While community members are happy to see it reopen after four years, some are unsatisfied with the current schedule, including D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton.

“There are many, many people in the District who use the trail and would like to see the hours extended,” Norton said.

The Zoo Loop Trail is an important connection between northwest D.C. and the heart of the District, said Washington Area Bicyclist Association Communications Director Colin Browne. Pedestrians and cyclists can use it for commuting and recreation instead of traveling on busy streets.

“It’s a way to keep you away from traffic and is just generally delightful,” Browne said.

The trail allows users to bypass a narrow tunnel path on Beach Drive, which Browne said is unsafe because of its proximity to two lanes of car traffic. 

“There’s a low barrier which isn’t going to protect anybody from falling,” Browne said. “There’s not space for two people on bikes or even a person walking from the opposite direction to be able to pass each other.” 

A sign near the tunnel entrance reads “Caution: trail narrows” and suggests cyclists dismount their bikes.

A sign reads "Caution: trail narrows, walk bike" at the opening of the Beach Drive Tunnel.
A sign cautions against the narrow Beach Drive tunnel. (Ileana Garnand / The Wash)

Because the Zoo Loop Trail is closed when it’s dark, pedestrians and cyclists must travel through the tunnel during a period of low visibility. This could put them more at risk of being struck by a car, according to a WABA blog post.

“The zoo tunnel along Beach Drive is notorious and people have felt unsafe there for a very long time,” Browne said.

Under the trail’s current schedule, Browne said people cannot use it for their commutes home. The path is also popular for recreational use, which is being restricted due to its hours of operation, Browne said. 

“The zoo has a different set of priorities for how it uses its space that is affecting people’s ability to move through the city,” Browne said.

The trail hours are tied to the zoo’s operating hours, said Annalisa Meyer, National Zoo deputy director of communications. This is to maintain accreditation through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums since the trail runs through the zoo’s secondary animal containment perimeter.

Meyer said industry security standards require the zoo to have a continuous perimeter fence.

“We can’t achieve that security-wise without closing the bike path gates outside of operating hours,” Meyer said.

The National Zoo's Amazonia building, partially obstructed by trees.
The National Zoo’s Amazonia building, seen from the Zoo Loop Trail. (Ileana Garnand / The Wash)

Since October, Norton has been working to extend the trail’s hours of operations.  The congressmember said she has a special interest in the topic because of her position as chair of the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit.

Norton said she thinks the best options are either extending the zoo’s hours of operation or building a new secondary fence around the trail. On behalf of the zoo, Meyer said neither option is feasible due to financial and accreditation-related reasons.

“We are really wanting to make sure that we are keeping people safe and have to abide by accreditation rules in order for us to do that,” Meyer said.

Norton said she is also exploring legislative options to extend the trail’s hours. 

In November, Norton requested the House Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies — which has jurisdiction over the zoo — add a provision to its upcoming appropriations bill directing the zoo to extend the trail hours in a way that maintains its accreditation. 

Norton has not heard back from any subcommittee members but said she is still hopeful. While the congressmember would need to “work very hard” to get the provision added, she said she believes there is still time.

A woman jogs down the Zoo Loop Trail.
A jogger on the Zoo Loop Trail. (Ileana Garnand / The Wash)

“It’s not yet in any of the House or the Senate [bill] versions, but I think it’s noncontroversial and I’m hoping to get it in,” Norton said.

The congressmember said she is also organizing a virtual town hall for community members to voice their opinions on the trail hours. She has invited the zoo, DDOT and the National Park Service to attend. The AZA has said it is willing to participate in the event, according to a press release.

Norton said her team is still working on setting a date for the town hall.

Ileana Garnand

Ileana Garnand is pursuing a master's degree in investigative reporting at American University. They cover the Woodley Park and Cleveland Park neighborhoods for The Wash and are a fellow at the Center for Public Integrity.

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