When it comes to autumn outings with the family, most of us tend to think of a certain kind of fun — hayrides, pumpkins, slides, and all the amusement that comes with fall festivals on farms. And while they can be a blast, especially for kiddos, it’s also nice to enjoy the season in different ways, and there are plenty of them in the DC area. So, if you’re looking to spice up your autumn recreation (and not with pumpkin flavoring), here are 10 places that we love this time of year.
Grand views at Great Falls
The local national park boasting some of the most spectacular nature in this area may just be at peak beauty during fall. The magnificence of its main attraction — the wildly gushing cascades of the Potomac River — is even more striking flanked by the autumnal spectrum of the park’s woods. Hike along the trails for an active way to take it all in or head out to overlooks for breathtaking views. And whether you opt for the Maryland or Virginia side, you really can’t go wrong. KFDC Tips: 1) Go on a weekday if possible, as it can get crowded on weekends. 2) Consider walking to Great Falls from nearby Riverbend Park — not only will you avoid a line of cars to get in, entry is free, and you can enjoy a nice, easy hike along the river to get there.
Great Falls entrances are located at 9200 Old Dominion Drive in McLean, VA, and 11710 MacArthur Blvd in Potomac, MD. Admission is $8/car.
Autumn glow at the Arboretum
If you’ve never visited the National Arboretum — and I’m always surprised at how often I hear someone hasn’t — fall is a great time to go. Its 450 acres contain an amazing variety of flora, much of it turning from summer green to the gorgeous orange, red, and yellow hues of this season. It’s a picture-perfect backdrop for the old Capitol columns that are a huge draw for kids and adults. And the plant collections themselves are always interesting to explore. Trails and paths run through them, and you’ll also find hidden seating areas to take a break as you enjoy it all. KFDC Tip: Be sure to stop to see the bonsai exhibit — the little trees transform in autumn, too!
The National Arboretum entrances are located at 24th & R Streets NE off of Bladensburg Road and 3501 New York Avenue NE in DC. Admission is free. September 2020 Update: Open daily, 8am – 5pm. Some sections, including the bonsai exhibit are closed due to COVID.
Playing in the trees as the tinges of fall foliage begin to show
Adventure Park at Sandy Spring
If you really want to immerse in the season, then get right up in the tree tops amid the changing leaves at the Adventure Park at Sandy Spring. Five acres of lofty trees are outfitted with 13 ropes courses that contain no less than 250 challenges, everything from walking across narrow planks to crawling through tunnels to zip lining — all from tree to tree and up to 65 feet in the air. The brilliant colors and cool, crisp conditions are sure to add some extra exhilaration to your adventure! KFDC Tip: They offer last call tickets ($45/adult, $16/child) for two hours of evening climbing starting at 5pm. When the sun goes down, lights come on, and the park glows!
The Adventure Park at Sandy Spring is located at 16701 Norwood Rd in Sandy Spring, MD. Regular admission prices vary by age, ranging from $16-60.
The beautiful gardens at Dumbarton Oaks
Every season brings something amazing to the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks. A cool peacefulness in winter, a colorful array of flowers in spring, lush green landscapes and roses in summer, and brilliant swaths of foliage in the fall. Tucked away in a relatively non-bustling area of Georgetown, it’s kind of like DC’s own secret garden. And strolling through the many sections, discovering delightful little surprises on the way, feels magical any time of the year. KFDC Tips: 1) The park doesn’t open until 2pm, but you can take kids to play at Montrose Park next door while you wait for it to open. 2) Starting in mid-November (thru mid-March) admission to the garden grounds are free!
Dumbarton Oaks Gardens are located at 1703 32nd Street NW in Georgetown, DC. Admission is $7 from mid-March – mid-November. September 2021 Update: Tickets must be reserved online.
Autumnal woods and wetlands at Huntley Meadows
Huntley Meadows Park
This amazing natural oasis hidden in Alexandria is a perfect place to take kids for a fun yet chill outdoor adventure. Scenic views and wildlife sightings are abundant on an easy, one-mile hike that winds through woods and along a boardwalk over wetlands. Fall may just be the best time to enjoy it all. The marsh areas that get hot and sticky under the summer sun with no coverage above are cool and pleasant come autumn. Walks in the woods and landscape views are enhanced by seasonal color, and the crunch of leaves underfoot may be the only sound that breaks the peace besides bird calls and kids’ squeals of delight. View more scenes from one of our visits here.
KFDC Tip: Stop in the Visitor Center for small exhibits about local wildlife and activities for kids.
Huntley Meadows Park is located at 3701 Lockheed Blvd in Alexandria, VA.
One of Maryland’s best perks – and not just in summer
Cantler’s Riverside Inn
Who says crabs can only be enjoyed during summer? Some say fall may actually be a better time to savor the Chesapeake treat. Aside from the crabs themselves, the cooler weather makes for more pleasant outdoor feasting than summer’s hot and humid clime, plus restaurants likely aren’t as packed. Cantler’s Riverside Inn is an Annapolis institution and a fun place to take the whole fam. KFDC Tip: Pair an outing to Cantler’s with a visit to Quiet Waters Park to enjoy some active time to work up an appetite.
Cantler’s Riverside Inn is located at 458 Forest Beach Road in Annapolis, MD.
Hunt for shark teeth along Potomac River shores
Purse State Park
Sand meets surf (or the Potomac River, anyway) at this locale in Charles County, MD. But it’s not a destination for your typical beach day. At Purse State Park, fossil hunting is the main pursuit, and fall is just as good a season to do it as any other. The shores there are loaded with shark teeth and other prehistoric remnants of the Paleocene Era. The only difference going this time of year is that the colder water may require a pair of rubber boots. And you access the beach via a nice little trail in the woods, which glow a lovely golden hue when the sun shines through the autumn leaves. KFDC Tip: Check the tide table before you go (select Potomac River/Liverpool Point, MD) — it’s a narrow beach, so you definitely want to be there at low tide.
Purse State Park is located off of Route 224 in Nanjemoy, MD — use GPS for directions. September 2020 Update: This is now referred to as the Purse Area of the Nanjemoy Wildlife Management Area. And I recommend reading my note about it in the original post (link above) before planning to go there.
Go for a hike (or run) in the woods at Rock Creek Park
Rock Creek Park
There is so much to love about Rock Creek Park all year round, but when it comes to beauty, fall is its best season, in my opinion. The autumn colors can be enjoyed on hiking trails, bike paths, horseback, even driving through its winding roads. You can go to the Nature Center then hike a couple of miles to Peirce Mill (or vice versa), visit the stables, join a Ranger led program — all under a brilliant autumn canopy. And just about all of it is absolutely free! (Pony and trail rides cost a fee.) KFDC Tip: Pony and trail rides are only offered on weekends through October, which means space is limited, so book ahead!
Rock Creek Park is located in Northwest DC. There are numerous ways to access it, depending on exactly where you want to go. September 2020 Update: The Nature Center is not open, and pony and trail rides are not bring offered at this time.
Laaaid back at Brookside
The fall colors are always brilliant at this public display garden in Wheaton, but there’s more to do than just leaf peep on its 50 acres. The adorable Children’s Garden just reopened with a new “Explore Maryland” theme, plus there are often special activities for families and kids, like nature programs, a s’mores cookoff, Sunday storytimes, and more. KFDC Tip: Stop by the pond where turtle sightings, many of them, are practically guaranteed.
Brookside Gardens is located at 1800 Glenallan Avenue in Wheaton, MD.
Fall color and cool weather add extra splendor to Ren Fest
Revel Grove (Maryland Renaissance Festival)
My very favorite annual event occurs during fall, so of course I’m going to include it among this list. The faire takes place in a charming “hamlet” called Revel Grove that looks like a 16th-century English Tudor village. Come Ren Fest season, it fills up with all kinds of amusement for all ages — exciting jousting matches, cheeky comedy shows, tight rope walkers and other balancing acts, jugglers, musical performances, puppetry, pony rides, a big selection of yummy concessions, roaming entertainers, lots of games and opportunities to play, and so much more. And it all sprawls gloriously through 25 acres of woods, which make for a lovely backdrop as the leaves begin to turn and the weather cools down. It’s autumn magic at its best. KFDC Tip: By tickets ahead online to avoid a wait in line there.
Revel Grove is located at 1821 Crownsville Road in Annapolis, MD. Admission is $26/age 16-61, $22/age 62+, $7/age 7-15, free/6 & under. September 2021 Update: Tickets must be purchased in advanced; there are no onsite sales this year.