When most people think of National Parks, places like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone or Yosemite might come to mind. But with over 417 park units making up the National Park system, you can find parks in all shapes and sizes, from National Memorials to National Seashores. In DC alone, there are currently 25 official National Park units, with another 22 in Virginia. While the National Mall and all the historic memorials should be at the top of your DC to-do list, the 4 places highlighted below are among my favorites, each offering something special. Here’s why you should consider adding one or two of them to your list next time you visit the DC area.
1. Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts. If you are visiting DC during the summer, take the Metro or make the short drive to nearby Vienna, Virginia to Wolf Trap for an experience you won’t soon forget. This special park is dedicated to the performing arts, and it’s my favorite venue for enjoying a concert on the lawn while relaxing with a picnic dinner. When my kids were younger, we loved attending the Theatre-in-the-Woods during the summer. The stage is reached by walking through the meadow and winding your way among the trees. The shows range from puppet shows and lively bands, to ballet, interactive theater performances and much more. Kids can also join a Ranger Program after the show, and even become a Junior Ranger. Learn more and visit the Wolf Trap National Park website for all you need to know about the summer performance schedule and programs for kids.
2. Ford’s Theatre Historic Site. Learn about that fateful night in history when President Lincoln was assassinated while watching a show at Ford’s Theatre. Visit 4 separate sites, including the Museum, Ford’s Theatre, the Petersen House and the Aftermath Exhibits. The museum exhibits span the beginning of Lincoln’s presidency up to just before his assassination, and include some rare artifacts. Take a self-guided tour of the theatre or listen to a park ranger history talk. Then step across the street to the Petersen House, where Lincoln was taken after being shot. Finally, the Aftermath Exhibits follow the events that happened in the days and weeks following Lincoln’s assassination. Although there are a limited number of free same day tickets available, I would suggest paying the small convenience fee to reserve tickets in advance, as they often fill up for several weeks out. It’s an easy walk from the National Mall or Metro.
3. Great Falls Park. Visit nearby Great Falls, Virginia, roughly 15 miles from DC, where you will find beautiful views of the rushing water of the Potomac River. From the main Visitor Center, you’ll find easy access to 3 overlooks for viewing the falls, two of which are wheelchair accessible. We love the fact that there are plenty of trails that offer different vantage points of the river, and the area is very dog-friendly. Recently my husband and I hiked in from Difficult Run, stopping to enjoy the view of herons and the rushing river from several rocky overlooks. There are plenty of scenic spots for a picnic, just know that Great Falls is a trash free park, so be prepared to haul out your trash. There is an entrance fee of $10 per vehicle, and the park does get crowded later in the day, especially on weekends. Save money by visiting on one of the fee-free NPS days.
4. Theodore Roosevelt Island. When you are ready to take a break from the hustle and bustle of DC, head to Roosevelt Island for some nature time! It’s the perfect place to spend an hour or two, with several easy hiking trails throughout the island. Enjoy a ranger led program to learn more about the history of the island. Kids can earn a Junior Ranger badge or try one of the Kids in Parks TRACK adventures. If you aren't familiar with these fun outdoor adventures, learn more on the Kids in Parks TRACK Trail website. While bicycles are not allowed on the island, taking the bike trail is an easy way to get to the footbridge to access Roosevelt Island. Be advised that as of June, 2017, the Swamp Trail on the island is temporarily closed, so check the park website for the most current information before you go.
Do you have a favorite National Park around the DC area? Feel free to leave a comment below.