Seven Family-Friendly Parks To Explore This Fall Around the D.C. Area
My friend Rachel Cooper (from AboutDC.com) and I are working hard on a guidebook entitled 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Washington DC. We are updating a classic book that is beloved by local hiking enthusiasts, but was published in 2007. We have updated original author Paul Elliot’s list of hikes and added new family-friendly hikes. Here’s a preview of trails I’ve covered lately, and some of my favorite parks to explore in cool fall weather.
Huntley Meadows Park
Huntley Meadows Park is a bountiful nature preserve located in southern Fairfax County. It’s a great place to take a short hike (about 2 easy miles) and spend a lot of time observing wildlife, especially birds, frogs and turtles. Covering 1,424 acres, Huntley Meadows Park celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2016 and ranks as one of the metro area’s largest close-in parks. Its centerpiece is a 500-acre freshwater marsh—the area’s largest—enveloped by mostly deciduous woodlands. The result is a protected natural habitat with a remarkable array of plants and animals. This very easy, 1.8-mile, and hill-less outing using the maintained trails and elevated boardwalk. For information check vrpa.org or call (703) 768-2525; Pick up free brochures in Visitor Center; open 9 a.m.–5 p.m. and noon–5 p.m. on holidays (closed on Tuesdays); contact Friends of Huntley Meadows Park, www.friendsofhuntleymeadowspark.org
Riverbend Park and Nature Center
Riverbend Park in Fairfax County, offer hikers woodland, pond and river vistas, and a family friendly experience in a magnificent Potomac River setting. Riverbend Park and its neighbor, Great Falls Park, are probably some of the metro area’s finest close-in natural attractions. This 409-acre treasure is a popular place to kayak, with wooded uplands, hiking trails, mystical looking swamps and a pretty floodplain shoreline. There are optional hikes, but I recommend the loop (about 2.5 miles but there are lots of shorter or longer options) that accesses part of the Potomac Heritage Trail (PHT), as well as moderate climbs through dense forests. You’ll experience openings in the path with views of the fast moving Potomac River, and a few clambers through meadows and fields. There are also two small museums to visit, kayak rentals and snack bar open on weekends. Entrance is free and opens daily at 7 a.m.; closes seasonally from 5–8:30 pm; with maps and Rangers available in the visitor center. For information contact Riverbend Park, (703) 759-9018 or www.co.fairfax.va.us/parks/riverbend, and Great Falls Park, (703) 285-2966 or www.nps.gov/gwmp/grfa
Potomac Overlook Park and Nature Center
Nestled in heart of Arlington’s leafy neighborhoods, the popular regional park encompasses 67 acres of wild and cultivated land and two miles of varied trails. There’s a science and nature center there, flourishing urban garden and interpretive displays to help visitors learn about the park and its vegetation. The best hiking trail travels through steep ravines on either side of Donaldson Run, leading under the George Washington Memorial Parkway, over a concrete dam, and eventually to the Potomac Heritage Trail (PHT); it’s 2.5 miles of challenging terrain. There is also a pavement trail, where you can navigate strollers and wheelchairs. Check out Virginia Regional Park Authority at vrpa.org. Park is open daily during daylight hours, and Nature Center is open Tues.-Saturday from 10 am until 5 pm Sunday 1 pm until 5 pm, closed on Mondays. Contact Northern Virginia Parks at (703) 528-5406 or novaparks.com/parks/potomac-overlook-regional-park. Located on N. Marcey Road, Arlington, Virginia.
Lake Needwood and Maryland’s Rock Creek Regional Park
The most popular trail is a 2.5 mile scenic hike through the woods, along the muddy shoreline and through open fields with nearly constant views of the manmade, recreational lake fed by Washington’s Rock Creek. This park features its namesake, Lake Needwood, a 75-acre lake surrounded by parkland. There is a boathouse, where in warm weather, visitors can rent rowboats, canoes and paddleboats. There is a covered pavilion, snack bar and picnic areas. People fish here (with license) or golf. The Rock Creek Hiker/Biker Trail begins at Lake Needwood and extends 20 miles into Washington DC. Go Ape Treetop Adventure has climbing platforms and zip lines (for riders older than 10 years) built within the park. Located in suburban Montgomery County, contact the Montgomery County Department of Parks and Recreation, (301) 670-8080 or http://www.montgomeryparks.com. Open year-round and daily during daylight hours.
Scotts Run Nature Preserve
Scotts Run is one of the best places to hike in the region, and it’s only minutes from the Beltway near the Cabin John Bridge in Virginia. The preserve has multiple trails crisscrossing the forests and ravines, but the best one is a 3.7 loop through thickly wooded uplands to the Potomac River. Traverse the shoreline on the Potomac Heritage Trail, see the Scotts Run Waterfall and catch a glimpse of the panoramic beauty of Stubblefield Falls. There are also two hikes to the river and back, both under two miles that are popular with small kids and dog walkers. Scotts Run has several “You Are Here” trailside maps, and blazes that are relatively usually easy to spot; but plan your hike before you go. Remember, when wet or icy, riverside trails can be tricky or hazardous. The cliffs over the rapids, more so. No visitor center, but the park has two parking lots. For information contact nearby Riverbend Park, (703) 759-9018; to find plug in 7400 Georgetown Pike, McLean, Virginia into your GPS. Open daily, sunrise to sunset.
Theodore Roosevelt Island
The close-in Potomac River island is a self-contained parkland with impressive views of Georgetown, the D.C. bridges and Rosslyn. The Island features the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial and a nature preserve where part of the trail is a picturesque boardwalk over wetlands. Metro-area hikers owe thanks to President Theodore Roosevelt who loved nature and hiking, and during his 1901–09 presidency, established a forest service and wildlife-refuge system. The longest, a 3.2-mile hike, loops through scenic parklands surrounding the Roosevelt Memorial Grounds. But there are shorter hikes as well. Managed by the National Park Service (NPS), trail signs are few, but it’s small; you really can’t get lost for long. For information contact George Washington Memorial Parkway Headquarters (703) 289-2500; nps.gov. The Park is open year-round and daily, 6 a.m.–10 p.m.
Wheaton Regional Park and Brookside Gardens
Besides the magnificent conservatories bursting with plants, flowers and water features, Brookside Gardens has acres of outdoor gardens that bloom at different times of the year. They also have a fabulous holiday light show designed for walking through these gardens. Brookside has a somber memorial for those who were killed by the Metro-area snipers, a manmade lake, a charming kids train, playground, nature center and protected forests. There are also multiple trails here—both short distances or longer ones. Many of the paths are paved, so it’s a good place to take a stroller or person in a wheelchair. These hikes are part of the Heart Health Trailhead program, and they all have slight elevation changes, are clearly marked, and are family friendly. Pick up a trail map at the Visitor Center. The Gardens are open sunrise to sunset, while the Visitor Center’s hours are 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Conservatories are open from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Located at 1800 Glenallan Avenue in Wheaton, Maryland.
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Freelance writer and photographer specializing in vivid, deeply reported stories about food, travel and family.
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