By Carla Olivo, PCSgrades Director of Communications
Maybe you’ve been able to avoid the assignment for several years, or have been dying to move to the area, but now the orders are official! You are headed to the Pentagon or another duty station in the National Capital Region where you can get all your Fitbit steps for the day by just walking in from the parking lot!
The bad news (if you are headed to the Pentagon, for example) is that if you’re depending on a typical duty station experience, it may be unlike any duty station you’ve had in the past. The good news is that moving to this area is unlike any duty station you’ve had in the past!
We put together a list of all the things you need to know before relocating to the Nation’s Capitol. So get ready to enjoy this unique experience full of history, politics, inside the beltway traditions and patriotism like you’ve never seen before!
The Skinny on the Pentagon
While you may hear people say they are PCSing to Washington D.C. for an assignment at the Pentagon, this unique building is actually located across the Potomac River in Arlington, Virginia. You’ve seen large bases and posts but when you park at the Pentagon, it gets tricky remembering your parking space among the 67 acres of parking lots, which accommodate over 8,700 vehicles.
The Pentagon itself is indeed impressive. The concrete structure featuring seven floors, two below ground and five above, is the largest office building in the world, covering 34 acres. This is double the size of the Empire State Building. Nearly 30,000 military and civilian employees share 691 water fountains and 284 bathrooms. There are no elevators in the Pentagon. Ramps accommodate those moving from floor to floor.
There are many options for housing in the National Capital Region. Although, depending on where you are coming from, there may be sticker shock as the DC suburbs feature seven of the country’s 10 richest counties. There is no on base or on post housing at the Pentagon. But there are several nearby military installations that offer housing options. These include:
Joint Base Anacostia–Bolling in Southeast Washington, D.C.
Joint Base Andrews in Prince George’s County Maryland
Joint Base Myers-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Virginia
Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County, Virginia
Housing takes many forms in the National Capital Region. Single family homes, townhouses, condos and apartments can be found in both urban and rural settings a short distance from downtown.
NOVA (Northern Virginia)
- Arlington and the city of Alexandria, Virginia are inside the beltway.
- Fairfax County, Virginia (Falls Church, Reston, Tysons Corner, McLean, Great Falls, Fairfax, Fairfax Station, Lorton, Oakton, Springfield, Burke, Annandale, Chantilly, Centreville and Clifton) is the largest county in the Washington, D.C. area. It falls inside and outside the beltway and is home to George Mason University.
- Loudoun County, Virginia includes Sterling, Ashburn, Potomac Falls, Countryside, Middleburg, South Riding, Hamilton and Dulles International Airport.
- Prince William County, Virginia includes Woodbridge, Dumfries, Haymarket, Occoquan, Lake Ridge, Manassas and Manassas City.
- Montgomery County, Maryland includes Bethesda, Rockville, Silver Spring and Wheaton
- Prince George’s County is home to the University of Maryland, government agencies like NASA and the Department of Agriculture, as well as the Washington Redskins Bowie, Brentwood, Capitol Heights and Cheverly College Park.
Prices vary widely depending on the state and county you choose to live in. If you work with a PCSgrades reviewed realtor, you’ll find there is a rental or mortgage to fit every BAH.
You think you have experienced traffic woes at other duty stations but the traffic in and around D.C. is the worst in the nation according to most traffic studies. A typical NOVA commuter spends an additional 82 hours behind the wheel annually due to traffic delays, which is why many commuters use public transportation.
Metrorail & Metrobus
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority operates the second largest rail transit system and the fifth largest bus network in the U. S. The system serves the District of Columbia, the Northern Virginia counties of Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun and the suburban Maryland counties of Montgomery and Prince George’s.
Carpools & Vanpools
Carpooling and vanpooling are great options especially for those commuting longer distances. These commuting options offer excellent cost savings and can cut commuting time through the use of HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lanes.
Only in DC!
A unique form of commuting, referred to as “slugging”, is very popular for those heading downtown or to the Pentagon each day. Drivers needing additional passengers to meet the required three-person HOV minimum, stop to pick up passengers as they stand in a “slug line”. The driver displays a sign featuring the destination or calls out the destination through an open window. No money is exchanged as all parties benefit from the arrangement. It’s been referred to as the “safe way to hitchhike” and has its own set of etiquette rules.
It’s Not a Concrete Jungle
Despite being a major urban area there are many outdoor areas to enjoy, including:
Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park
This park dates back to the 18th century. The canal and towpath trail extends from Georgetown, Washington, D.C. to Cumberland, Maryland – a distance of 184.5 miles. You will fin outdoor recreation, picnicking, bicycling, fishing, boating and hiking at this great location.
Georgetown Waterfront Park
This park sits along the Potomac River and visitors can enjoy picnicking, bicycling and skating.
Rock Creek Park
Extending 12 miles from the Potomac River to the border of Maryland, the National Zoo is located within Rock Creek Park. There is lots to do including: picnicking, hiking, biking, rollerblading, tennis, fishing, horseback riding, concerts, planetarium shows, animal talks, exploratory hikes, crafts and junior ranger programs.
Great Falls National Park
With 800 acres along the banks of the Potomac River in northern Fairfax County, this park offers whitewater kayaking and canoeing, fifteen miles of scenic hiking trails, (five of which are multi-use for horseback riding, hiking and biking.) You can also experience rock climbing on the cliffs in Mather Gorge above the Potomac where the falls total 76 feet over a series of major cascades.
Mason Neck State Park
Located in southern Fairfax County, about 20 miles from Washington, D.C., visitors to this park can enjoy hiking trails, a large picnic area, a playground, a car-top canoe launch, visitor center, canoe, kayak, bicycle rentals and bird watching
There are four distinct seasons in Washington D.C. and the surrounding areas. Winters are relatively mild with an average snow fall for the region of 15.4 inches, three quarters of it falling in January and February. Springtime is the star as tourists travel from around the world to see the cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin. These delicate flowering trees only bloom for a couple weeks out of the year. Summers can be as steamy as the politics with temperatures rising above 100 on some days in July and August. The mild temps tend to stick around in September and October, and by Halloween the fall foliage is in its full splendor with the vivid colors of autumn.
Customs and Traditions
There is, perhaps, no more a diverse duty station than Washington D.C. and the surrounding areas, providing for many unique experiences. From mid-September until Thanksgiving, and again from about mid-January to June, Congress is in session which means the hotels are full of guests and the restaurants and bars are enjoying a booming business. From mid-March through June, families and school groups pack the Tidal Basin to see the cherry blossoms and enjoy Washington’s monuments. This is also high season for protest marches.
May features a month-long celebration called Passport DC, which showcases more than 70 embassies and cultural organizations with tours and open houses. A summer highlight are the annual Fourth of July festivities. There is an Independence Day Parade along Constitution Avenue from 7th to 17th Streets NW and a Capitol Fourth Concert featuring world renowned musicians and vocalists at the U.S. Capitol west lawn. And of course, fireworks over the monuments are always memorable!
Speaking of monuments, almost every out of town visitor that you host during your time in D.C. will want to see “the monuments,” and with good reason. Two years into our tour here, we took a twilight monument bus tour with other military families, and despite having seen all of the monuments at least twice before, it was a night to remember. From seeing all the names on the Vietnam Memorial wall, to climbing the massive steps to the Lincoln Memorial, to visiting the National 9/11 Memorial at the Pentagon, it never gets old.
If you are lucky enough to have the chance to volunteer either at the airport or at the World War II Memorial during an Honor Flight, do it! And bring the kids! It is a special moment you will never forget; seeing these brave men and women visiting their memorial for the very first, and for many, the last time.
With an international flavor and the fact that many people living in and around D.C. are originally from somewhere else, the cuisine is eclectic to say the least. In the mood for Salvadoran food? It’s here! Want to try Ethiopian cuisine? We got it! How about Indonesian? Yep! Regional specialties include: blue crabs from Maryland and peanuts and country ham from Virginia. There is no need to dine at the same place twice with so much variety available in the D-M-V!
Things to Do
Virginia may be for lovers, but it’s also for WINE lovers! With over 250 wineries, you might be hard pressed to visit each of them in one three year tour! But it’s worth a try!
Within an hour or two of the politics and the history, you can have your toes in the sand of the Delaware coast or immerse yourself in the battlefields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania! The excitement of New York City is a short three hour train ride from historic Union Station.
Just 32 miles away, it will take you about an hour to drive here where you can enjoy this gorgeous town with quaint restaurants and the Naval Academy!
A little further away at about 138 miles, it will take you three hours to make this drive, but is well worth the trip! Make like Rocky and take a run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. History comes alive on Independence Mall and at the Liberty Bell. Local Philly cuisine is available at the historic Reading Terminal Market.
Shenandoah National Park & Luray Caverns, Virginia
Another three hour drive at about 120 miles away, the park is located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, west of Washington, D.C. Skyline Drive is the only public road running through the Shenandoah National Park. Nearby Luray Caverns is the largest series of caverns in the east. This eerie underground world of stalactites and stalagmites is worth a day trip from NOVA.
St. Michael’s, Maryland
Only 79 miles away, you can make this trip in about 1.5 hours. Maryland’s Eastern Shore features crabs and scenic water views like no other!
The 108 mile, two-hour drive to the Virginia State Capital is a nice day-trip if you are in the mood for a thriving restaurant scene and craft beer breweries
Gettysburg (84 miles), Hershey (130 miles), Lancaster (120 Miles)
There are three unique Pennsylvania cities within a three hour drive of the metro area. Relive the civil war in Gettysburg. Learn the unique story of Milton Hersey and visit the famous Hershey amusement park . Immerse yourself in the life of the Amish in Lancaster, PA.
Chincoteague Island, Virginia
170 miles away, this is the longest day-trip on this list, but still a reasonable 3.5-hour drive. Do not miss watching the ponies at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on the quieter side of the Eastern Shore!
Lewes/Rehoboth Beach, Delaware
And finally, 121 miles and just 2.5 hours away by car, makes for a relaxing weekend. What can we say? It’s the beach! Bring your sunscreen, flip flops and your bathing suit and enjoy!
We’ve presented the tip of the ice berg when it comes to things to do and see in and around Washington D.C. We can promise, you will never be bored at this duty station!
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Author: Carla Olivo, PCSgrades Strategic Communications Director, previously served as the Director of Communications for Operation Hug-A-Hero and as the Media/Community Relations Officer for the Delaware Department of Transportation. She has garnered numerous TV industry awards including the Associated Press award for Spot News Reporting and Documentary Reporting. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband, a retired USMC Lt. Colonel, their two children. You can follow her on Twitter @olivowriter.