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The Five Best Parks Around Washington DC

Shenandoah National Park. Photograph by Jeff Mauritzen.
Our Favorite Parks

About Our Favorite Parks

This article is a part of Washingtonian’s feature: Our Favorite Parks. Our editors and staff pulled together the best regional parks where you can take a walk, have a picnic, play with the kids, and enjoy the great outdoors.

Take a walk. Have a picnic. Rent a boat. Spot bald eagles. This region has hundreds of parks where we’re able to do all that—and more. Here are some of our favorites.

Shenandoah National Park

Photograph by April Greer.

What makes it great: This glorious park stretches along mountaintops for more than 100 miles in Virginia, from Front Royal to near Waynesboro. Its scenic roadway, Skyline Drive, offers almost 70 easily accessible and spectacular overlooks of the verdant forests descending to farmland and countryside. There are 500-plus miles of hiking trails as well as lots of other activities, including camping, horseback riding, and fishing.

Three highlights: Two of the Mid-Atlantic’s best hikes are here. The challenging Old Rag Mountain trail climbs above the tree line onto a rocky summit with a sprawling view, while the easier White Oak Canyon trail passes six beautiful waterfalls. Don’t miss the ranger-led hike that starts at Big Meadows Lodge and winds through a mountain meadow, exploring the rich wildlife diversity.

Secret gem: Spend the weekend at one of the park’s cabins or lodges, and try the whiskey-and-wine shuttle, which goes to a nearby distillery and two wineries.

If you go: It’s 75 miles from DC. For more information, see nps.gov/shen.

Rock Creek Park

Photograph by Eric Broder Van Dyke/Alamy.

What makes it great: Running through the heart of the District, the almost 2,000-acre park offers wooded trails where the sounds of the city disappear. Besides 30-plus miles of trails and paved paths, there’s tennis, golf, and open fields where you can toss a Frisbee.

Three highlights: Centrally located within the park are three great family activities—a nature center with exhibits on local plants and animals, including live snakes and turtles; a planetarium in the nature center that presents free and delightful shows about the solar system; and the horse center, which offers lessons, guided rides, and pony rides.

Secret gem: Peirce Mill, a functioning grain mill. Pop inside the historic stone building for a fascinating look at all of the water-driven belts and conveyors.

If you go: For more, see nps.gov/rocr.

Great Falls National Park

Photograph by Skip Brown.

What makes it great: The view of the Potomac cascading over massive rocky outcroppings and boulders—the water frothing as it thunders down—is amazing, no matter how often you’ve visited. Below, you can watch as kayakers try to paddle upstream into the torrents and ride out the currents.

Three highlights: Follow the trail south of the falls into Mather Gorge, where steep cliffs provide additional views of the river. The cliffs are renowned for rock climbing, and several outfitters lead and teach on the vertical faces. Take the popular 1.5-mile River Trail, which connects to the Ridge Trail and ends at a small beach; the calm water often provides a mirrored view of the sun-bleached gorge.

Secret gem: It’s said Washington is built on a swamp. At Great Falls, there’s an actual swamp, a serene forested wetland that’s home to songbirds.

If you go: It’s 15 miles from downtown DC. For more, go to nps.gov/grfa.

Catoctin Mountain Park and Cunningham Falls State Park

What makes them great: Two parks in one—a national park next to a state park—it’s the destination for those who love mountains and beach. Miles of trails extend into the valleys and up to the mountaintops, while a 75-acre manmade lake offers three swimming beaches. There’s also camping, canoeing, kayaking, and fishing.

Three highlights: The main highlight is Cunningham Falls itself—Maryland’s highest waterfall, at 78 feet. The view from Chimney Rock also can’t be missed. To enjoy it fully takes a bit of daring: hopping across a small crevasse to reach the block of white quartzite that shoots above the trees like a chimney. On the same loop trail, Wolf Rock is for those who like to rock-scramble.

Secret gem: The less traveled Thurmont Vista is an easier hike than the one to Chimney Rock. It has a nice bench to sit and enjoy the view.

If you go: It’s 68 miles from downtown DC. Go to nps.gov/cato (Catoctin) or dnr.maryland.gov and search for Cunningham.

Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Park

Photograph by Skip Brown.

What makes it great: Its size alone is extraordinary, not to mention the views of the Potomac that open up now and then. The 184.5-mile park starts in Georgetown and runs all the way to Cumberland, Maryland. The crushed-stone pathway—popular with walkers, joggers, and cyclists—was the towpath for mules when canal barges transported goods from 1850 to 1924.

Three highlights: Great Falls Tavern Visitor’s Center offers views of the falls from the Maryland side. Immediately south of the falls is the Billy Goat Trail. Divided into three sections, the 4.75-mile trail includes challenging rock scrambles, overlooks of the Potomac, small beaches, and views of the cliffs of Carderock, the closest place to DC for rock climbing. At the District end of the towpath, Fletcher’s Boathouse rents kayaks, canoes, rowboats, and standup paddleboards on one of the prettiest stretches of the river.

Secret gem: A half dozen of the original lock houses have been renovated and are available to rent for an overnight stay.

If you go: For more, go to nps.gov/choh.

This article appears in the May 2019 issue of Washingtonian.