What's the best route around DC when coming from the north?
June 29, 2004 8:34 AM   Subscribe

Leaving for North Carolina on Friday morning, and DC traffic has me scared. Rush hour is bad enough on a normal day, but the friday before 4th of July should be awful. I'm trying to think about the best way to go. If we take the outer loop, we'll run into the traffic at 270 and Northern Virginia, which can be pretty bad. If we take the inner loop and cut down 295, we'll have to go over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which, under the right cirumstances, can be a nightmare of Lovecraftian proportions. I live about 30 minutes from the beltway, so pretty much any time we leave will place us right in rush hour traffic, unless we leave at 6am, which I would be up for, but doubt my girlfriend would. Does anyone have any suggestions for the best way to go, or know a roundabout, but potentially un-trafficky way to get around DC when coming from the north?
posted by emptybowl to Travel & Transportation (26 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm sorry you have to do this, this is by far my least favorite parts of the country to drive in. THe clusterfuck between the beltline and I-95 gives me the hives. I've made the trip from NC to DE many times, and it has sucked each and every time. I suggest leaving early. Where are you going in NC? If time is not a concern you can drive down the eastern shore, it's a pretty drive, but will add hours onto your trip.
posted by corpse at 8:39 AM on June 29, 2004

Response by poster: I'm headed to Durham, NC. If we were headed to the Outer Banks, I think we'd hit traffic the whole way, but since we're not, if we can get around DC early enough we should be okay. I don't think the eastern shore would work, since we're not headed to the NC shore. We'd have to head far east just to head back far west. Unless I have my geography wrong......?
posted by emptybowl at 8:51 AM on June 29, 2004

I've started taking 301 to avoid both DC and Baltimore when I take trips to NJ and back -- you'd have to go east a ways to pick it up, but it drops you just north of Richmond without all the I-95 traffic. (I have no idea if those links will work, best to MapQuest it yourself.)
posted by Dean King at 8:52 AM on June 29, 2004

Leave at 9:30-10am. Should be past the worst of the DC morning rush hour but before afternoon beach traffic, gets you to Durham around...3pm?
posted by mookieproof at 8:56 AM on June 29, 2004

Response by poster: Though about that, mookieproof, but we tried that a few years ago (also 4th of July weekend), and we literally had bumper-to-bumper traffic from DC to Richmond. It was a nightmare, and I'm looking to avoid that this year.

Dean King, is 301 a commercial road or a freeway? Are we gonna be running into stoplights the whole way? If not, it's not that far east for me to get on that road.
posted by emptybowl at 9:04 AM on June 29, 2004

1) Leave early, but know that Friday's rush hour runs pretty much from 7 am to 7 pm, especially heading south.

2) Consider taking Route 1 (from Alexandria) instead of 95. I-95 was pretty much clogged all the way down to Richmond the last time I tried that route on a holiday weekend (Memorial Day 2003). Route 1 has many more stoplights, and it's a chore to get through the Alexandria portion, but it might be worth it if you absolutely have to travel during "high" rush hour. Besides, Route 1 and I-95 meet at Fredericksburg (I think), so if you get on one of them and decide to try the other route you have a chance to switch.

3) The "skyway" has opened at the mixing bowl in Alexandria, but I think traffic is still atrocious if you're heading towards I-95. If you take the Wilson Bridge (inner loop), take the Telegraph Road exit and head south. Telegraph meets up with I-95 south of the mixing bowl, and this route avoids all the Springfield traffic. You still have the aforementioned I-95 headaches, but this might save some hassle. Telegraph Road takes you through a very residential area, and you'll think you've taken a wrong turn, but trust me, you'll get there, though you might have to take Route 1 the Fairfax Co Parkway to get to 95. Look at a map; I'm pretty sure you can stay on Telegraph for a long time and avoid some major traffic.
posted by arco at 9:14 AM on June 29, 2004

er, "mixing bowl in Springfield," that is...
posted by arco at 9:15 AM on June 29, 2004

Not sure where in the area you are heading from but heading South probably won't be that bad in the morning.

Echo the 301 suggestion, espcially helpful if the Woodrow Wilson is congested, which it likely will be, and its a decent drive down to just north of Richmond.
posted by mhaw at 9:18 AM on June 29, 2004

301 is a 2-lane most of the time (MapQuest calls it a "primary highway") and does pass through some small towns, so you will have some stoplights, but for the most part you can cruise right through the Virginia section. IIRC, it's only in Maryland and Delaware that traffic can be stop-n-go.
posted by Dean King at 9:19 AM on June 29, 2004

If you're not in a hurry, you could take 66 west* to 29 South through Charlottesville, Lynchburg, Danville, and down to Chapel Hill/Durham. Chapel Hill < --> Charlottesville is 3, 3 1/2 hours. It's vastly prettier than the I-85 route through the Endless Scraggly Pine Forest of Doom; there are mountains to gawp at down to about Lynchburg. You'll want to take the bypass around C-ville -- traffic on 29 in town is just stoopid.

I haven't driven on 301 around DC since ~97/98, but at least then it was mostly non-freeway divided highway, or rural 2-lane highway with traffic lights in town, but not many towns.

*Or other roads that will get you headed south on 29.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:25 AM on June 29, 2004

Try going THROUGH DC...no really. I don't know where in the north you're coming from, but find your way to New Hampshire Ave and head south. Once inside DC, turn right onto North Capitol St (heading south). Take that pretty much all the way to the Capitol building. Then, take 395 south (it goes right underneath the Hill) all the way to 95.

I drive into DC every morning on North Capitol, and I've found its easily the fastest way downtown (as opposed to 16th st, Georgia, Wisconsin or Connecticut).

Anyway, stay off 495 at all costs, but you already knew that, didn't you?
posted by thewittyname at 9:56 AM on June 29, 2004

The girlfriend is weighing in. If the traffic is really that bad, I am not completely opposed to leaving early if that will help us avoid traffic. I thought emptybowl was exaggerating about the traffic situation down there in the DC area, but all of these responses confirm that it is indeed a clusterfuck.

It sounds to me like leaving early isn't really all that helpful though. Or is it?
posted by MsVader at 10:18 AM on June 29, 2004

Leave very early (5-6) or wait until about mid morning (10-11)
posted by mhaw at 11:01 AM on June 29, 2004

As you are stuck in traffic, make sure that you refer to each other as emptybowl and MsVader--it'll help pass the time.
posted by mookieproof at 11:04 AM on June 29, 2004

Why not leave Thursday night? You could get a hotel after you're south of Richmond. If you can leave earlier than 5 or 6, do so. You'll find driving so much easier.

Enjoy your trip.
posted by onhazier at 11:23 AM on June 29, 2004

If you take the Wilson Bridge (inner loop), take the Telegraph Road exit and head south. Telegraph meets up with I-95 south of the mixing bowl, and this route avoids all the Springfield traffic.

Eep. With all due respect, my husband and I take the Telegraph-to-WW Bridge route at least a couple times a month, and when we tried it on Memorial day weekend, it was molasses in January. I have to go for swinging out to 301.
posted by Fenriss at 11:27 AM on June 29, 2004

I say go for thewittyname's suggestion and cut through DC - 395 to 95 is much easier then 495/95 to 95 (mixing bowl.)

At any rate, I would be prepared to sit in traffic.

Also, Route 1 is an option, but I hav a feeling it'll be as bad AND have lights to contend with.
posted by drobot at 12:53 PM on June 29, 2004

I thought Miami traffic was bad until I came to DC. No comparison. We live between Bolling AFB and NRL and use the 295S -> 495 -> 95S route pretty often, it's really not too bad if you catch it off rush hour, and the I-95 connection just opened up, so that's not such a jam anymore.

I have noticed that going through DC like witty said really isn't that bad sometimes, but once you get to the outskirts, vader's right...total clusterfuck.
posted by tetsuo at 1:20 PM on June 29, 2004

I've heard a lot about 301 recently, but never taken it myself. All I can offer you, as one who as negotiated said clusterfuck more times that I care to dwell upon, is to make sure you pee before you hit the real bad parts. There is nothing worse than being stuck in that kind of horrible traffic while you have to pee.

Good luck. God speed.
posted by jennyb at 1:23 PM on June 29, 2004

I used to take 301 often to skirt past DC to Baltimore (from SE Virginia). That was some time back: it was lightly travelled, very scenic and the lights were little trouble. I suspect that has changed but knowing the Wilson Bridge and mixing bowl situations, I would probably still take it. (I generally don't mind traveling more slowly as a substitute for maddening or aggressive (i.e. all of I-95 in VA) traffic. Lately, when traveling from the WVa eastern panhandle to Richmond, I take a number of back roads -- again scenic and not heavily traveled. (17 used to be my road of choice through that part of VA, but even it is heavily traveled now.)

Drive safely and remember: 65, it's not just the law, it's a good idea. (This sounded like it meant something when the speed limit was 55.)
posted by Dick Paris at 2:29 PM on June 29, 2004

Good god, don't take route 1. It's never better than sticking it out on 95 unless the whole highway is shut down for a major accident.
posted by machaus at 2:31 PM on June 29, 2004

Go west, young people! West through Charlottesville! It should take about 5 1/2 -- 6 hours plus whatever you spend fighting traffic on 66. Given how clogged 95 is likely to be, it might not take much more time at all than going 95.

As an added bonus, you don't go through Miserable I-85 Hell. And it's purty.

You just want 66 west to 29 south to Charlottesville, and then after Danville you want NC 86 south until you hit 40 and 85 in Hillsborough; which of those you want will depend on which part of Durham you want to get to.

Downside: You don't get to cross the Ni! river, like you do on either 95 or 301.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:22 PM on June 29, 2004

I think worse than the beltway on Friday is the 95 south in VA going to Richmond between DC and Fredericksburg.. make sure you hop on the expressway if you have the HOV limit, the entrance is right after you get off the beltway to 95 south, dive left or you'll miss it.
posted by stbalbach at 5:35 PM on June 29, 2004

I've always liked the BW parkway to 295 south. Once you get on 295 South, take the "Downtown" exit, I forget the street, but it says Downtown on the sign. Turn right at the bottom of the ramp. This puts you on South Capital Street which runs right into 395 South. During the morning, 395 South is a breeze, I drive it every day.

I drove down to Charlotte last weekend. I took Friday afternoon off, and left at 12:30. I got in the HOV lanes on 95, and had about 5 miles of slow traffic after the HOV lanes merged with the regular lanes. After that it was a breeze. I lost maybe 15 minutes because of traffic. Of course that wasn't a holiday weekend, YMMV.
posted by BigVACub at 6:15 PM on June 29, 2004

I actually live off 301 a ways, and use it to commute to work daily. (I live just outside Richmond, VA near Hanover Courthouse.)

Having traveled during the Fourth of July holidays along the roads you're considering, my advice is this: avoid I-95 completely. The only time I've found I-95 to be drivable without freaking out about folks blowing by at 90+ mph and weaving all over is between 6 and 9 AM on Sunday mornings. As you probably know, it's much worse most of the time, and will be awful. Since I assume you live somewhere in Montgomery or Prince George's County, I will echo what a few others have said: take US 301.

From Maryland 301 is a 4-lane divided highway until you get to Bowling Green, VA -- then it turns into a two-lane highway with few stoplights (I could count them on one hand, I believe) until you get near where I live (Rural Point Rd. and 301). After that, I suggest continuing down 301 and getting on I-295 East, which is a beltway around the center of downtown Richmond, and will in fact deposit you near Petersburg if you stay on it the entire time. After that it is a short trip north on I-95 for a few miles before you can move over to I-85 South at Petersburg, which will take you straight to Durham. However, since it is heavily traveled in NC (being the most important highway in the state as well as a link to Atlanta), though not as much as I-95, I would recommend possibly switching to US 460 West (4-lane divided) after a short ride on I-85. 460 will take you to Burkeville, where you can get on US 360 West (4-lane divided) south to US 15 (2-lane) or US 501 (4-lane divided), both of which go straight to Durham (though US 15 merges with I-85 for a little while).

I've been studying the VA state map and my Greater Richmond & Petersburg street map to verify this stuff, just in case you think I'm BS-ing you -- but this seems like the best route to me. But, as long as you're in Central Virginia, keep an ear tuned to WRVA 1140 AM -- they're a news radio station, but they should be running fairly frequent traffic updates even on a Sunday holiday. Because who knows -- traffic might actually be good this weekend.

Hope that helps.
posted by armage at 4:17 PM on June 30, 2004

Oh, and I think my way will take you less time than trying to do US 29 -- it's a pretty drive, but it is LONG. (Plus you're likely to hit nasty traffic in Charlottesville, Lynchburg, and/or Danville if you hit any of them at rush hour, which will slow you down some).
posted by armage at 4:24 PM on June 30, 2004

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