Tag Archives: DC Hikes

Walk Along the River: Hiking from Riverbend to Great Falls Park


The last day of my kids’ Spring Break was a gorgeous one, so a friend and I decided to make the most of it and take our broods on a hike along the Potomac. My first idea was to head to Great Falls. It’s a perennial favorite for walks in the woods, plus the long, cold winter had kept us from visiting for awhile. But the combo of great weather and day off from school made us rethink it a bit as we anticipating a crowd, so we came up with another yet similar plan: We’d go to Riverbend Park, just a few minutes’ drive down Georgetown Pike from Great Falls, then hike the two miles to the larger park, where the spectacular vistas of the water rushing through the Mather Gorge would be our reward and turn around point.


I’ve written about both places before in an old post about local hikes with kids and the best outdoor places in the area, not to mention I’ve recommended them countless times as weekday and weekend pursuits. However, I’ve never put the two together in one outing, either on the blog or in my own experience visiting them; usually it’s one or the other. And it’s actually my friend, Jody, who gets credit for that idea, which turned out to be a perfect venture for our crew.


We had packed some lunch, so we started off with a bite by the river. There are picnic tables pretty close to the Visitor Center and parking lot, but you can also spread out a blanket on the grass in the same area or a field not too far away. After lunch, the kids played by the water a bit and chased a few geese before we set out on our hike.


You can get on the trail literally right from the parking lot, and it’s easy even for little ones to follow. Along with it being pretty wide in most places and fairly tame terrain, there are trail markers on trees that the kids enjoyed finding.


It was a beautiful time to be there, and not just because of the sunshine and mild temps. Big clusters of Virginia bluebells were in bloom alongside the path much of the way to our destination. And we saw several butterflies flitting about the flowers. And, of course, the views of the river and woods and cliff sides across the water are great from just about any vantage point.


We stopped a couple of times on the way for a snack and water break and to examine interesting plants and logs, so the whole two-mile walk to Great Falls took about 35-40 minutes. Once there, we immediately made our way to one of the main overlooks, where we all took in the magnificent views of the falls.


We hiked a bit more, before stopping at a picnic table in a large field to relax and let the kids run around and play. Beyond that, though, the trail runs along the river and snakes through the woods. And depending on how far you go and where you might veer off to explore, there are wooden footbridges to cross, big rocks to scramble over, more fantastic views to take in, kayakers and climbers to watch, and peaceful places to just sit and chill out (we’ve been enough times to have done all of the above, even partake in some climbing). We kept it simple this time, and hiked back to Riverbend when the kids finished playing.


Although we didn’t do it on this trip there, I highly recommend stopping in the park Visitor Centers at Great Falls and Riverbend. Both contain interesting exhibits about the nature, wildlife, and history of the area. You can also find out about any special programs, such as wagon rides and nature tours, that might be happening that day — some require a small fee, but they are open to the public.

Riverbend Park is located at 8700 Potomac Hills Street in Great Falls, Va. You have to wind your way through several roads after turning off of Georgetown Pike to reach it. Hours are 7am – dusk, the Visitor Center is open 9am – 5pm. Admission is free.

Great Falls Park is located at 9200 Old Dominion Drive in McLean, Va. (There is also a Maryland side of the park in Potomac.) Hours are 7am – dark, the Visitors Center is open 10am – 4pm. Admission is $5/car, free for walkers and bikers.


Filed under All ages, Free, Nature, Outdoor, Park, Virginia, Weekdays, Weekend

Winkler Botanical Preserve: A Natural Oasis in an Unexpected Place

A serene scene at Winkler

A serene scene at Winkler

There’s something about discovering tucked away expanses of nature in this bustling metropolitan area that is particularly gratifying. I’m not talking about the big, obvious places like Rock Creek Park, Great Falls, or the National Arboretum (all among my favorite locales, just not exactly tucked away). I mean the spots nestled in unexpected places, that you find out about through word of mouth or, perhaps, a great local blog.

That’s how we learned about Winkler Botanical Preserve, anyway. When DCPS was off from school earlier this week (students had two days off, in case you’re wondering how we fit in both this and the “Real Pirates” exhibit), Owen and I planned to go hiking with friends to get outdoors and enjoy the nice day. We wanted to try something new, so I checked out one of my favorite blogs, Not-So-SAHM, and read the raves for Winkler.


As I looked at it on a map, I tried to figure out exactly where it was located. It’s not far from my kids’ pediatrician in Alexandria or Baily’s Crossroads, and I just couldn’t picture a botanical preserve anywhere in that area of office complexes, strip malls, and apartment buildings. But we followed the directions there, and sure enough, hidden amid a couple of apartment complexes, Seminary Road, and 395 is a 44-acre stretch of natural loveliness. Well, actually, it’s not all natural… in the middle of the lofty trees and meandering trails is a large pond and waterfall that are obviously man made. But it’s all pretty terrific, especially because it feels like a hidden oasis smack in the middle of suburbia.


Not too far past the entrance is a wooden building called Catherine’s Lodge, which I remembered reading about on Not-So SAHM. It was not open for them, nor was it for us, and we weren’t sure of its purpose. I’ve since looked it up, and it seems that it’s an education center, as the Preserve has a partnership with the Alexandria City Public Schools, providing elementary and middle school students with a year-long series of hands-on and curriculum-based programs. That explains why school groups were the only other people we saw during our visit there.



After peering into the windows of the lodge, we wandered along the trails, the kids chased a couple of geese, and we all got a closer look at the waterfall, though there’s a sign warning visitors not to climb on it. There are a few streams to cross, and the kids took some time to gather pebbles from them. In one area there are two climbing towers that I assume are only used for the school groups — both had “no climbing” signs on them.


We spent about an hour and half hiking around — by that point, we’d covered just about all of it. (Plus, we were hungry and decided to grab lunch.) It was a pleasant, easy outing and nice to discover a slice of nature in a surprising place. And while I’m not sure I’d make a plan just to go there, I’ll definitely keep it in mind for the next time we’re in the area for the kids’ pediatrician appointments or a trip to REI.


Winkler Botanical Preserve is located at 5400 Roanoke Ave in Alexandria. Hours are 8:30am – 4pm, and admission is free. When you go, be sure to drive through the small apartment complex parking lot through the open gate to the Preserve. There are a few parking spots just beyond.


Filed under All ages, DC, Free, Nature, Outdoor, Virginia, Weekdays, Weekend

Where to Play on the Weekdays: February 4-8

One of several vehicles to board at the National Postal Museum

One of several vehicles to board at the National Postal Museum

Monday – Explore the history of mail at the National Postal Museum. It’s a perfect outing with little ones — the museum isn’t very big and overwhelming, and there are numerous interactive exhibits to keep young guests engaged. Plus, it’s conveniently located next to Union Station, so you can also grab lunch and get there easily via Metro. Hours are 10am – 5:30pm, admission is free.

Tuesday – Head to the National Building Museum for play and story time. The Book of the Month literacy program will take place in the Building Zone at 10:30am and 11:30am with readings of Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton. Admission is $3/person for non-members, with timed entry on the hour. Visit the PLAY WORK BUILD exhibit while you’re at the museum to let the kids romp in the Imagination Playground and build with foam blocks and Lincoln Logs ($8/adult, $5/child for non-members or look for a Certifikid deal here).

Wednesday – Romp on the playground and enjoy some Potomac River scenery at Jones Point Park in Alexandria. Preparing for Peanut has a great write-up about the locale just off the George Washington Parkway under the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Open dawn to dusk, admission is free.

Thursday – Let the kids take the wheel at the Washington Auto Show. The annual event showcasing the newest models of cars and trucks will be at the Washington Convention Center through the weekend. Kids (and adults) can sit in the driver’s seat, pretend to cruise around, check out dashboard details, and more. Hours are 12-9pm Monday – Thursday (12-10pm on Friday). Admission is $12/adult, $5/ages 6-12, free for 5 and under. Read more about what to expect in this post from last year.

Friday – Learn about the area’s wildlife and enjoy hands-on activities at the Rock Creek Nature Center. With all kinds of animal and plant exhibits, plus a Discovery Room full of books and toys, there is plenty to keep kids engaged. If weather permits, hike a trail on the grounds around the center, too. Open Wednesday – Sunday, 9am – 5pm. Admission is free.

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Filed under All ages, Animals, DC, Educational, Exhibit, Free, Indoor Play, Museums, Nature, Ongoing, Outdoor, Park, Virginia, Weekdays