The weather is finally getting nicer, and it’s the perfect time to get out and explore Washington, D.C.’s national parks. Some are a simple square of greenery, like Capitol Hill Park, some are lavish and full of history, like Meridian Hill Park, and others are full of nature and wildlife, like Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Garden. All of these parks are maintained by the National Park Service. Whatever your park preference, there’s sure to be something on this list that excites you or your family.
Your neighborhood park in the midst of the nation’s capital. There’s a roller rink, playgrounds, fishing, and a recreation center which includes a pool. Located along the Anacostia River, it’s the perfect opportunity to see the river, hike along it and see some wildlife. The park’s biggest event of the year is the Anacostia River Festival, held in conjunction with the Cherry Blossom Festival.
Capitol Hill Parks
This collection of parks includes areas east of the Capitol such as the Folger, Stanton, Lincoln, and Marion parks, the Eastern Market and Potomac Avenue Metro stations, and smaller land areas such as Seward Square, Twinning Square, the Maryland Avenue Triangles, the Pennsylvania Avenue Medians, and 59 triangles and squares throughout the city. Capitol Hill Parks encompasses all of the small but scenic areas throughout the city. Many of these parks feature statues of notable figures like Abraham Lincoln, while others offer playgrounds perfect for kids after a long day of being in museums.
Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park
Originally established by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, this park follows the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and spans from Georgetown, Washington D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland. The massive 184.5-mile designated park has options for hikers, bikers and campers.
The towpath is great for both bikers and hikers and follows the entirety of the canal, connecting to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia. This towpath also doubles as a portion of the Appalachian Trail. Whether you’re setting out for a brief hike along the canal with your family or embarking on the 184.5-mile trip from D.C. to Maryland, this park will keep you busy and in shape with its decades of history.
This park in Washington, D.C. encompasses the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Constitution Avenue, the Reflecting Pool and an island open to pedestrians. In 1982, the memorial to the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence was added to the small pedestrian island in the park. Constitution Gardens houses some of D.C.’s most important monuments and also offers green space for visitors to see some history while relaxing on the mall. It’s especially beautiful in peak cherry blossom season and is a great escape from the bustle of the city.
Fort DuPont Park
Once used to defend the capital during the Civil War, this 376-acre park offers a selection of outdoor activities including gardening, picnics, nature walks, biking, and ranger-led programs. Perhaps the best part of the park is the annual Summer Concert Series. Performances include world music, rock tribute bands, R&B and more. The lineup is different every summer!
George Mason Memorial Park
This quiet garden was dedicated and updated in 2002 in honor of the often-overlooked founding father George Mason. There is a pansy garden, benches, a 72-foot-long trellis and a seated statue of Mason himself. The bronze sculpture was made by artist Wendy Ross and depicts him sitting by a few books and a walking stick with a contemplative expression. The garden is beautiful in the spring with its many annually-blooming flowers.
George Washington Memorial Parkway
This park focuses on recreational driving and provides a scenic place for relaxation and play in the middle of the busy city. The 25-mile parkway runs along the south bank of the Potomac River from Mount Vernon, Virginia, northwest to McLean, Virginia. This scenic route is a great way to get a feel for the area and its vast history. There are a few scenic pull offs to enjoy views over the Potomac River, and the road leads to several parks and hiking spots, including Turkey Run Park.
Great Falls Park
Just 15 miles from D.C., this 800-acre park showcases the impressive and dramatic waters of the Potomac River. Have a picnic, see some wildlife and go for nature walks. Check out the lookout points to see the raging river and the beautiful surrounding environment. Whitewater boating is the most common type of boating at this park, but is definitely not for the faint of heart. There are places to climb and 15 miles of trails to hike.
Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens
Part of Anacostia Park, this park has a strong aquatic focus with numerous ponds, frogs, and a boardwalk trail that passes through aquatic vegetation. It is a bit of a marshy area, but this makes it the perfect place to see birds, frogs, fish, and whatever else lives in the expansive marsh and wooded habitat of the park. This is a great park for kids to learn about wildlife, or for the family to get into birding or exploring the outdoors.
LBJ Memorial Grove on the Potomac
Located across the river from the hustle of the capital, this park was President Johnson’s go-to when he needed to clear his head. There are white pines, serpentine paths, a granite megalith of the president and an open meadow that honors his legacy of social justice and conservation legislation. Enjoy dramatic views of the National Mall, and see the sprawl of the city from afar.
Meridian Hill Park
This aristocratic-looking park was designed in an upscale Italian garden style. It features a large mansion that was once home to President John Quincy Adams, and includes a Joan of Arc statue that also happens to be the only equestrian statue of a woman in Washington, D.C. There is also a thirteen-basin cascading fountain (the longest in North America), a statue of Dante, and a James Buchanan Memorial. Gorgeous and fit for royalty, this park is sure to appease your wanderlust for the finer things in life.
National Mall and Memorial Parks
This national historic site encompasses the most well-known D.C. memorials: the Washington Monument, World War II Memorial, Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial. There is so much to do and see in this historical collection of parks and monuments and you could easily spend a whole day soaking it all in.
Rock Creek Park
This park includes so many activities that the whole family is sure to be entertained. A planetarium offers free ranger-led astronomy programs on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays, while the Carter Barron Amphitheatre presents a summer concert series featuring blues, jazz, poetry, hip-hop and reggae performances. The Rock Creek Tennis Center has over two dozen courts; some cost a fee while others are free. In addition to these great amenities, hiking, biking, playground, picnicking places and boating opportunities abound. There is something for everyone at Rock Creek Park!
National Historic Trails
Can’t get enough of the rich history of the greater D.C. area? Check out one of these National Historic Trails. Whether you’re looking to spend weeks or just a day traversing these routes, you’re sure to learn more about America’s history and provide your kids with an epic adventure.
Captain John Smith Chesapeake
This 3,000-mile trail runs from Virginia through Maryland, Delaware, and D.C. to Pennsylvania and ends in New York. The route commemorates thousands of miles of the bay, rivers and Native American communities that were mapped by Englishman John Smith over 400 years ago. Travel this path for history, nature and six states worth of culture. It could be a fun day trip for the whole family, or a months-long adventure if you choose to hike the whole thing. Good luck!
Theodore Roosevelt Island
This island is located just off of the Georgetown area and offers fun activities to help you escape from the city. Every weekend there is an Island Safari led by a ranger around the island. America’s 26th president was a lifelong birder, so you better believe there are all kinds of bird species to see. There’s also a kayaking program for visitors to explore the Potomac River. Finally, the Mount Vernon Trail offers 18 miles of paved trail that goes from the island to Thomas Jefferson’s Mount Vernon.
The Potomac Heritage Trail links the tidal Potomac and the upper Youghiogheny river basins and is an area rich with historic pathways and waterways. It can be traveled by foot, bicycle, boat and horse. Experience the nature and wildlife between the Chesapeake Bay and the Allegheny Plateau. For the kids, there is a Family Adventure Guide, passport stamp program and a Track Trail program. Check out the NPS.gov website for more information for more kid-centered activities. After a long day of hiking and exploring, there are a number of scenic viewpoints to sit back, relax and enjoy the sunset over the water.
While the United States was involved in the War of 1812, the Chesapeake Bay area felt the brunt of it. The Star-Spangled Banner trail commemorates that occasion and the birth of the national anthem. The historic trail spans Virginia, Maryland and D.C., just as the Chesapeake does. There are great educational resources for kids to learn about the history associated with the trail. Check out the NPS.gov website for more!
Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route
This trail takes visitors through the history of America and runs from Massachusetts down to DC. The route is heavy on Revolutionary War pride, so it could be fun to take the family for a tour through the country’s expansive history around one of America’s more patriotic holidays, like the Fourth of July or Memorial Day.
Need more national parks near Washington, D.C.? Check out Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Mountains, an easy day trip from the city.