897 Steps to the Top of the Washington Monument

The fastest anyone has climbed the 897 steps to the top of the Washington Monument is 6 minutes, 42 seconds. But it’s probably best to just take the 70-second elevator ride up 550 feet to the top.

If you have your heart set on walking it, walk-down tours are twice offered daily based on the availability of National Park Rangers, at 10:30 a.m. and Noon.

The Washington Monument – 1850 | The Burren and Beyond
Sketch of the Washington Monument

Built in honor of the first U.S. President and for his leadership in American independence, the Washington Monument opened in 1884.  But its history of construction was anything but smooth. The project took two 8-year phases of actual construction over a 36-year period. During the Civil war and periods of no finding, the monument’s construction was halted for 20 years between 1856 and 1876.

Initial plans for a national monument honoring Washington was first proposed while Washington was still alive in 1783.  District of Columbia planner, Pierre Charles L’Enfant recommended a statue of a horse-mounted Washington be erected, although Congress took no action. After Washington’s death in 1799, additional recommendations were made, resulting again in no Congressional action. (Some things never change.)  Thirty-four years later, a society was formed to design, fund, and erect a monument.

The initial plans called for a tall obelisk (50 feet taller than the current monument) with a circular colonnade at the base incorporating a statue of chariot-riding Washington along with 30 statues of Revolutionary War heroes.

The cornerstone was laid in 1848, but society infighting and lack of funding delayed progress. In 1854 the money ran out and in 1858, the Civil War halted all construction. For the next twenty years, the monument remained one-third built.

The project was resumed under the control of the Corps of Engineers; now with a modified design that removed the original base and statutes, partially to lower the total cost.  You can still see where the inability to buy similar white stones after construction restarted, which resulted in a slight but noticeable color change of the exterior marble around the 150-foot mark, indicating where the initial construction stopped and the second phase resumed.

A national campaign for funds and marble blocks needed in construction renewed interest and fundraising but brought with it additional problems. Civic groups, businesses, individuals, and organizations as well as local and foreign governments all donated blocks of marble.  But some arrived inscribed with messages, many completely unrelated to Washington.

The monument was finally completed and then opened to the public in October 1888.  Initially, visitors were required to climb the stairs to the top, limiting attendance. After the elevator used in construction was quickly converted to a passenger elevator, a dramatic (25x) increase in the number of visitors happened instantly.

It became the tallest man-made structure in the world at 555 feet, but just one year after opening, the Eiffel Tower dramatically surpassed it by over 500 feet to claim the tallest structure title.

Inside the Washington Monument
Inside the Washington Monument from Orange County Register

In 1982, an anti-nuclear arms protester, attempting to gain national attention by threatening to blow up the monument, started a hostage drama when he drove his van, which he claimed was packed with explosives, on to the base of the monument. After trapping 8 visitors in the monument and ten hours later, the standoff ended when he raced off and was then shot and killed by police.

The monument offers arguably the best views of DC, the National Mall, and a 20+ mile view of the surrounding area on a clear day.

Washington Monument
15th St. and Jefferson Dr., NW, between Independence and Constitution Ave.
Washington, DC (map it)

Dates and Times – Daily tours are offered from 9:00 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., and the monument closes at 5:00.  Walk down tours – daily at 10:30 a.m. and Noon.

Tickets – Free, but a ticket (limit 6 per person) is required and is available on a first-come, first-served basis on the same day at the Washington Monument kiosk. Lines can form early before the kiosk opens, especially on weekends. Advance free timed tickets are your best bet and are available online or by calling 1-800-967-2283 (a $1.50 per ticket surcharge applies).  Online reservations require registration.

Nearest Metro Subway Station – Smithsonian, Blue and Orange lines, then a 4-block walk.

Parking – Limited metered street parking is available.

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