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 greatest outdoor attractions are within a short drive of city-center.
Here we celebrate 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.
Gardens and easy walks near DC
The many gardens and nature centers around DC provide an easy escape from the daily grind. Here are a few of my favorites:
The National Zoo
The best time to see the National Zoo is when it opens at 8am. The best parking lot (Lot A, close to the Panda House) is never full that early, and you’ll have the zoo all to yourself.
Parking is $24 for the day, though you can sometimes find free parking early on Sundays along Connecticut. Alternatively, take the Metro Red Line to Woodley Park / Zoo. The Zoo entrance is about a half-mile up Connecticut from the Metro escalator.
Meadowlark is my favorite garden in the area, and it’s a treat year-round. In Winter, the park is decked out in holiday lights. In Spring, Summer and Fall, the natural colors take over.
Brookside is the Meadowlark of Maryland. The Japanese tea house is a charming place to rest and take in the scenery, and Brookside also features a seasonal, popup butterfly sanctuary.
Green Spring Garden
This horticultural wonder is located between Annandale and Alexandria and has a historic house that serves tea and a botanical education.
Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens
If you’ve never toured a traditional Asian lotus garden, you are in for an other-worldly experience. The best time to go is in mid to late Spring, when the flowers are in bloom.
Explore the Epic Urban Wilderness surrounding DC
You may not think of wilderness when you think of DC, but there are 35 National Parks in the capitol region and a number of state and local parks.
Great Falls National Park
By far the grandest National Park in the area is Great Falls. The easiest way to do Great Falls is to drive to the Visitor Center, which is just a short walk from the Falls overlook. But the line to get in and park can be up to 45 minutes long on a beautiful day, according to the Park Service. And you have to pay to get in. A free alternative entrance is by the free parking lot across the street from the Anglers’ Inn. It’s about 2 miles from the Visitors’ Center, so you may want to bring a bike if you’re in a hurry.
Near the top of any boater’s list is Burke Lake, a 218 acre lake surrounded by wilderness.
Spooky Woods: Prince William Forest National Park
In the Second World War, Prince William Forest was a training facility for American Spies enrolled in the OSS (predecessor of the CIA) . It’s easy to see why: these dark woods comprise the largest uninterrupted wilderness in the DMV.
Meadowood: a Mountain Biker’s Dream
Half an hour’s drive south of DC in Mason Neck is the Meadowood Recreation Area. While many of the trails are restricted to hikers or horseback riders, the South Branch Loop trail is the domain of serious mountain bikers. Among its many attractions is a fast obstacle course known simply as The Boss. If you’re too chicken, there’s no shame in watching others bust their ass trying to navigate the extreme obstacles.
Raven Rocks Trailhead
Raven Rocks is something you should only do when you have the whole day. Parking is tight in the trailhead lot, so if you’re there after 10 on a spring weekend, you may have to bail. The hike is also long, traversing three ridges on the AT.
Rock Creek Park
Rock Creek Park cuts through the heart of DC and provides miles of paved running and biking trails along a tributary of the Potomac. The park also serves as a portal to imagine what DC was like before it became one of the world’s great cities.
- Sugarman, Joe, 12 Great Hikes Near DC, Washingtonian Magazine, 2016.