Every October, Washingtonians point their cars toward Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, and for good reason: With the brilliant fall foliage, it’s a great time to take a hike.
We suggest going into the park at the Thornton Gap entrance. The drive from Washington then takes you along scenic Route 211, past vineyards, farmland, and wildflower meadows. Before entering, you can buy fresh-picked apples to take on your hike from Thornton River Orchard.
After entering at Thornton Gap, at mile marker 31.5, drive south on Skyline Drive. You’ll enjoy sweeping views of the Piedmont Plateau in the east and the Shenandoah Valley in the west, easily seen from numerous overlooks.
If you’re up for a hike, park at the Meadow Spring parking area just after mile marker 33 and then find the Meadow Spring Trailhead on the other side of the road. The first half mile of the 2.8-mile hike is steep, before you turn right onto the Appalachian Trail. On the trail, the surrounding forest changes to a riot of fall colors: Hickory leaves turn gold, red-maple trees become garnet, sumac bushes transform to shocking purple and red—all against the backdrop of speckled rocks with patches of lichen and moss.
The hike’s payoff, Mary’s Rock Summit, is one of the few peaks in the park with a 360-degree view. Hikers report seeing birds of prey and bears in this area. To return, retrace your steps for a hike that takes a total of two to three hours, depending on your pace.
Afterward, you might visit the quaint town of Sperryville, directly outside the park on Route 211. This pastoral village in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains is known for its bountiful farms and first-rate antiques shops.
Thornton River Grille, on the main thoroughfare, is one post-hike dining option. The rustic bistro, featuring fresh-cut steaks and burgers, serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner on Saturdays, brunch and dinner on Sundays. In good weather, you can dine on the rooftop deck (open weekends only).
About a half mile away is Sperryville’s River District Arts, a former apple-packing plant that is now a multi-use facility housing art studios and a restaurant. You can refuel with a signature sangría and tapas at El Quijote, a new Spanish restaurant, and then wander through the galleries to see artists working in ceramics, textiles, paint, and photography.
Directly behind River District Arts is Copper Fox Distillery. Inside the yellow warehouse awaits an entertaining tour demonstrating how spirits are made. In the past, the family-owned facility brewed apple cider, but it now produces small batches of malt whiskey, rye, and gin. You can sample a few or bring a bottle home.
Before heading back, walk next door to Copper Fox Antiques, a 30,000-square-foot warehouse originally used to store apples. Today it’s full of European, Asian, and American furniture, salvaged items, and collectibles.
Renee Sklarew (email@example.com) is a travel writer in Washington. This article appears in the October 2014 issue of Washingtonian.
Best Water Park Close to Home
At SplashDown Waterpark in Manassas, kids can zip down the four-story-high water slides, float on the “lazy river,” step across the pool on logs and lily pads, or play volleyball at the sand beach. With 13 acres of water features, SplashDown is one of Northern Virginia’s largest water parks. On Thursdays from 9 to 10:30 am, kids ages five and under and their adults get into the park early.
$14.95 for guests 48 inches tall or more; $11.25 under 48 inches. Free for ages two and younger. 703-792-8200.
Best Water Park Worth a Drive
WaterWorks at Virginia’s Kings Dominion, about 85 miles from DC, offers 20 acres of ways to get wet. Tots can cool off at Lil’ Barefoot Beach’s pool, while families float on the gentle current of a quarter-mile river. For more splash, jump through the surf at the two wave pools or try Tornado, a funnel ride that drops you and then rocks you from side to side.
$54 adults; $41 for those under 48 inches tall or 62 years or older. Free for ages two and younger. Admission includes access to all rides, wet and dry. 804-876-5000.
Best Splash Park for Getting Soaked
While there are a few fountains to run through at the Yards Park in DC, kids generate their own splash in an 11-inch-deep, 66,000-gallon pool with views of the Anacostia River. A waterfall at one end is a popular place to stand. Allow time to stroll on the boardwalk, relax in wooden chaises in the shady garden, picnic on the lawn, or dine at one of the park’s restaurants. At Ice Cream Jubilee, grab a cool and tasty cone. Part of the Capitol Riverfront neighborhood, the Yards is a short walk to Nationals Park.
Best Splash Park for Young Kids
At SplashPark & MiniGolf in Boyds, 280 water jets dance in three concentric circles, enticing tots and bigger kids alike. You can also get doused by a waterfall as well as “rain” from two giant mushrooms. Dry off by playing 18 holes of mini-golf at the adjacent course. South Germantown Recreational Park—where the splash park is located—also has a playground, tennis courts, a driving range, and an indoor swim center.
Splash park: $4 ages two and up. Mini-golf: $3. Combo ticket: $6.50. 301-670-4680.
Best Water Park for Teens and Adults
As Maryland’s largest water park, Hurricane Harbor at Six Flags America in Upper Marlboro gushes with adrenaline-pumping possibilities. Tune up by swimming in the nearly million-gallon wave pool. Next, swirl up the slope and then down at more than 20 miles an hour on Halfpipe. Follow with fun on Shark Attack or with a six-story plunge on Bonzai Pipelines.
With online discounts, admission starts at $39.99 and includes access to all rides. 301-249-1500.
Local Water Park With the Best Wave Pool
One highlight that packs in the crowds at Great Waves Water Park in Alexandria’s Cameron Run Regional Park is jumping through the “surf.” At the Reef—another must-do—get screamingly wet by zipping down twisting water slides. You can up the excitement by selecting an enclosed—i.e., dark—tube versus an open one. For young kids, the Lagoon play pool features mini-slides, Splash Zone offers sprays, and Paradise Play tempts with crawl-through fish, climbing equipment, and a sandbox. The park’s 20 acres include 18 holes of miniature golf, too.
$14.50 for Alexandria residents 48 inches tall or more; $14.75 for nonresidents; $11.50 or $11.75 for those 48 inches or under; under two years old, free. 703-960-0767.
Water Parks With the Best Bucket Dumps
At Ocean Dunes Water Park in Arlington, stand under the big blue bucket, one of the region’s largest water dumps, and wait for it to tip, drenching you with 500 gallons. Tamer sprays and fountains, as well as a wading pool, cool off little ones. Swimmers can stroke through laps at one of the park’s other pools. Part of Upton Hill Regional Park, Ocean Dunes also features miniature golf and batting cages.
$8 for children 42 inches tall or more; $6.75 for those 42 inches or shorter; under two years old, free. 703-534-3437.
At Volcano Island Waterpark’s play pool, kids slip down short tubes or wade through the one-to-three-foot-deep water to face the park’s jewel: a 500-gallon dumping bucket. Bigger kids enter the main pool by twisting down a 230-foot open slide or curling down a 170-foot dark slide. Tots can build castles in the sandy area and then rinse off by running through the splash pad’s sprinklers and sprays. An 18-hole miniature golf course is adjacent to Volcano Island, part of Algonkian Regional Park in Sterling.
$8 for children 48 inches tall or more; $6.75 under 48 inches. Free for ages two and younger. 703-430-7683.
Best Splash Parks for Shopping Breaks
An oasis of greenery, Georgetown Waterfront Park, at the foot of busy M Street, Northwest, gives shoppers with tag-along children space to relax on the grass and admire the Potomac River views. Kids cool off by running through the sole water feature, a row of synchronized sprays that form an arcing tunnel of water. Take hesitant little kids by the hand and walk through the highest point of the arc so that only the tot’s feet get wet or go for it, and dance through the jets.
At Silver Plaza Fountain in Silver Spring, kids hop through the water jets that ring the circular blue, green, and yellow mosaic that defines the splash area, dodging or dashing into the geysers that bubble up every few minutes. The splash fountain is not large; it lies within a brick courtyard with tree-shaded ledges and outdoor cafes that make it easy for parents to watch their children. To further insulate tots from traffic, a pedestrian mall of shops and eateries borders the area, and on Monday to Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and all day Saturday and Sunday, Ellsworth Drive from Fenton Street to Georgia Avenue closes to vehicles.
Best Local Indoor Water Park
As an indoor water park, Cub Run RECenter Aquatics in Chantilly is a boon to both sun-sensitive water lovers who wilt at outdoor facilities and to those seeking year-round fun. Older kids can drop into the leisure pool via two tall, twisting slides and also spin in a swirling vortex. Younger children glide down smaller slides and splash through water curtains, spurting pipes, and sprays. The facility also has a 25-yard-by-25-meter pool offering swim classes for tots to adults, as well as a fitness area with cardio equipment, weights, and exercise classes.
$8 for adult county residents, $10.50 nonresidents; $6.50 residents ages 5 through 18, $10.50 nonresidents; free ages 4 and younger with a paying adult; $16 resident family rate for up to five people (one or two adults and up to four children); $30 nonresident family rate. 703-817-9407.
Best Water Park for an Overnight Getaway
Virginia’s largest water park, Water Country USA in Williamsburg, also known as Water Country Busch Gardens, features a mix of wild, mild, and family-friendly rides. For thrills, try Colossal Curl, a funnel ride that twirls you before flushing you down 46 feet, enough to propel you over wave-like hills. On Vanish Point, you pick how to experience the near-vertical drop: Either stand-up to feel the floor disappear beneath you or lie down and let go. At the wave pool, Surfer’s Bay, float over ripples near “shore” or fight through bigger breakers in the deep end. Tots can splash through sprays and fountains at Critter Coral.
$38.99 for those 48 inches tall or more (or $32.99 for a seven-day advance ticket); $26.99 for those 48 inches and shorter and for ages 65 and up. Combination tickets provide access to Water Country and nearby Busch Gardens. Open daily through September 1. 757-229-9300.
Best Year-Round Water Park for a Getaway
It’s always 84 degrees at Great Wolf Lodge America, a 79,000-square-foot, indoor water park in Williamsburg. Highlights include a wading pool, mini-slides, a wave pool, plus a Flowrider that creates surf for kneeboarding. At Fort Mackenzie, the four-story centerpiece treehouse, kids climb cargo nets, cross rope bridges, slip down slides, and get doused by the 1,000-gallon water bucket. Soak in the sun and the water at Racoon Lagoon, the outdoor pool area, where sprays and geysers as well as an 18-hole miniature golf course add fun. A family resort, Great Wolf Lodge features a kids’ spa, an arcade with more than 100 games, on-site dining, and regular and themed suites.
Room rates in July and August start at $200. Admission to the water park is free but for overnight guests only. 757-229-9700.
More Water Fun
At Water Mine Family Swimmin’ Hole in Reston—a park with a loose western theme—families can float on inner tubes along Rattlesnake River, a “lazy river” dotted with small bucket dumps and sprays that encircles the one acre-plus park. Kids wriggle down “Big Pete” and “Little Pete,” two sets of slides that land them in a pool whose deep end bottoms out at about four feet. Youngsters climb through a covered wagon to glide down a slide and tots romp through Tenderfoot Pond, a splash area with pint-sized slides and geysers. The Water Mine is located in Lake Fairfax Park, home to a 20-acre lake, marina, carousel, and skatepark.
$14.50 for those 48 inches tall or more on weekends and holidays, $13.50 Monday through Friday; $11.25 under 48 inches. Free for ages two and younger. 703-471-5414.
At Lane Manor Splash Park in Hyattsville, kids can enter the 25-meter outdoor pool by slithering down two enclosed slides, and then “walk on water” by stepping on lily pads or pulling themselves across the surface by hanging onto a rope net. Little ones can splash in a wading pool. Lane Manor Splash Park is part of the Lane Manor Community Recreation Center in the Northwest Branch Stream Valley Park.
$5 adult residents, $6 nonresidents; $4 residents ages 3 through 17, $5 nonresidents; free for ages 2 and younger. 301-422-7284 (summer); 301-853-9115.
Hone Your Sport
Boar’s Head, a resort in Charlottesville in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is offering Everything for Your Sport. This couples package includes two 60-minute lessons in the sport of your choice (golf, tennis, or squash), two 60-minute sport-specific personal-training sessions, and two 60-minute yoga classes tailored to your sport, along with accommodations, breakfast for two, resort fees, tax, and tip. Rates start at $725 a couple. 434-296-2181.
Cook Like a Pro
Hole up at the historic Robert Morris Inn in Oxford, Maryland, on the Eastern Shore, and learn to cook with co-owner and chef Mark Salter, whose most recent stint was helming the kitchen at the Inn at Perry Cabin. Throughout the winter, Salter will share his culinary prowess with small groups in his Chesapeake Seasons Cooking Demonstrations, which include a two-hour demo, recipe cards, a two-course lunch, and a glass of wine. A cooking package—encompassing the demo, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner for two plus one night in a Captain’s Suite—runs $210 a person. 410-226-5111.
Get Well and Relax
The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia offers guests a way to double down on efforts to improve their health, thanks to an on-site medical clinic. There, nine physicians—from cardiologists to endocrinologists—conduct preventive plans and diagnostics reviews. A 60-to-90-minute introductory interview about your health history sets the tone for the individualized attention you’ll receive. Combine doctor visits with massages and detoxifying hydrotherapies at the spa and you have a recipe for a healthy start to 2014. Packages, which include clinic services and accommodations, start at $2,250. 800-362-7798.
Find Some Peace
It’s hard to imagine a more tranquil slice of land on which to restore your soul and perfect your downward dog than Fox Haven Learning Center’s 620-acre organic farm along the Catoctin Creek in Jefferson, Maryland. On January 24 and 25, mini-retreats feature yoga, wholesome food, and meditation. Stay in one of three historic farmhouses with porches offering views of the property, which is teeming with bald eagles, beavers, great blue herons, and foxes. Rates start at $199 if you register by December 15; after that, they begin at $229. 301-695-8646.
This article appears in the January 2014 issue of Washingtonian.
Sun & Pink Sand
What’s better than a room with a view? Two rooms with views! The Family Getaway package at Bermuda’s Fairmont Southampton is the perfect retreat to make your spring break one to remember. With currency on par with the US dollar, Bermuda offers an exotic locale at a great value, and it’s a mere two hours from the Washington area with direct flights from BWI on AirTran.
This package includes an adult room and a second connecting room for children. From riding the waves on a jet ski to exploring historic forts and pink-sand beaches, every member of your family is sure to have a good time. Available for families with children 18 years and under only, the package includes complimentary access to the Explorer’s Camp and a family welcome amenity. Available through March 31, 2013; rates start at $269 (the second room is free).
Head to the Mountains!
Spend spring break in Jackson Hole and experience Teton Mountain Lodge’s S-6 package for 25 percent off. This fun family package will ensure an adventure-filled vacation and will guarantee you won’t hear anyone say, “Mom, I’m bored!” Valid for stay dates: March 3 through April 7, 2013. Rates are based on prices for two adults and two children. The package includes four nights lodging in a one- or two-bedroom suite , a wildlife safari (sunrise or sunset tour) for two adults and two kids , an Elk Refuge sleigh ride for two adults and two kids, sleds delivered to the room , turndown service, hot cocoa and cookies for kids , and a $30 breakfast credit at Spur. Rates start at $591 a night.
Get Cozy in Lake Placid
Lake Placid Lodge is balanced on the edge of the village of Lake Placid, New York, a gorgeous five-hour drive north of Manhattan. The lodge is a celebration of all that was—and remains—best in the Adirondacks. Its 30 rooms are embellished with beams hewn by hand, filled with art and antiques, and warmed by stone fireplaces. The lodge is a member of Relais & Châteaux, and guests can experience culinary perfection prepared by Chef Nathan Rich at its Artisans restaurant.
Stay two nights midweek (Sunday through Thursday) during the month of March and the third night and dinner for two at Maggie’s Pub is on the lodge. Guests of all ages are welcome throughout the month of March (during the rest of the year, only guests 12 and up are able to stay). Call 518-523-2700 to reserve. The offer is available for reservations made from January 31 through March 26.
Eureka! Head West to the Golden State
Rancho Valencia is a Mediterranean-inspired, all-suite property offering the finest accommodations and service San Diego has to offer. Its grounds span 45 lush acres of gardens, trails, olive groves, and casitas. Recent updates made to the property include a renovation of all 49 luxe guest casitas with private patios. There are endless on-property activities, including tennis, spa services, afternoon playtime for kids, a pool, arts and crafts, croquet, yoga, biking, and board games.
Rancho Valencia is offering the Hello, Sunshine! package to celebrate the arrival of the sunny spring season. Book three nights at Rancho Valencia and the fourth night is complimentary. Package rates start at $675 a night. The offer is valid March 1 through April 15, 2013.
Chesapeake Bay Bliss
The Tides Inn is a serene Chesapeake Bay resort that includes a marina, the 18-hole Golden Eagle golf course, and a luxurious spa, creating the perfect luxury retreat for relaxation in Virginia's countryside.
Guests will enjoy sailing, riding bikes, crabbing, a marina tour, board games, evening s’mores, movie nights, and lawn games. There is also the CrabNet Kids program for guests ages 4 to 12, allowing mom and dad to hit the spa or have some alone time. As a bonus, the Tides Inn is close to Busch Gardens and Williamsburg.
The Inn is offering a Family Vacation Package that includes deluxe accommodations with two queen beds, full breakfast daily for up to four poeple at the inn's restaurant or from room service, a one-hour water cruise, and tickets to the Steamboat Museum. Prices start at $379 per night, based on two adults and two children.
Elizabeth Thorp is the founder of Poshbrood, a curated catalog of mom-tested, upscale family-friendly properties.