Today’s superb weather inspired me to put together a list of places that are made for beautiful days like this. Most of these locales have been recommended before, but never in one easy go-to list. Certainly, there are many more, so I’ll continually add new recommendations. In the meantime, may there be many great days ahead to try them out.U.S. National Arboretum
Hands down one of the best places in the city to chill out with the kids outdoors — which is why I recommend it so often. Its nearly 450 acres contain an amazing variety of plant, tree, and flower collections. Even if little ones aren’t into the flora, there still is plenty they will enjoy. The old National Capitol columns standing smack in middle of the Ellipse Meadow are a big draw – kids can play amid the pillars and check out the fountain, which flows down from the middle to a pool below. You can hike through woods, cross footbridges over small creeks, and seek out “magic” sitting areas like gazebos and spaces beneath tree canopies. The wonderful Washington Youth Garden invites visitors to watch the cultivation process, and the natural playground lets them engage in fun activities. The koi pond at the visitor center is great fun – the fish will swim right up to the edge and even pop their faces above the surface in hopes of a feeding. Little ones will also delight in the little trees at the bonsai exhibits. And the Grove of State Trees, a collection of trees from all 50 states, is a designated eating area with wooden tables and nice flat spots to spread out a blanket for a picnic.
The Yards Park
One of the other best places to chill out with the kids, this relatively new recreational space is not a new recommendation from me, and for good reason. The centerpiece of the still-developing Capitol Riverfront neighborhood has many elements that make it a gem — open grassy spaces, lots of artistically designed benches and seating areas, a boardwalk along the Anacostia, the sculptural Pedestrian Bridge, and a fantastic view of the river. But the real bonus for kids is the fountains. Located on the park’s two levels, the water features aren’t just there for people to look at; those who want to get wet can play in the sprays above and wade in the shallow pool below. Just be sure to bring a change of clothes for the kids – getting soaked is guaranteed. (February 2015 Update: There’s even more to enjoy now, as The Yards has developed quite a bit since this was originally posted — more eateries, kayaks for rent (see Ballpark Boathouse below), a fantastic summer concert series, and lots of fun events hosted there. However, the fountains and boat rentals and not on during the cold months.)
The National Mall
This is an obvious suggestion, but sometimes those are the very ones we need to be reminded of, especially when it’s easy to get lured into the many museums surrounding the Mall that beckon with wonderful collections and free admission. But there’s plenty of art and history along with active recreation to enjoy outside of the galleries, too. Walk or bike among the monuments and memorials, but be sure to stop and take in the magnificent architecture and design. View art al fresco — kids will love the whimsical creations at the National Gallery of Art and Hirshhorn Museum Sculpture Gardens. Stop and smell the roses and other pretty flowers at the Haupt Garden behind the Smithsonian Castle. Take a spin on The Carousel for $3.75 a ride. Rent a paddle boat and cruise the Tidal Basin ($12/hour for 2 people, $19/hour for 4 people.
Watkins Regional Park
Plan on several trips to this PG County park — there is so much to do here, that you need a few outings to thoroughly enjoy it all. Visit bunnies, chickens, peacocks, ducks, llamas, cows, ponies and sheep at Old Maryland Farm. Bring quarters for the food dispensers to feed the birds, and the Watkins Nature Center will have even more critters for guests to see. From there, head over to the sprawling colorful Wizard of Oz-themed playground. As if all that isn’t enough, Watkins gets even better in the spring, when the antique carousel, train, and mini golf open for the season — be sure to check the schedule for days and times.
Walks in the Woods
One of my favorite ways to relish in a great day is on the trail, immersed in nature. Last spring I discussed how having kids changed the way my husband and I approach outdoor recreation, particularly hiking. We have to be mindful of our babes’ capabilities when hitting the trail, from how far their little legs can take them to how long they have before boredom kicks in. So, we try to find hikes that are short, not too strenuous, and include sights that we know they will appreciate. This post contains a list of some of the best places we’ve found to tramp with the kids.
Rock Creek Park
The sprawling urban park regularly offers all kinds of ranger-led programs and activities for children, many for free. There are hikes, horseback rides, nature tours, and more. On any given weekend and select dates during the week, there’s something going on to bring kids closer to nature. One of our favorite stops is the Horse Center, where guests can visit equine residents at the stables and sign up for a pony ride through the woods ($20 – check the schedule for days and times).
Great Falls Park
I mentioned this park that straddles the Potomac River in Maryland and Virginia in my post about hikes with kids awhile back. But it’s more than just a great place for walks in the woods. Along with numerous trails, Great Falls is a showcase of some of the area’s best natural scenery and a harbor of historical sights. The falls, gushing furiously over jagged rocks in the Mather Gorge, are a magnificent must-see. You can view them from a few different overlooks that are easily accessible via wooden footbridges or hike down (or up) dirt trails where it’s less crowded. Remnants of 18th-century locks are still on the Maryland side along the C&O canal, and if you look closely, you can find stone mason marks created to identify their work. Ranger-led programs and tours are available – info about both can be found on the National Park Service website.
This is where we go when we arrive at Great Falls to find a long line of cars at the entrance, which is not uncommon on a beautiful day. Riverbend is just a few miles away from its more popular neighbor on the Virginia side of the Potomac in Fairfax County. There are no awe-inspiring falls, and at 400 acres it’s about half the size, but it’s low-key, peaceful, and a lovely riverfront retreat. Hike through the woods along the water or stick to paved paths near the Visitor Center. Picnic tables are available, so pack a lunch to enjoy a bite by the water.
There are trails, wildlife sightings, and plenty of nature to explore on the 1,425 acres of woods and wetlands throughout this park in Alexandria. Hike along the paved, dirt, and boardwalk trails, and you’re practically guaranteed to spot turtles of all sizes, frogs, great blue herons, cardinals, and a variety of other birds. The entire hike is just over a mile, and there are lookouts and benches where you can stop for breaks and snacks along the way to make it a few hours’ outing. Don’t forget sunscreen, hats, and water, as there’s no shade through the wetlands section of the park. Get directions to the Huntley Meadows here.
I always think of this national memorial honoring President Theodore Roosevelt and his contributions to the environment as very “DC.” Its 91 acres are located amidst a natural woodsy setting accessible by long wooden footbridge crossing the Potomac. Vegetation grows thickly along two and a half miles of paved paths looping through the preserve. And smack in the middle of it all – the “DC” part — is a stone tribute to Roosevelt, a 17-foot bronze statue of Teddy himself, flowing fountains, and large granite slabs inscribed with Roosevelt’s tenets on conservation. It’s all quite impressive to both kids and adults. And the island itself is perfect for an outing with kids with short, easy hikes, wildlife sightings (we’ve seen deer and other small animals there), and a chance to splash around in water a bit (just hands and feet – there’s no jumping in these fountains).
George Washington’s old digs, sprawling along the banks of the Potomac across the river from DC, offer a history lesson, some of the best views around, and a good time all in one. Get a glimpse into the life of the first POTUS by touring the Mansion and other buildings, several gardens, and a four-acre working farm on the estate. Staff dressed in costume roam the estate and tell stories about the old days. That’s often a favorite for kids along with the stables, seeing the farm animals, and generally getting an idea of what life was like over 200 years ago. Don’t miss a stroll on the Mansion’s east lawn — the stretch of green grass right along the water offers a beautiful lookout over the Potomac. Admission is $17/adult, $9/ages 6-11, free for children 5 and under.
This public display garden in Wheaton is beautiful any time of year with spectacular blooms in the spring, the Wings of Fancy butterfly exhibit in the summer, brilliant foliage during fall, and holiday lights in the winter. Along with many incredible plant and flower collections there’s a turtle pond, a children’s garden complete with gnome hut and tree house, and plenty of open space for roaming and enjoying the scenery. Admission is free, though there is a fee for Wings of Fancy.
East Potomac Park | Hains Point
Many people, including me, call the whole 300+acre peninsula Hains Point, but that particular locale is actually only the southern part of the entire park. Situated between the Washington Channel and the Potomac River just south of the Tidal Basin, East Potomac Park contains a nice variety of recreation, and it all comes with great views of the water as well as the boats and airplanes that cruise and fly alongside it. Within the park there’s a golf course, a mini-golf course, tennis courts, a swimming pool, a playground, and plenty of space to run, play, and picnic. Ohio Drive, the road that runs the perimeter of the park is a popular training course for competitive cyclers and runners, but the flat, scenic loop is good for family bike rides, too.
The small, scenic park just off the GW Parkway next to Ronald Reagan Airport is an ideal spot to picnic, people watch, play ball, and walk along the river — if you really like airplanes. I have to warn: it’s hit or miss with kids (and adults, for that matter). The park is adjacent to the airport runway, so planes take off or land (depending on which way they are going that day) literally right overhead. That’s the hit or miss part. It’s loud and potentially scary for those who don’t like the looks of a plane coming right at them. But for kids who don’t mind and love airplanes, it’s quite a thrill.
During fruit and veggie harvests, this is one of our family’s favorite farms to visit. It’s not open to guests until strawberry season begins in May, but when it does open, it’s a great place to pick your own produce and enjoy some time on the farm. Homestead scores just as high on aesthetics as it does on its crops—the lovely pastoral setting in Montgomery County makes you feel like you’re way more than 20 miles from the city. Before you go, be sure to check the website for hours and to see what’s ripe for picking.
Weekends at Eastern Market
This one is quite special to me, as it’s just blocks from our house and one of my favorite things about living on Capitol Hill. Something about spending time there feels like a vacation in my own neighborhood. The market is both a community touchstone and a big draw for folks who don’t live here, especially on the weekends when the flea market, stretching along 7th Street SE, is in full swing. Local farmers sell fresh produce and other vendors sell art, jewelry, housewares, clothes and accessories, food, and a variety of other goods. Live music and food trucks parked nearby are additional treats. Of course, you can’t miss the centerpiece of it all, Eastern Market itself. Inside, food stalls offer all kinds of fresh fare, from meats and cheese to produce and baked goods to fish and flowers. The Market Lunch is an institution, serving some of the best pancakes and crab cakes around (don’t let the name fool ya… the breakfast is legendary.) But if the line is too long for little ones to wait, there are plenty of other places both in the market and the immediate area to grab a bite to eat.
Just over an hour’s drive from DC, where the Potomac meets the Shenandoah River, this West Virginia locale is a great day trip destination and an easy escape from the Metro-area bustle. Outdoor recreation, historic landmarks, and small-town strolling give visitors plenty to see and do. Located along the famous Appalachian Trail, there are ample tramping options, many that lead to overlooks offering incredible views (these tend to be steep and strenuous so be prepared with little ones). Civil War remnants provide a glimpse into the past. The charming town with quaint shops and cobblestone streets is a fun area to roam and explore. And if the kids are older and confident on the water, take them tubing on the river for a glorious way to enjoy a warm-weather day.
Cabin John Regional Park Adventure Playland
The beautiful natural setting and abundance of play options put Cabin John among the top area playgrounds. A variety of primary-colored play structures are scattered throughout a sublime wooded section of the park. Tall trees surround the area, and their long shadows streak across sunlit surfaces. Kids can climb up, slide down, scramble over, swing from, even pretend to drive the apparatuses. And while there are many structures of all kinds of configurations for varying ages, there’s also a lot of open space in which to run around. As if that’s not enough, there is also a Miniature Train that offers rides through the woods ($1.75 for ages 3 and up, free for 2 and under with adult). For a complete review of this playground nirvana, see this post.
Potomac by Water Taxi
The Potomac Riverboat Company operates daily between the National Harbor and Old Town Alexandria. It’s about a 20-minute ride on the river, plenty of time to thrill young mariners. Catch the taxi from either point, cruise to the other side, then stay awhile to eat and explore. Round-trip rides are $10/adults and $5/kids ages 5-11. A coupon for $2 off is available on the company’s website.
Stay Cool at an Outdoor Pool
Nothing says summer like swimming under the sun. Starting Memorial Day weekend, DC outdoor public pools are open on Saturdays and Sundays from 12 – 6pm. They open daily a few weeks later, though all pools are closed one day a week for maintenance, so be sure to check the schedule before you go. For swimming outside of the city, Montgomery County outdoor public pools are open Memorial Day through Labor Day — the Dept. of Recreation website has locations and hours. In Northern Virginia, Arlington’s Upton Hill has a whole waterpark for guests to enjoy, and Alexandria has several places where the public is welcome to swim — be sure to check the website for hours, as they vary from pool to pool.
When baseball season is in full swing, a day at the ballpark can be a great family activity. (I think so, anyway. As mentioned in an early KFDC post, not all folks agree). It’s an experience that extends beyond just the game — there are the Racing Presidents during the fourth inning; the Family Fun Area outfitted with corporate-sponsored interactive games and activities; the Jungle Gym, full of twisty climbs, tunnels, and slides; and plenty of JumboTron entertainment. Go on Sundays for Kids Run the Bases—after the game children ages 4 and up are invited to loop the infield, high-fiving Nationals mascot Screech and the Racing Presidents along the way.
Play in the Spray
Kids can run through fountains and splash around at many area spraygrounds. Several are within the DC Department of Parks and Recreation, and you can find out where on their website. DPR Spray Parks open Memorial Day weekend on a Saturday-only basis, hours are 11am – 4pm. Starting June 21, they will open daily (check the website for hours). For spray fun with a riverfront view, the Yards Park has fountains and a great location on the Anacostia. And some of the area’s most popular spray parks—Lyon Village Park, Hayes Park, and Drew Park–can be found in Arlington.
Lions and tigers and bears…and elephants and pandas and gorillas…oh, yeah! What kid doesn’t love to see the beasts they usually only read about in books or see on TV — all in one place? Our zoo has it all, and it seems to get better all the time with new habitats for many animals and more exhibits for visitors (though updates also require construction, which also seems to be ongoing). Ambitious zoo-goers can tour all of it in a day, but I find it easier to pick a few exhibits in one area and take our time. Cafes and food stands offer a small selection of food, or you can also pack lunch and picnic in the grassy area by the Kids’ Farm (or just find an empty bench). The new Elephant Trails exhibit is quite popular as is the Giant Panda Habitat and lion cubs. And there are always daily programs and special events, so be sure to check the calendar before you go to help plan your visit. Woodley Park on the Red Line is the closest Metro stop, or you can pay $15 to park in the Zoo lot (or hope to get lucky and find street parking along Connecticut Avenue or nearby side street).
Clark’s Elioak Farm
From a kid’s eye view, this farm must be magical. And from a parent’s perspective, it’s the kind of place that makes me wish I were a kid again. The grounds are straight out of a fairytale, charmingly adorned with recovered installations from an old storybook park. Kids can peek in the windows of the Three Bears’ house, zip down a slide of the Old Woman Who Lived in A Shoe, tumble down a hill with Jack & Jill, climb aboard Cinderella’s pumpkin, sit on Humpty Dumpty’s wall. If that’s not enough, there are also hayrides, cow train rides, pony rides, a playground area (not that the whole thing isn’t a giant playground), and farm animals – goats, ponies, sheep, and chickens—including a petting area that kids can actually enter to feed and pet baby goats. Check the calendar for hours and special events spring through fall when it’s open to visitors, including pumpkin patch fun in autumn. Clark Elioak’s Farm is located in Ellicott City, Maryland, about a 45-minute drive from DC. Admission is $5/person (free for children under 1), $2 each for pony rides, cow train rides, and hayrides.
Claude Moore Colonial Farm
This living history farm in McLean is straight out of the 18th-century. Everything at Claude Moore has been recreated to look just as it did in 1771, with a tobacco barn, farm house, garden, orchard, animals, even a family (portrayed by actors) who live and work on the farm and go about their daily life as visitors pass through. The farm isn’t huge — the whole walk is about 3/4 of a mile, and there is a dirt path that winds through it — but it’s a wonderful earning experience for all ages as well as a great way to spend a nice day outside. Admission is $3/adult, $2/children 3 and up. The farm is closed during the winter, but will reopens in early April.
The park’s tag line, “Where every child can play…”, really says it all. Unique among DC area playgrounds, Clemyjontri was designed with children of all abilities in mind and accommodates those who use wheelchairs, braces, and walkers, or who have sensory or developmental disabilities. Swings have high backs and added safety features, ramps and rubber surfacing allow wheelchairs to navigate the entire area, wider openings offer better access to play structures, and monkey bars are lowered for easier climbing. And the beautiful American Classic Carousel is at ground level for wheelchair accessibility. Just looking at the sprawling expanse of brightly colored play structures with a fairytale-esque carousel at its center is an instant boost to any kid’s excitement meter. Parents are often equally captivated by the park, and not just because they know their kids will have a blast there, but also because of the idea that just about any kid can enjoy it. Clemyjontri Park is located at 6317 Georgetown Pike in McLean. Hours are 7am – Dusk, admission is free, and carousel rides are $1.50 when it’s in operation (check the calendar).
Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens
It’s hard to believe something like this exists right in the city. Yet there it is in northeast Washington, right on the other side of the Arboretum. However, you have to go around to 295 to access the entrance. Numerous ponds are filled with giant lily pads, lotus flowers, water lilies, and a variety of interesting aquatic plants. Paths winding among them make for excellent nature walks, letting visitors get a close look at the flora and fauna that thrives there. Along with the vegetation, it’s quite possible to see any number of marshland residents — frogs, turtles, geese, great blue herons, and more. The best times to go is when the weather is warmer and the flowers are in bloom. But a stroll through the gardens any time of year is a wonderful way to get a nature fix without even leaving the city. Hours are 8am – 4pm. Find directions to the Gardens here.
The American Horticultural Society’s headquarters located right off the GW Parkway on the way to Mount Vernon are, in a word, lovely. Over looking the Potomac River, the grounds welcome visitors to explore, relax, and play. That’s right, the Children’s Gardens on the north side of the house include all kinds of mini gardens designed to stimulate children’s interest in plants and nature. There’s a little fort that kids can crawl under or over; the Boat Garden with a real row boat to climb aboard; a Little House on the Prairie Garden with – yup! – a little house to play in; and many more charming areas for kids to enjoy. And right next to it all are more gardens with beautiful flowers, plants, brick paths, and nice seating areas that would make great picnic spots. The large house on premises is also open to tour and contains the office, art to view, and bathrooms. Rocking chairs on the back porch practically beckon you to sit and enjoy the tranquil surroundings and beautiful riverside view. River Farm is located at 7931 East Boulevard Drive in Alexandria. It’s open from 9am – 5pm Monday through Friday all year, and 9am – 1pm on Saturday from April through September.
Oxon Hill Farm
This park in Prince George’s county, just minutes from the National Harbor, makes for a wonderful outing with the kids. Not only is it super fun for little ones, with animals to visit and lots of space to run around, it’s also scenic and serene, a nice escape from the city bustle. And it never seems to be crowded, so parking isn’t a problem and seeing the sights is easy. Along with the animals, there are historical exhibits, including old farm equipment, a display about grain uses, and an area demonstrating the agriculture (tobacco and wheat) of the farm’s past. Be sure to stop in the Visitor Center, where there is a small play area for kids, and to find out about any special programs taking place when you’re there. Oxon Hill Farm is open daily from 8am – 4:30pm. Admission is free.
One of the activities I anticipate most every spring is strawberry picking. I love heading out to the farm and gathering produce with the kids. The slow pace and open space are a nice change from the hubbub and confines of the city. It’s a fun, active way for little ones to see where their food comes from. And then there’s the obvious: the enjoyment continues with a basketful of delicious hand-picked berries at home. Lucky for us, there are many farms within an easy drive from DC that offer pick-your-own opportunities. And some of them host festivals to celebrate the fruit, to boot. For a list of them, see this post about PYO places in the area.
U.S. Botanic Garden
A great destination no matter what the weather, but even better on a nice day when you can enjoy the wonderful outdoor areas too. Little ones always love the Children’s Garden where they can flex their green thumbs with shovels, water cans, and planters and ground space to dig in. There’s also a working water pump and fountains, a bamboo “forest,” and a little garden house (with a real green roof!) where kids can play. Outside of the building is the National Garden, which is terrific for all ages to tour and explore. The roses are gorgeous, there are little foot bridges spanning a small stream (where Sasha claims the Grumpy Old Troll lives), a mini amphitheater, and the First Ladies Water Garden, a lovely fountain where you can cool your feet, relax among the beautiful plants and flowers, and take in iconic DC views all at once.
Burke Lake Park
Whether you’re up for an outdoorsy experience or just seeking kiddie amusement in a nice setting, this is an ideal place to go. Encompassing nearly 900 acres, the park offers alfresco adventures to suit every age and interest. You can hike, bike, fish, run, rent rowboats, spot wildlife, play sports. Back in the pre-kids day, we loved flinging discs through the Frisbee golf course, and there’s also an 18-hole golf course and driving range, volleyball courts, and playing fields for other games. Especially for little ones are the mini train and carousel (open seasonally) , and playgrounds. Choose your pursuit (or two) and make a day of it, or pick a few and overnight it — campgrounds are open to visitors late April through most of October. Admission to Burke Lake is $10/vehicle and some of the activities cost extra. For more info and specific costs, visit the website here.
Dumbarton Oaks Gardens
The grounds of this historic estate tucked away in a relatively non-bustling area of Georgetown are absolutely enchanting. It’s sprawling acres are graced with beautifully landscaped plats, artfully designed terraces, and glorious stretches of green grass. Stone and brick passageways meander in every direction to many different areas, each one seeming more lovely than the last. Some of them you arrive at directly, the path leading to the next obvious place. Others you feel like you encounter by chance, as if you’ve discovered a secret oasis within the larger, wonderful retreat. You can easily spend a good few hours strolling the grounds and relaxing in the many seating areas. Hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 2-6pm. Admission is $8/adults, $5/children ages 3 and up, free for 2 and under. There are a lot of stairs and bumpy stone paths, so if you’re bringing a little one, I recommend a wearable carrier over a stroller. (Note: From mid-November to mid-March, admission to the gardens is FREE!)
Georgetown Waterfront Park
This recently opened park is like a Joni Mitchell song in reverse: They unpaved a parking lot and put up paradise. A 10-acre sliver of local paradise, anyway. Where there once was a big fenced-in blacktop area where you could overpay to leave your car for a few hours, is now a wonderful stretch of recreational space right along the Potomac River. And with elements that make it great for play and relaxation, plus a location that’s both scenic and convenient, it’s quickly becoming one of the city’s best go-to spots to hang outdoors. Along with a wonderful in-ground fountain that visitors can play in, there’s lots of open green space for relaxing, paths to stroll, artistic elements, and, of course, the gorgeous setting along the Potomac River. Open from dawn to dusk, and free to the public.
The Adventure Park at Sandy Spring
The locale’s five acres of Maryland woods are like a natural amusement park, outfitted with 10 ropes courses that have a total of 180 obstacles — all amid the trees. Guests navigate from tree to tree via “bridges” made from ropes, wooden boards and slats, nets, and wires (connected by carabiners to wires, of course). You might walk up a thick tree branch, duck through large metal hoops, and whiz gleefully down zip lines to get to the next platform. It’s all self-guided, and they give first-timers a lesson on handling the ropes before starting. In a nutshell: It’s So. Much. Fun. The park is open weekends through November 25 from 9am – dusk, and during September and October on Thursdays from 3pm – dusk and Fridays from 1pm – dusk. In the spring, it’s open weekends and some weekdays 9am – 7pm. During summer, open daily 9am – 8pm. Participants must be at least 5 years old, and there is a package for ages 5-6: accompanied by an adult (and it must be a one-to-one ratio), they have access to their two easiest ropes courses for 90 minutes for $34 total for kid and adult. Admission for a 3-hour adventure is $48/ages 12 and up, $43/ages 10-11, $38/ages 7-9.
Meadowlark Botanical Gardens
This park in Vienna is, in two words, absolutely glorious. Large open expanses of soft grass are traversed by paved paths with plant and flowers collections on view all around. A couple of ponds are great places to see some wildlife — turtles, fish, ducks, and geese can be easily spotted in and around the water. A new Korean Bell Garden is a pretty and peaceful area with Korean inspired structures and art. A woodsy area contains a small creek and bridges to cross it. There is also a little Butterfly Garden, whimsical botanic-themed sculptures, and some live animals to view in the Visitors Center. Meadowlark open 10am – 8pm in August, but it closes an hour earlier every month until November (then stays open later again beginning in March). Admission is $5/adults, $2.50 for ages 7-17 and 55 and up, free for kids 6 and under.
Turkey Run Park
A great option for hiking with kids. Located right off the GW Parkway near 495, Turkey Run contains nearly 700 acres of woods, trails that ramble along the Potomac, streams that flow down from the woods to the river, great views from the shoreline, and a variety of wildlife. Hikes are fairly easy, and you can opt for trails anywhere from about one to four miles long. There are clusters of big rocks on the riverbanks where it’s nice to stop and take in the views — or have a picnic if you’re so inclined. Fallen trees are fun to scramble over or walk upon, and a few small footbridges let you cross over streams. Birds and squirrels are easy to spy, and keep your eyes peeled for deer. A few picnic areas with tables are perfect for lunch al fresco, and open spaces are great areas to toss a Frisbee or kick a ball around. Access the park via the GW Parkway, right before the Beltway. Hours are 6am -10pm, and there is no admission fee.
While the grounds at Fletcher’s are a nice place to hang out, it’s actually more of a starting point for even more fun: Paddling on the Potomac. Canoes, kayaks, and row boats are available for rent for an hour or the whole day for some fun on the river. The Boathouse is open from 7am – 7pm daily mid-March through October. Canoe rentals are $14/hour or $28/day. Kayaks are $11/hour or $33/day for a single and $20/hour or $45/day for a double. Rowboats are $14/hour or $25/day. And if you’re not up for water time, Fletcher’s is still a nice place to enjoy a picnic and Potomac views — an open grassy area includes grills, tables, and space to toss a Frisbee.
The relatively new park in the Navy Yard offers both active and relaxing recreation year-round. During the warm seasons, there are two interactive fountains for the public to enjoy: A 135-foot long, 20-foot wide fountain with a gentle, shallow cascade flowing down its scrim surface is a perfect place for really little ones to play. Then there’s the fountain with jets embedded into the concrete over about a 40-foot diameter area that splash water several feet in the air. And the space is not wasted with the changing seasons. Where there’s the big spray fountain during the warm months, is the ice skating rink in late fall and winter, a unique at that with meandering paths on either end. There are green, grassy areas where children are welcome to play, and big, twisting metal sculptures adorning them. And Il Parco, the restaurant next to the fountain/ice rink, has tasty food and outdoor seating when weather permits (adults can relax with a beverage and watch the kids play at the same time). Good Guys and Subway are also right across the street, and food trucks park nearby during lunchtime if you want to grab something fast and inexpensive.
Wheaton Regional Park Playground
A variety of primary-colored equipment sprawls over a fairly large area over two levels that you can access by ramped paths or climbable walls. Kids of all ages can slide through several tunnels, climb netted apparatuses, play on swings, and more. There’s an area especially for babies and toddlers, facilities to accommodate children with special needs, and a climbable mound keeps children of all ages entertained for awhile (who knew?). And the park setting with tall, leafy trees and grassy spaces dotted with picnic tables needs to be noted, too. It’s a pretty place to spend a few hours while the kids romp. And bathrooms are nearby the playground for added convenience. Open sunrise to sunset, free admission.
Yards Park is continually adding new awesome features, and Ballpark Boathouse is among them. Single and double kayaks and canoes are available for rent for some recreation on the Anacostia River. This paddling excursion is more about the views from the water than the nature around it, since the area is very developed. You can get fresh perspectives of Nationals Park, Yards Park, and the Navy Yard, places most of us usually just see on land. One of the coolest sites is the USS Barry, the display ship moored at the Navy Yard, that you can paddle up close to (2015 Update: The ship is no longer berthed there). Rental rates are $20 per hour and pro-rated in 10-minute increments beyond that. You pay upon return, so there’s no limit to how much time you spend on the water. Really small kids need to be in a boat with parents, but older children can paddle on their own. After a jaunt on the water, hang out at the park, where you can picnic, play, and watch the boats go by.
Scott’s Run Nature Preserve
Another fantastic alternative when Great Falls is crowded (or even when it’s not) Scott’s Run offers a nice local dose of nature in a short drive from the city. Trails that meander through lush woods lead to lovely hang out spots and great views of the Potomac. The spot may not boast the spectacular vistas that its larger, better known neighbor does, but it’s peaceful and pretty and makes for a nice hiking experience with kids. Scott’s Run Nature Preserve is located in McLean just off Georgetown Pike. It’s open from just before sunrise to just after sunset. Admission is free.
Green Spring Gardens
You’re driving along a main road in Northern Virginia past shopping centers and town house communities, then you make a turn into a parking lot behind a strip mall, and voila!, there’s this gorgeous park with a large green space surrounded by gardens full of plants, flowers, art, whimsical structures, play spots for children, gazebos, and fountains. A fun way to explore it all with the kids is on a scavenger hunt — stop in the Horticultural Center to pick up instructions. Cute tasks for children include finding a plant as tall as them, greeting a tree, and telling the time based on a sun dial. Of course, wandering the grounds aimlessly or even finding a pretty spot to just sit and relax is a perfect way to enjoy Green Springs, too. Find it at 4603 Green Spring Road in Alexandria. Hours are 9am – 4:30pm Monday – Saturday, and 12-4:30pm on Sunday. Admission is free.
The Franciscan Monastery in Brookland
The “Oasis of Peace” in northeast DC was one of several “secret” spots on a round-up of places that many people (myself included until I read the list) don’t even know exist here. The locale includes the Memorial Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the centerpiece of the Monastery, beautifully manicured grounds immediately surrounding it, and a gorgeous, peaceful garden area adjacent to that. Christian sculptures and shrines adorn the site and are interesting to explore, regardless of religious views. Of course, you can just go for a stroll and enjoy the gardens — the flowers are spectacular in the spring. It’s all open for visitors to enjoy for free, but be sure to check times as they vary by day.
The Glass Forest
This hidden gem really is just that — if I hadn’t known to look for it, I never would have known it was there. Another DC “secret,” the collection of sculptures made from natural and scrap materials, is located in a small patch of woods next to the Palisades Playground. There are tree branches artistically stacked and bound together. Pieces of broken mirrors and glass on strands hang from trees looking like an oversized wind chime. Metal and plastic pipes, parts of bike frames, thick pieces of bamboo, and other odds and ends like small pans dangle from strings, some creating actual chimes that you can play. There’s a colorful, glittering mosaic piece and a wood and glass design that resembles a large sun catcher. And something about it being tucked away unobtrusively among the trees adds to the enchantment of it all.
Easily one of the best playgrounds in the District. The National Cathedral Elementary School’s outdoor area clearly reflects the school’s philosophy on the importance of outdoor play in children’s development. There are structures and spaces for all ages to enjoy. Kids can climb interesting treehouses then walk among them along wobbly wooden bridges and take a twisty underground slide from one level of the playground to a lower one. There are more cool climbing structures, swings, a kid-size basketball court, a small soccer pitch, and…wait for it…a zipline! And it’s not just Beauvoir students who benefit. The public is welcome to enjoy it all when school or camp is not in session — after school, weekends, and days off. View the school calendar for details.
Flag Ponds Nature Park
This day trip destination in Calvert County about an hour out of DC is nirvana for beach-going budding paleontologists. You can enjoy the sand and surf and hunt for shark teeth and other fossils that are said to be millions of years old! With a wide expanse of sand, sea grass blowing along the dunes, and pond-like inlets formed by sand washing in, it’s a lovely relaxing setting. And the calm, shallow water makes it a nice swim spot for children. Perhaps the only negative is the half-mile hike from the parking lot to the beach, then another short trek through the sand to the water. But bring along a wagon, good stroller, and rolling cooler for stacking your beach gear, and you’ll be all set.
Annmarie Sculpture Garden
Plan to spend many, many hours at this enchanting park and arts center in Solomons, MD. Annmarie is full of art and whimsy that is both wonderful to view and glorious to experience. From eye-popping exhibits indoors to sculptures (and summer fairy houses) scattered about the grounds outside, the works appeal to all ages. Special hands-on activities, including an artLAB full of crafty possibilities invite guests to create. And the Fairy Lolly, perhaps the most charming playground you’ll ever encounter, is a fantastic delight in itself. If there’s any place worth an hour-plus drive to visit, Annmarie is it.
Purse State Park
Just over an hour’s drive away from DC along a part of the river called Wades Bay, where woods meet water, you’ll find this pretty and peaceful beach area. A narrow strip of sand stretches along the shoreline, tree branches from the woods overhanging in a few spots. But the best parts of this locale are hidden among the piles of shells and small rocks at the water’s edge; that’s where you’ll easily find fossils from sharks, fish, shells, even crocodiles, many of them over 30 million and some up to 60 million years old. Be sure to go at low tide, as the already narrow strip of sand thins out even more at high tide (check the tide table here). Bring along a container to store your finds, because you’re guaranteed to go home with a good-sized stash.
Anacostia Park –
Stretching along the river for which it’s named in southeast DC, Anacostia Park offers recreation galore for visitors. You can bike, run, or walk on a riverside trails. Big grassy fields host all kinds of rec league sports and are also great for pick-up games, kicking a ball, or just running around. Kids love the three playgrounds, especially one with a pirate theme. There are also tennis courts, an outdoor swimming pool, and a skating pavilion for even more active fun. The Anacostia Community Boathouse is located on the west shore of the river, and includes a marina with a public boat launch and canoe rentals during the summer (free Paddle Nights are also offered through the Anacostia Watershed Society). You can bring along food on your visit — there are lots of tables and lovely spots to picnic. Is that enough activity for you? And it’s all going to get even better when Anacostia Crossing, the 11th Street Bridge Park coming to southeast DC, is developed over the next several years.
Woodend Nature Sanctuary
The 40-acre property in Chevy Chase, MD, is home to the Audubon Naturalist Society, a non-profit environmental organization dedicated to conservation and education. The grounds are open to the public and free to roam daily. It’s perfect for hiking excursions with little ones, with easy trails that wind through the woods and through open, meadow-y spaces. Wildlife sightings are plentiful — deer, frogs, chipmunks, small fish, and, of course, lots of birds reside in the woods. There is a look-out to climb for better viewing and a small pond where you’ll find some creatures, too. A few exhibits like a bird feeding area, bees nests, and a composting station are worth checking out. And when tired little legs need a break, there are plenty of benches and nice, peaceful seating areas around. The grounds are open daily from dawn to dusk, and admission is free.
Quiet Waters Park
This beautiful locale in Annapolis boasts 340-acres of recreational bliss. There are hiking and biking trails that wind through the woods and paved paths that stretch along large grassy fields and other areas of the park. There’s plenty of room for picnics and pick-up games, a garden adorned with sculptures, a Visitor Center with art galleries, scenic views of the water, and perhaps best of all, paddling opportunities on the South River. A hike could take you by old farm farm equipment and a composting demo, and there’s a chance of spotting deer, small animals, and some cool birds (we saw a woodpecker merely a few feet away). Bring along a picnic lunch — there are plenty of beautiful spots to eat al fresco. Or plan to go for crabs after, as one often does when in Annapolis. Quiet Waters Park is open 7am – dusk every day but Tuesday, when the park is closed. Admission is $6/car.
The site of the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812 and birthplace of the Star Spangled Banner, Fort McHenry makes for a very interesting, informative, and enjoyable outing for all ages. There are all kinds of engaging exhibits in the Visitors Center and throughout the grounds, from historical objects and structures to multimedia displays and interactives. And it’s all located along a tranquil part of the Chesapeake. You can walk along the bastion and take in the same view soldiers did over two hundred years ago. What was once a battle scene is now a lovely Baltimore vista. Open daily 9m – 5pm. Admission is $10/adult, free for children 15 and under.
Prince William Forest Park
Stretching over 15,000 acres in Triangle, VA, this park is a perfect place for a nature break — you can really immerse and escape the bustle of the city. The largest protected green space in the DC-Metro area, there are over 37 miles of trails to hike, plus many miles of paved and gravel paths to cycle, rivers for fishing, and cabins and tent sites for camping. Variety in trails makes it a great place to hike with young children, as there are plenty of short, flat routes. And if you’re with older kids who want more of a challenge, there are longer and more difficult ones, too. If you want to make it a weekend trip, cabins are available May – October, and tent sites May – November. Admission is $7/car or $5/walk- or bike-in.