Best outdoor activities in and around Washington, DC

Wander | Hike | Bike | Fish | Swim

DC’s outdoor scene ranges from the rich Appalachian heritage of the Shenandoah Valley to the nautical tradition of the Chesapeake Bay, but many of Washington’s best outdoor activities are within a short drive of city-center.

Here we highlight activities you can do in the hidden patches of wilderness wedged between the bustling streets of DC and its inner-suburbs. If you’re looking to go further afield, you may also want to check out our Road Trips post.

Wander an Area Garden

A bee finds some sweet nectar at the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens National Park
A bee finds some sweet nectar at the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens National Park

There are a number of great gardens in the DMV that are worth your time. Spring is the best time to tour, but you can find something interesting to see most any season.

Within an easy drive of city center is the Franciscan Monastery Gardens near Catholic University. For a traditional Asian garden, head out to Meadowlark Gardens and Nature Center. If you’re looking for a quintessential colonial era garden and are willing to drive an hour past the Virginia suburbs, Oatlands Plantation Gardens is your best bet.

Hike: DC’s best outdoor activities in the wilderness

Some of DC's best outdoor activities are hidden gems.  If you're looking to go somewhere no one else goes, consider Lake Mercer, which is accessible off a suburban cul-de-sac.
Some of DC’s best outdoor activities are hidden gems. If you’re looking to go somewhere no one else goes, consider Lake Mercer, which is accessible off a suburban cul-de-sac.

With 35 National Parks within a short drive, and a high level of dedication to preserving nature by the state and local governments, you’ll have your pick of both easy walks and extreme hikes. Check out our full DC Hiker’s Guide with driving directions to all the popular trails (and a few hidden gems) around the DMV.

Take a bike tour

Two cyclists ride along the C&O Trail on the Potomac River north of Georgetown
Two cyclists ride along the C&O Trail on the Potomac River north of Georgetown

For an easy ride along the Potomac river, head to the C&O Canal Trail. This nearly 200-mile path along the Potomac has a history stretching back to George Washington and features some of the most accessible wilderness in the DMV. None of the trail will challenge beginning riders, so it’s an ideal escape for families.

A park bench on a mountain bike trail at Fountainhead, DC's best outdoor activities
The memorial bench on the novice bike loop at Fountainhead is dedicated to Mountain Bike legend Scott Scudamore.

The mountain biking around DC is surprisingly good. Read our DC Mountain Biker’s Guide for the best places to visit. My favorite is Fountainhead because it has long trails specifically designed for various experience levels, and the scenery is excellent. Wakefield is a little closer in and the trails are excellent, but the closeness to 495 is a drag.

Catch a big fish

Fountainhead Park on The Occoquan River Reservoir is among DC's best outdoor activities.  The long dock is popular with local fishermen on weekends, but it's nearly empty on weekdays.
Fountainhead Park on The Occoquan River Reservoir is among DC’s best outdoor activities. The long dock is popular with local fishermen on weekends, but it’s nearly empty on weekdays.

I grew up fly fishing for trout in the Rocky Mountains, so I’m still adjusting to the Bass and Catfish scene around DC. But there are a number of good spots to find brown trout and rainbows within a 2 hour drive of DC (I recommend the Rapidan or the North Fork of the Thornton near Sperryville, VA). Be sure to grab a trout stamp when you apply for your fishing license.

If you don’t have time for a long drive, consider Burke Lake (good fishing along the dam) or one of the many access points along the Potomac Heritage Trail. Just remember, you’ll need a different license for Virginia, Maryland and DC.

Some of Washington, DC's best outdoor activities can be had on lakes around the region.  The fishing pier off the Lake Brittle boat ramp.  Lake Brittle is an excellent place to learn to fish because it is stocked regularly with warm water fish.
Some of Washington, DC’s best outdoor activities can be had on lakes around the region. The fishing pier off the Lake Brittle boat ramp. Lake Brittle is an excellent place to learn to fish because it is stocked regularly with warm water fish.

Can I eat fish from the Potomac?

It depends on the type of fish. In general, you’re safe occasionally eating almost any fish you catch above DC, north of the District line (so anywhere near or above the Chain Bridge is fine).

What fish should I avoid eating?

Toxicity levels (particularly mercury and PCBs) vary over time, so always check the latest Maryland Fish Advisory for warnings before dipping your line in the water. For the Shenandoah River Basin and lakes west of the city, check out the Virginia Fish Advisory. Virginia also provides a clickable map of fish advisories. You should limit consumption of bottom-feeders such as Bass, Catfish, Crappie and Eel to once or twice a month.

Can I fish the Potomac with a Virginia license?

Virginia DGIF logo

Yes. Although the Potomac is owned by Maryland up to the Virginia shoreline, the states have a fishing reciprocity agreement whereby you may fish from both sides of the Potomac with either a Virginia or a Maryland License.

Swim

If you don’t belong to a pool, no worries! There are a number of great swimming holes near DC that are open to the public. My personal favorite is Cunningham Falls, about an hour northwest of DC. Cunningham offers both mountain stream swimming (at the base of the falls) and a calm beach by a lake that works well for early swimmers.

The swimming hole near Black Rock Mill on the Seneca Creek.

Poolesville, MD has a popular swimming hole closer to DC, as does Black Rock Mill, near the Schaeffer Farms Mountain Bike Trail.

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