People usually don’t associate Washington DC with nature, hiking, and camping. The immediate image in people’s mind is the majestic Capitol, White House, memorials, and museums. After you spend some time living here you find there is actually a ton of places to get away from the urban grind and get in some truly beautiful nature.
I’m going to point you to some of my favorite outdoor activities in Washington DC, two of which are sites where I lead 2 hour hiking tours in Washington, DC, Rock Creek Park and Teddy Roosevelt Island.
1. ROCK CREEK PARK
For me, this is my favorite place to go for a hike in DC. It is truly an oasis of beautiful land inside of a bustling city.
It was created by an Act of Congress in 1890 to preserve 2,000 acres of land in NW Washington. It is one of the original national parks in the US following Yellowstone and Mackinac.
The beautiful Rock Creek is a 32 miles long twisting and turning through the park that originates in Montgomery County Maryland and empties into the Potomac river.
You will more than likely spot deer, tons of varieties of birds, and you may even see a few foxes run by.
WHAT TO DO IN ROCK CREEK PARK?
Join Free Tours by Foot for a hiking tour of Rock Creek Park. A 2 hour, 2.75 mile loop starting and ending at Peirce Mill on Rock Creek Park. We'll walk over to Boulder Bridge, see the Mountain Overlook, walk to Rapids Bridge, and back down the Western Ridge Trail. Along the way, we'll talk about the history of this area and some of the interesting finds (like the old Capitol columns).
One of my favorite hikes is the Western Ridge trail, which is almost 9 miles. You are following the creek at times and then will be led by the colored trail signs to some of the highest elevations in the park (only about 400 feet). I find this trail has the most solitude, especially the further north you walk.
There are many easier hikes all throughout this park.
If you enjoy biking and jogging, there are many paved paths throughout the park. Beach Drive actually closes to traffic on the weekend and you are free to bike, rollerblade, and jog as you please on the main road from 7 am to 7pm. You aren’t allowed to bike on the dirt paths, but many trail runners enjoy the terrain.
For history lovers, there are some very cool things to see in this park.
A very bizarre but very interesting place to see is the old Capitol columns. Behind a maintenance shed in a storage area for the National Park, there is a mysterious huge pile of stones from the Capitol building. In 1958, there was a renovation of the western front of the Capitol and they had to replace some of the original sandstone. Without any real place to store these historic stones, it was decided why not put them in the middle of the woods in Rock Creek?
It’s a very cool place to see, and quite surreal.
There is also remnants of a Civil War fort in the park called Fort DeRussy. There were almost 70 civil war defenses built around Washington in 1861 to protect the capital. Fort DeRussy is one of the rare ones that actually saw battle. Nearby Fort Stevens was attacked by Confederate Jubal Early’s forces July 11th and 12th 1864. It was bold attempt to try and breach the lines of defense. Fort Stevens held off the attack with help from nearby Fort Derussy firing cannons at the invading confederates. Today Fort Derussy still has the original earthworks of the fort. For any history lovers it’s definitely worth a look.
ENTRANCE & PARKING: It’s very easy to drive and park at Rock Creek along with many different entrances.
Two of the most popular are:
Pierce Mill: 2401 Tilden Street, NW, Washington, D.C. or a 1 mile walk from Van Ness Station
Rock Creek Park Nature Center & Planetarium: 5200 Glover Road, NW, Washington, D.C. or take the E-4 bus from Friendship Heights Station.
2. FORT DUPONT
I mentioned earlier the defenses of Washington during the Civil War. This is one of the many forts that have been turned into wonderful parks, this one being the largest.
Since they all are under the jurisdiction of the national parks system, they are all on preserved land. For locals and tourists alike, these former defenses are very unique parks to explore.
The earthworks of Fort Dupont still remain inside the nearly 400 acre park. When you walk the trails inside of the main park of Fort Dupont, you can feel why it was chosen as the location of several forts as it presides on several hills. There are several parks that exist with Fort Dupont like Fort Chaplin Park, Fort Davis, and Fort Stanton filled with 10 miles of connecting trails.
The trails are well marked and easy to navigate. You are welcome to jog, mountain bike, and rollerblade all throughout this park. They even have an indoor skating rink open seasonally. During the summers they even have concerts.
ENTRANCE & PARKING: Fort Dupont is NOT near Dupont Circle.
GPS: 3600 F and Minnesota St S.E. Washington, DC 20019
The closest metro rail stops are Potomac Avenue and Minnesota Avenue on the orange line, Benning Road on the blue line, or the V7 and U2 buses on weekdays, or the V8 bus on weekends.
There is a parking lot at the Activity Center.
3. KINGMAN ISLAND
Kingman Island is a 40 acre man made island that was completed in 1916. They dredged the Anacostia River for cleaning purposes and used that material to build the island.
There is a smaller island beside it called Heritage Island that both are connected by a footbridge. It is a lovely way to spend an afternoon walking the trails here.
It is not hugely visited site, so the solitude is enjoyable. It is not strenuous hiking, more for relaxing. You can hike both islands in about 2 hours time. It’s a great place to bring the family and the dog.
The islands are undergoing a lot of preservation and restoration currently which has brought more and more visitors in recent years. They have a bluegrass festival every May on the island which has been hugely popular.
ENTRANCE & PARKING: There are two pedestrian entrances - one on Benning Rd SE near the bridge, and one from the back of RFK Stadium Parking Lot #6. Please note that there are some times events and soon to be construction here that may alter that entrance.
It is a 1 mile walk from the Stadium Armory Station on the Blue/Orange/Silver line. You can also take an X1, X2, or X3 bus to get there via the Benning Rd. NE and Oklahoma Ave. NE stop.
4. TEDDY ROOSEVELT ISLAND
This 88 acre island is very close to Georgetown and Arlington, VA. It is right off the Mount Vernon trail, which is a very popular running and biking trail.
This island is natural. It was once the home of the Nacotchtank tribe in the 1680s. George Mason’s family would own it from the 1700s to the 1830s and thus it was originally called Mason’s Island.
It was even a testing site for bombs during the Spanish American War in 1898.
Several land owners would own it until the early 1900s in which Washington Gas and Light would own it until 1931. In 1931 a plan was made by the Teddy Roosevelt Association to turn the island into a living memorial honoring him. Congress authorized this in 1932, but it wasn’t until 1960 that the funds were appropriated.
In 1967, a 17 foot statue of Teddy became the centerpiece of the island with lots of nature and wildlife surrounding him. This is fitting for the man who helped establish our national parks in the United States.
We offer a 2 hour, 2 mile hiking tour of TRI, as well. The hike is very flat and very easy terrain.
There are several trails that meander around the island that are great for hiking or jogging. At one point it becomes a wooden path over some beautiful wetlands. No biking is allowed unfortunately.
ENTRANCE & PARKING: It has a small parking lot that can be accessed driving north on the GW parkway only. It tends to fill up quick on the weekends. Nearby, Rosslyn VA is easy to pay to park in or the metro is short 10 minute walk.
5. GREAT FALLS
A short 20-30 minute drive North of DC will bring you to a wonderful national park filled with hiking trails, places to rock climb, excellent kayaking, and biking.
The name Great Falls might be a little deceptive in that there is no true waterfalls. It is a section of the Potomac River that has some major rapids and they crash along some huge rocks.
George Washington partially funded a canal here to go around these rapids as it was unnavigable. There are remains of the Patowmack Canal still intact at the main visitor center. The historic C & O canal would later be built in the 1830s through this region to connect to the Ohio River to promote commerce, although it only reached Cumberland MD about 70 miles away.
There are many hiking trails that range from easy to difficult totaling 15 miles.
The most popular is the Billy Goat trail, which is an almost 5 mile trail made up of 3 sections called A, B, and C through some challenging terrain. You are walking on some huge boulders on most of the hike and even have to climb a few sections.
There are some incredible views of the Potomac all throughout but it is unsafe for young children and dogs. You can access the Billy Goat Trail either in Virginia or Maryland side. You can reach B and C sections on the Maryland side at Carderock Recreation Area for free. Trail A is best from Great Falls Visitor Center.
COST: $10 if you arrive on foot, bike or rideshare (under 15 is free) OR $20 per car.
ENTRANCE & PARKING:
Great Falls Street Address: 9200 Old Dominion Drive, McLean, VA 22102 - It is about a 5 minute ride from the Spring Hill or Greensboro stations on the Silver Line, but you should be aware that there is limited cell service and no wifi to plan a return trip if you're taking a rideshare.
Great Falls Visitor Center has a $15 per car parking fee, but the Carderock Recreation Area is free.
6. PRINCE WILLIAM FOREST PARK
To me, this is a hugely underrated park that is a very easy reached within 45 minutes from Washington DC (depending on traffic on I-95.)
There are 16,000 acres here and truly you will feel worlds away from DC as it never feels overly crowded.
The park began as a relief camp for children during the Great Depression and was later turned into a State Park in 1948.
There are 37 miles of hiking trails to explore. You will end up most certainly beside the Quantico Creek as it meanders through this whole park. Yes, that Quantico, where the FBI trains and a huge Marine base is located nearby.
I’ve been hiking there before and heard some mysterious explosions off in the distance, which was probably gunfire training.
My favorite hike is the South Valley Trail, which is over 9 miles. All of the trails connect so it’s easy to sample different ones each time you go. There area is excellent for dog walking.
You can camp here as well, and will need a permit which is easily obtained with all the information on their website. They even have cabin rentals. The cabins at camp site 3 were constructed by the CCC during the New Deal Era and are on the National Register of Historic Places.
COST: There is a $20 per car fee to visit this park and the pass is good for a week. An annual pass is only $35, so well worth your money if you plan on returning a few more times.
ENTRANCE & PARKING: For GPS Use Only: the street address of the visitor center is 18170 Park Entrance Road, Triangle, VA 22172. There is a parking lot.
7. CATOCIN MOUNTAIN PARK AND CUNNINGHAM FALLS STATE PARK
This beautiful park is a bit further outside of the Washington Area.
I would plan for a good hour long drive, maybe 1.5 depending on where you are driving from.
This area overlooks the beautiful Monocacy Valley in Northern Maryland. This park was also a CCC project like Prince William Forrest to create a recreation area in this region.
You may have heard of a little retreat in this park called Camp David. FDR was the first President to utilize this area in which he called Shangri La, modeling it after his little White House in Warm Springs, GA. Dwight Eisenhower would later rename it in honor of his son. Unfortunately, the camp is off limits but you can drive up to the gate. It’s a bit surreal to see all the security gates in the middle of the woods.
This massive park boasts over 6,000 acres with a huge amount of hiking and outdoor recreation including fishing, biking, and camping.
My favorite place to hike is to Cunningham Falls. It’s a very easy but peaceful hike and the main attraction is the falls at the end. It’s not a major waterfall, but still worth the time.
For more of a challenge, the Catoctin Trail is nearly 10 miles long and offers great views and vistas along the way. This park would require multiple visits to truly enjoy it all as a whole. I would even recommend a weekend away here either camping or renting a cabin. Gettysburg, PA is just over the state line and you could throw some civil war history in as well. Nearby Monocacy Battlefield is worth the time as well.
ENTRANCE & PARKING: For GPS Use: The Street Address of the Visitor Center is 14707 Park Central Road, Thurmont, MD. There are two parking lots at the Visitor Center which are free.