Are you thinking of taking a trip to the United States Capitol? The best outdoor activities in Washington, DC, offer visitors a chance to explore the nation’s capital while enjoying the open air. Just keep in mind that this area of the country is pretty warm and humid in the summertime!
Lakes and Parks You Must Visit in Washington, DC
For a metropolitan area, DC offers a lot of parklands and lakes for its citizens to enjoy.
1. Tidal Basin
The Tidal Basin is a 107-acre lake made in the 19th century. Some of DC’s most famous landmarks surround it. A visit to the basin is a spectacular sight to see any time of year, and if you’re lucky enough to visit during the peak blooming season for the park’s 3,000 cherry trees, you’ll enjoy one of the city’s most dramatic natural landscapes.
The timing of the cherry blossom blooms is unpredictable from year to year, but aiming for late March is a good bet if you’re trying to catch them.
2. Lake Needwood
Lake Needwood is a short trip from DC, but the ride takes you through picturesque Chevy Chase, Silver Spring, and North Bethesda, then drops you at this serene 75-acre reservoir in Maryland. If you want a quick escape from downtown, Rock Creek Regional Park’s Lake Needwood is a perfect getaway.
3. Lake Fairfax Park
Lake Fairfax Park is also outside of downtown DC. A trip to this large is a quick ride, heading to the west through Arlington and McLean, deeper into Virginia. Once you’re there, you have almost 500 acres of parkland to explore. Consider spending a weekend or a night at the campgrounds. There are limited accommodations, but this is a favorite spot for campers staying near DC.
4. Great Falls Park
Great Falls Park is only 15 miles to the northwest of DC, and you can get there by following the Potomac River’s path through Arlington and out onto Route 193. Once there, take a trip back in time and see vestiges of the area’s past.
The water moves quickly here, so make sure to stop and enjoy the sight of the raging river as it spills over the rocks of the falls.
Monuments and Attractions You Must Visit in Washington, DC
DC boasts some of the country’s most famous outdoor attractions, monuments, and memorials.
5. U.S. National Arboretum
The US National Arboretum is in Northeast DC, with easy access from both R Street and New York Avenue. With a detailed map as a guide, this horticultural area has almost 500 acres of park ground and pathways to explore. You might even catch a glimpse of the local nesting bald eagles.
6. Washington Monument
The Washington Monument rises majestically into the DC sky, right on Ohio Drive. The view from the top of its 36,000 stones and 897 steps (or take the elevator!) reveals the architectural landscape of the entire city, with views of most of the most prominent monuments. Don’t forget to plan to purchase your tickets.
If you’re visiting in the summer months, be sure to bring plenty of sunscreens. There is little shade near the site, and you’ll probably spend some time waiting in line to enter the Monument.
7. Capitol Hill
Capitol Visitor Center tours are not currently on offer. But, you can still visit the ‘people’s house’ and view the exterior of the building and its famous rotunda. If you’d like to take a deeper look at the interior of the building, consider a virtual tour. To get to the Capitol in the heart of DC, check out public transit and visitor shuttle services, or take a walk to the easternmost end of the Capitol reflecting pool.
It is fairly difficult to find parking near the Capitol Hill complex at all but the quietest times.
8. Theodore Roosevelt Island Memorial
The Theodore Roosevelt Island Memorial is easily accessible by car; just move to the northbound lanes of the George Washington Memorial Parkway and follow the signs near Roosevelt Bridge. There are designated lots, so don’t be tempted to park on the grass, even if you see others do so. They’re quite likely to get a parking ticket from the US Park Police that patrol the grounds.
You can also easily rent a bike or take a fifteen-minute walk from the Rosslyn Metro Station to access the Memorial.
Setup in the 1930s, the Roosevelt Island Memorial is a tribute to the 26th President of the United States. His documented affinity for the outdoors inspired the creation of the island’s complex, park, trailways, and guided tours.
Trails You Must Try in Washington, DC
If DC’s downtown streets aren’t enough of a stretch of your legs, or you want to get out into a bit more natural surroundings nearby, consider exploring one of the many trail networks.
9. Theodore Roosevelt Island
Theodore Roosevelt Island’s construction was an undertaking of the Civilian Conservation Corps, formed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The resulting landscape forms distinct areas and habitats that appear natural but have been shaped by the hands of people.
There are three trails to choose from, each with its own character. Take a look at a map of the area to understand the layout of the trails and how they cross the island. There are also kid-friendly activities to enjoy. Here’s a quick guide to the trails:
|Trail Name||Length (miles)||Surface||Feature|
|Swamp||1.5||Pea gravel and boardwalk||Cattail marsh|
|Woods||0.33||Pea gravel||Memorial statue and fountains|
|Upland||0.75||Natural||Old Mason Mansion|
10. Rock Creek Park
Northwest DC features Rock Creek Park, an urban strip of greenery that slices between neighborhoods like Crestwood and Forest Hills. Rock Creek Golf Course sits in the northernmost area of this National Park, which also features a flowing waterway that runs all the way to the Potomac. The setting is fairly 420-friendly, but don’t forget that arrests still happen for public consumption or the possession of prohibited marijuana paraphernalia.
11. C&O Canal Towpath
The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath is one of the country’s most popular National Parks, attracting some five million visitors in a typical year. The ‘towpath’ is a winding, 184.5 miles path, meandering along the edge of a canal from Cumberland, Maryland, to Georgetown in DC.
The name ‘towpath’ refers to the original use of the stone and dirt trail alongside the canal. At one point in history, mules would tow small boats along the water as they walked on land.
Now, this recreational trailway is a popular escape for runners, bikers, and walkers. Check out a map and plan your visit.
12. Anacostia Riverwalk Trail
If you’re looking for an asphalt-paved trail in the DC area, check out the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail in this National Park constructed by the US Army Corps of Engineers in the early 1900s. The trail is undergoing an expansion, seeking to link more than 20 miles seamlessly, allowing bicyclists and pedestrians an uninterrupted path to many of DC’s attractions.
Modern Art Outdoors
DC is a metropolitan city with lots of opportunities to explore the arts.
13. National Gallery of Art
The National Gallery of Art is home to some of DC’s most impressive art exhibitions. Access is free, and the facility is open daily from 10 a.m. through 5 p.m. It’s easily accessible on the corner of 6th and Constitution Avenue, but there is no public parking area, so they strongly encourage visitors to utilize the Metrorail stop at Archives-Navy Memorial- Penn Quarter on the Yellow and Green Lines.
Or, use the Capital Bikeshare program, as there’s a station right by the Gallery’s East Building. One of the best things for visitors is that the Gallery features a massive statue garden, which you can enjoy outside in the fresh air.
14. Smithsonian American Art Museum: Renwick Gallery
Visitors to the DC area have an opportunity to visit the Renwick Gallery, a branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Just steps from the White House, the gallery’s exhibits are a collection of contemporary and decorative arts.
Use the Farragut North Metro station for the Red line, and the Farragut West station for the Orange, Blue, or Silver lines. If you need ramp access, use the facility’s 17th Street entrance. There are also paid parking garages in the area.
Wine Tours You Must Try in Washington, DC
Want to grab a few drinks and enjoy the DC scenery? Take a wine tour.
15. Wine Pro Tours
DC’s Wine Pro Tours offers a traveling tour of some of DC and Northeast Virginia’s best wineries. The driving time is broken up by stops at up to a dozen wineries, with tasting, food pairings, and plenty of opportunities to eat, drink, and enjoy the scenery. Maybe you can convince them to make a stop at one of the best dispensaries in Richmond.
For adults looking to spend some time outside and enjoy themselves, a tour like this has plenty of appeal. Just make sure to receive confirmation from the owner. Some users report that they received late cancellations when the tour was not fully booked.
16. Spirited Tours
Spirited Tours operates a tour with a pickup location in downtown Washington, a ride to some of the best wineries in Virginia, and a drop-off right back where you started at the end of the day. They believe they offer the ultimate wine-tasting experience, with behind-the-scenes tours, plenty of snacks, and regional insights into the wine industry.
Whether you’re a wine enthusiast, a casual sipper, or a borderline professional taster, you’ll enjoy this professional trip through the DC-area countryside’s best wineries.
[Also read A Buyer’s Guide to Weed Jars]
Some questions about the best outdoor activities in Washington, DC, are pretty common.
What can I do outside with no money?
Many of DC’s parks and museums don’t require any fee to visit. Most of the activities on this list are free! Check out any of the four trails without spending any money to access them.
What is the most popular outdoor activity?
Walking tours of the Washington area are quite popular. You can find hiking, biking, or walking tours easily. Even horseback riding tours are available. Outdoor activities can be a great way to explore the National Mall, Capitol Hill, the Lincoln Memorial, and the entirety of the nation’s Capital.
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