Winter is looming, and it’s going to be a lot different than any we’ve previously experienced. Most of our usual go-to places for fun and entertainment (and warmth) inside aren’t accessible right now. So, we adapt. Instead of heading to museums and theatres and indoor play spaces this season, plan on adventures outdoors instead. (Remember, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing!) So, layer up, bundle up, invest in gear that makes the cold outdoors more comfy, and try some of these activities that aren’t just alternatives to the winter outings you aren’t enjoying, but that are awesome adventures in themselves. Happy Winter!
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TAKE A HIKE
Taking a walk in the woods probably seems like an obvious suggestion, but a reminder of some great places to go never hurts. Here are a few that are especially good to visit now, either because they don’t draw huge crowds or are big enough to offer plenty of space if they do.
Turkey Run Park
This seems to be one of the best overlooked parks in the area, as it’s never crowded when we go. Nearly 700 acres of woods contain trails that ramble along the Potomac, streams that flow down from the woods to the river, great views from the shoreline, and a variety of wildlife. Hikes are fairly easy, and you can opt for trails anywhere from about one to four miles long. There are clusters of big rocks on the riverbanks, where it’s nice to stop and take in the views. Scramble over fallen trees, cross a few small footbridges, and run through clearings. A few picnic areas with tables are perfect for lunch al fresco, and the open spaces are great areas to toss a Frisbee or kick a ball around. Access the park via the GW Parkway, right before the Beltway. Hours are 6am -10pm, and there is no admission fee.
Rock Creek Park
Our local national park is a great place to enjoy outdoor recreation right here in the city. Layer up and hit one of the many trails. We usually park at the Nature Center lot or by Peirce Mill, then hop on a marked path from there. Some areas might be closed right now, but there are maps on trees indicating where to go. Admission to Rock Creek Park is free. [Note: Links above offer more info about the Nature Center and Peirce Mill, but both places are closed right now.]
Sky Meadows State Park
The park in Delaplane, VA, is vast, perfect for good social distancing, plus you can enjoy nice walks through woods and along pastures with beautiful scenic views. You can even hike the AT — a three-mile stretch of it runs through the park. There are bunch more trails to follow, plenty of them easy and short for young trampers, including a Sensory Trail especially for kids and a Children’s Discovery Area. The Visitor Center is open if you need facilities and a little warming up, but only Thursday – Monday, with weekday hours from 11am – 4:30pm, and weekends 10am – 4:30pm. The park is open 8am – dusk, and parking is $7/weekdays, $10/weekends.
Patapsco Valley State Park
With over 16,000 acres sprawling through Howard and Baltimore counties, there are hiking options galore at Patapsco. The trails vary, which keeps it interesting — there are easy, flat routes along the river and rooty paths that wind through the woods, some leading to waterfalls or crossing over footbridges. We usually head in at the Avalon or Hilton entrances and hit the trails from there. Both offer the best access to trails that lead to the lovely Cascade Falls, plus other nice routes. There is a playground next to the Hilton parking area for some extra fun for kids. I recommend checking the Patapsco website or Trails.com to find the right hike for your family and detailed info.
Located in Dickerson, MD, just south Frederick, Sugarloaf is a great place to go for a family hike. You can start at the base and opt for a 7-mile loop or drive farther up the mountain for a shorter hike — there are a bunch of trails to hop on close to the parking area. A couple of good ones are the white trail, which winds around and ascends gradually to the summit, and the orange trail that is a steeper, more direct climb up. However you go, you’re guaranteed great views on the way and at the top. Afterward, plan a stop at the Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard or The Comus Inn, both just down the road. The latter is a family-friendly restaurant with a great outdoor dining area, plus shuffleboard, corn hole, and ping pong — all of it surrounded by gorgeous scenery. Get a glimpse of our recent outing to Sugarloaf and Comus in my IG highlights.
Find even more great hikes around the area!
GET AN ART FIX
You don’t always have to go into a museum to enjoy great works of art. They are outdoors in gardens, along our landscapes, and even the city streets. For many, seeing the creative output of others is such a fantastic boost — here are some varied ways to find that around the area.
DC Murals Tour
You can find art by local artists all over the city on sides of buildings, temporarily boarded-up storefronts, even right on the street. MuralsDC, an initiative from the DC Department of Public Works, is an excellent resource for locating, learning about, and touring local murals. You can refer to the digital map and find tours of collections, including the 51 Murals for DC Statehood and U Street Corridor Walking Tour.
Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden
While all of the Smithsonian museums are currently closed, you can still enjoy the outdoor areas, including the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden on the National Mall. Take a stroll through the works, and check out this FAQ for more about visiting. You can pop in for free daily from 10am – 4:30pm. And to make the most of your time, visit the lovely garden between the Hirshhorn and Arts & Industries Building and the Enid A. Haupt Garden behind the castle.
The REACH at the Kennedy Center
The beautiful grounds of The REACH, the Kennedy Center extension that opened just over a year ago, are open to visitors. Not only are there works of art located around the area, the artfully designed buildings are so impressive and amazing to view. You can stroll around, check out the sculptures and structures — and take in vistas of the Potomac. The Kennedy Center terrace and plaza are also open, and you can take a very short walk through The Reach indoors. Even more, Victura Park, an outdoor pop-up wine garden & café, is there on weekends, with a Winter Holiday Market, too. The REACH grounds are always open; indoors are Friday 4-8pm, Saturday 12-6pm, & Sunday 12-6pm; Victura Park hours are Friday 4-8pm, Saturday 12-8pm, ad Sunday 12-7pm. Admission to everything is free. See my IG posts, here and here, for some REACH scenes.
Tour the Memorials
Surely, DC’s grand iconic structures can be considered artistic works. So, be a tourist in your hometown (unless you’re visiting, then just be a tourist), and take the opportunity to visit the many memorials on the Mall and around the Tidal Basin. Along with being marvel-worthy, there’s a lot to be gleaned from them, too. Learn about some of our country’s presidents and leaders — George, Abe, Tom, FDR, & MLK — from displays, park rangers, and in the Visitors Centers. And walk or bike among them all to add some exercise (and extra fun) to the venture.
Annmarie Sculpture Garden
The grounds of the arts center in Calvert County are filled with all kinds of creative works, from large abstract sculptures to “tree pops” and birdhouses to a few fairy houses left over from the annual summer exhibit. Some of the bigger works are part of the permanent collection, and many more are on loan from the Hirshhorn, National Gallery of Art, and other private collections. A stroll among all of it along a looping path is lovely, relaxing, and kind of magical. And the Fairy Lolly is the most delightful play area! The indoor galleries with even more art are also open and good for warming up (plus, restrooms). Hours right now are Sunday – Friday 12-3pm, and Saturday, 10am-3pm. Admission is free during Covid, but a donation of $5 is suggested. Read more about Annmarie here.
EXPLORE A GARDEN
Exploring a garden might seem the same as a hike — after all, both involve mostly walking — but they’re quite different to me. Gardens are deliberately designed with plantings that are thought out, and they usually offer more than walks, like pretty seating areas, special demo sections, and sometimes play areas and other structures. Here are some places you can find all of those.
Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens
With its lily pad-filled ponds, gorgeous lotus and water lilies (in summer), and acres of wetlands, Kenilworth is unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere in the area. Even without the colorful flower bloom or fall hues, the park is still a gorgeous oasis in the city during winter. You can hike around and explore the different areas — wander the paths around the ponds or follow the boardwalk to the wetlands area. A couple of lookouts showcase the natural scenery, and you may even spy a great blue heron in the distance. A great way to get there is by bike along the Anacostia River Tail if that’s convenient for you; otherwise, parking is easy with a lot right there if you drive.
Of course I have to include one of my very favorite outdoor places here. The Arboretum’s nearly 450 acres contain an amazing variety of plant, tree, and flower collections that are just as interesting to explore as they are beautiful. Trails and paths wind through them, and you’ll also find hidden seating areas to take a break and enjoy the scenery. The Old Capitol Columns standing smack in the middle of the Ellipse Meadow make for a striking scene, but tend to draw more people. I recommend heading to less visited areas like the dogwoods and conifers — it’s like strolling around a secret, magic garden. The herb garden is fun to sniff around, too! Unfortunately, the Youth Garden, natural play area, and Bonsai Museum are closed right now, but what’s open is plenty to enjoy. And if you bring along a picnic, the Grove of State Trees is a designated eating spot with tables. See more about the Arb here and here,
The beautiful public display garden within Wheaton Regional Park in the Montgomery Parks system is lovely and relaxing to visit all year round. You can stroll along paths through wooded areas, seek out gazebos and other nice spots to sit, and run through open grassy areas. The turtle pond is especially pretty, with stone and wooden footbridges leading to different parts and a large gazebo, from which you can look for turtles swimming below or just sit in and enjoy the surroundings. (There is also a sweet Children’s Garden with play structures, though it’s closed right now.) Right now, the grounds are open to wander and enjoy daily from sunrise to sunset, and the Visitor Center 10am – 2pm.
Green Spring Gardens
Tucked away in Alexandria, Green Spring is a great place to hang out. It’s divided into sections of more than 20 thematic demonstration gardens, plus there’s a wooded stream valley with ponds. Stop in the Horticultural Center and ask for scavenger hunt instructions — this adds an element of adventure to your explorations. The grounds are open dawn to dusk, and the Horticultural Center 9:30am – 4pm. Admission is free.
Meadowlark Botanical Gardens
The grounds at Meadowlark are gorgeous and vast and so nice to roam around. You can follow trails to the lake and check for geese and turtles, visit the Korean Bell Garden featuring pavilions, whimsical totems, and a lovely fountain, and visit a restored 18th Century log cabin. For warming up and restrooms, the Visitor Center is open with limited capacity. Hours are 10am – 4:30pm in November/December and 10am – 5pm January/February. Admission is $6/adults, $3/ages 7-17 and seniors, free for ages 6 and under.
Find a few more DC gardens to explore!
Take advantage of the season with a quintessential winter activity! Hit the slopes, glide on ice, whiz down a hill, and enjoy thrills and delights only the cold and snow can bring.
Not only is skiing a fun, active way to take advantage of winter, area ski resorts are open with Covid safety measures in place, notably advanced reservations required since admission is limited. There are a bunch of resorts within a few hours’ drive that are great for young, newbie skiers (and veteran swooshers, too). Some resorts to check out: Liberty, Whitetail, Roundtop, Massanutten, Wintergreen, Seven Springs, Hidden Valley, Bryce, Snowshoe, Timberline, and Wisp.
If you’re not into skiing, there’s another, easier, more comfy way to enjoy whizzing down a snow covered hill at a local resort — on an inner tube! It’s not nearly as pricey as skiing, and equipment (ie, inner tubes) are included. All of the places listed above offer snow tubing, and here are direct links for all of them: Liberty, Whitetail, Seven Springs, Hidden Valley, Bryce, Snowshoe, and Wisp.
While some places are not opening for the season, several area ice rinks have returned this year. Pentagon Row, Silver Spring at Veterans Plaza, Rockville Town Square, and Reston Town Center are once again welcoming skaters to glide the day — and night — away. The Color Burst Ice Rink at the Merriweather District in Columbia, MD, just started its inaugural skating season. The Winter Village at Cameron Run in Arlington also includes ice skating. All rinks have Covid precautions in place for safe, socially distanced skating.
This one obviously requires some help from Mother Nature, since we can’t make our snow like the ski resorts. Most of us have our local sledding spots, but if you’re looking for more places around the area, this Curbed post has suggestions. You just might see your local spot among them like ours — Capitol Hill is a blast for sledding (though it remains to be seen if it will be open to sledders to this Covid year.)
Some pursuits can be enjoyed year-round with the right gear and clothing. Just add some extra layers, warm socks, and maybe bring along a thermos of hot chocolate or tea, and you’re ready for action. Here are some activities to enjoy during the cold (and warm) months!
If you haven’t played or even heard of disc golf, or Frisbee golf as it’s sometimes called, it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like, a combo of Frisbee and golf. Not only is it fun and challenging, many of the courses are set up in scenic places. This post has info about one in College Park, and there are also great courses at Seneca Creek State Park in Gaithersburg, MD, Patapsco Valley State Park in Marriottsville, MD, and Burke Lake Park in Burke, VA.
You can tee up all year at many local golf courses. Owen and his friends have been spending some time on the greens, and certainly it makes for a great family activity, too. There are three courses in DC — East Potomac Park, Langston (near Anacostia Park), and Rock Creek — where the public is welcome to play. Family tees are available for younger beginner players. You can also just hit balls at the driving range, and if you don’t have clubs, East Potomac Park offers complimentary sanitized loaner clubs. For public golf courses beyond the District, go here. And if you want to drive some balls in a private bay while hanging out and enjoying a bite to eat, check out Top Golf — there are area locations open at National Harbor and in Germantown and Loudoun.
Shark Tooth Hunting
Just because it takes place along beach areas, that doesn’t mean it’s a warm-weather-only activity. As long as you’re dressed for it (waterproof boots are a must!), searching for millions-of-years-old fossils can be just as fun and compelling in winter as it is in summer. There are several places to go in the region, all about an hour drive from DC. This post has a round-up of spots, and note that there are restrictions for at least one.
This is a really fun way to explore some of your favorite outdoor places and discover new ones. It’s like a scavenger hunt, and perfect for adding a little adventure to your outings. Even better, you can pick and choose where and when you want to do it. In fact, most of the hiking spots mentioned above (and in the larger round-up of hikes) likely have geocaches to find. This KFDC post has info on how to get started.
Don’t let the cold stop you from taking to two wheels! Biking is a great way to be active outdoors while social distancing. Just layer up for warmth and continue to enjoy cruising around the DC area. There are plenty of routes to ride, and there is something for every age and rider level. This post has a round-up of pedal-worthy places.
SEE THE LIGHTS
Twinkling lights forming enchanting displays are are a staple of the season and some continue to shine into January. Visit one of several parks or gardens in the area that has transformed into a sparkling wonderland. While some you tour by car, others you can walk through for a truly enchanting experience.
The Yards’ annual holiday installation returns with “Stars,” larger-than-life illuminated star sculptures constructed from metallic mesh that twinkle with dancing lights and festive music. There aren’t many of them, and it’s not interactive like most previous installations, but along with the sparkling Sundeck, it’s a nice, easy way to experience some socially-distanced holiday cheer and a bright start to 2021 — it will be lit nightly 6-10pm through January 10. If it’s not too cold, you can pick up take-out from one of the many eateries at The Yards and enjoy dinner al fresco amid the lights or pair your visit with outdoor dining at one of the nearby restaurants. A couple of take-out recs: Takorean and Sweetgreen. Restaurants with heated outdoor seating: Agua 301, Blue Jacket, Osteria Morini, Nandos, and All Purpose Pizzeria and Salt Line are a short walk away by Nationals Park.
DC Holiday Lights
During December, Main Streets throughout the District are joining together to bring DC residents a spectacular holiday experience: DC Holiday Lights! Residents are invited to take a stroll down each of the participating corridors to experience a dazzling array of lights and decor, enjoy holiday promotions, and shop local. Visit the website to see where corridors are located and what to expect at each of them. You can also take a guided tour of the lights with Free Tours By Foot!
Festival of Lights
This spectacular holiday drive-through event of more than one million twinkling lights has been dazzling holiday-goers for over 25 years. This is great way to get into the holiday spirit from the comfort of your car — bring a thermos of hot chocolate, put on some holiday music, turn on the seat warmers, and take in the adorably festive illuminated scenes. Purchase tickets in advance online and pay only $8.
Garden of Lights
The grounds of Annmarie Sculpture Garden in Lusby, MD, are transformed into an outdoor twinkling wonderland that transports to an enchanted world where you’ll discover glowing “light sculptures” and wondrous light installations. See wild animals, wintery wonderlands, musical holiday scenes, deep sea treasures, magical creatures, glowing trees, and more. New this year: An outdoor Holiday Market with shopping, music, fun holiday photo opps, and food and drink.