Best time to go: 04/01 - 09/30
Just half an hour north of DC are several public lakeside retreats with playgrounds, boat rentals, picnic areas, and an abundance of history and natural attractions. Although these lakes are all open year-round, some amenities — such as boat rentals, swimming and kiddie rides — are only available in the warmer months.
Public Lakes in Virginia
Nearly all the close-in public lakes in Virginia are in Fairfax County.
Lake Accotink Park is one of my favorite public lakes. It’s a little like a mini-vacation: complete with pedal boats, kayak rentals, a 9-green double holed miniature golf course, antique carousel, and a snack bar.
Originally a reservoir until the US Army declared it surplus, Lake Accotink is now a recreational park operated by Fairfax County. Fairfax County plans a cleanup dredging and further amenities by 2025.
Just half an hour Southwest of DC is a 218 acre lake surrounded by wilderness. Because there are no homes on the lake and gas-powered boats are not permitted, the park feels like it could be far off in the mountains.
Entrance to the park is $10 (free for Fairfax County residents), and there are additional fees for activities such as golfing, canoe rental, or riding the narrow-gauge train that goes along the western shore of the lake.
Camping is also available on the lake’s north shore, though it can feel a little cramped with all the cars in these drive-in sites.
A 4.7 mile trail winds around the lake and is suitable for hiking (2 hours with kids) or biking (half an hour).
Virginia’s Lake Fairfax
West of Washington, DC is Virginia’s best public lake for sportsmen: Lake Fairfax. Here you’ll find excellent fishing in a stocked reservoir, a (man-made) waterfall, lakeside camping / RV park, and extensive mountain biking trails.
Perhaps the biggest attraction of Lake Fairfax is the Water Mines Waterslide Park. The best way to enjoy that is to arrive right at opening (10a in Summer).
Public Lakes in Maryland
There are many public lakes in Maryland. Some, like Seneca Creek and Black Hill, are less than half an hour away. Driving further will take you to some real national treasures, such as Deep Creek Lake and Cunningham Falls.
Seneca Creek Lake
Seneca Creek is the closest of the public lakes on the Maryland side (less than half an hour from downtown Washington, DC) and has shady picnic spots and a lovely lake with a perimeter trail. There is no boat rental at Seneca Creek Park, but there are plenty of spots to fish, and you can put in for free at the public boat ramp.
The nearby Seneca homestead includes an historic log cabin.
Maryland’s Black Hill Lake Park
Black Hill Lake Park offers more complete amenities, with a nature center and boat rental facility (including canoes, kayaks, rowboats and paddle boats). All may be had for $15-$30 per hour.
Both parks feature ample playgrounds.
Public Swimming at Cunningham Falls
An hour’s drive north of Washington, DC takes you to the swimmer’s paradise of Cunningham Falls, along the base of the Catoctin range and within spitting distance of Camp David. Cunningham Falls is also among our favorite easy hikes for kids. Note that Cunningham Falls is incredibly popular in the summer and sometimes the park closes when it reaches capacity. I recommend calling in advance (301-271-7574) though keep in mind that they almost never pick up the phone. Your best bet is to try to get there before 9am. If that’s not possible, pick another place.
After paying the $7pp entry fee (pro tip: put all your kids in booster seats and they’ll get in for free), you’ll follow the traffic to the main parking lot for the picnic area along the lake. Walk to the top of the lot to pick up the lower falls trail.
After less than a mile of easy walking, the trial will open up to a boardwalk to the base of the falls. Few people stay on the boardwalk, instead walking directly to the base of the falls and climbing up the gradual rock surface of the falls to the top.
Within the falls are a number of small grottos and natural bathtubs. None is big enough to swim, but all will offer a refreshing dip in the cool mountain waters.
If your appetite for swimming has not been sated, walk back down the trail, through the main lot to the lake. There you’ll find two beaches with lifeguards and open swimming. The lake bottom is sandy up until about waist deep, and then it turns to soft mush. By then you’ll be swimming, though, because the water is bathtub warm in the summer.