Four Outdoor, Family-Friendly, Off-the-Beaten-Path Places to Explore Outside of DC

[Note: This guest post was written by JoAnn Hill, a DC area educator and author of the upcoming book “Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.” You may be aware of some that have been featured on KFDC, but JoAnn provides more background and details to make a visit to see them even more interesting and fun!]


Spring is here, and Mother Nature is summoning us to get outside, explore, and relish in the abundant sunshine and crisp fresh air. While our nation’s capital is brimming with parks, gardens, and urban green oases, taking a day trip outside of the city can serve as a welcome change of pace and lovely opportunity to reset and recharge. A respite from the city is sometimes the exact remedy for chasing away those lingering winter blues and jumpstarting the highly anticipated new season.

Below are four outdoor, family-friendly, off-the-beaten-path places to explore outside of Washington, DC. A couple of them are free and can be explored further in local DC author JoAnn Hill’s upcoming book Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure. Check out Secret DC to discover dozens of additional outdoor and family-friendly spots in and around the Washington, DC, area.

Enchantment in a Storybook Forest

Many of our childhoods were defined by the stories and games that we played. Those looking to recapture their favorite childhood memories will be delighted to know that less than 45 minutes outside of Washington lies an enchanted forest, a storybook haven brimming with innocence, nostalgia, and magic.

In August 1955, the Enchanted Forest opened its storybook park in Ellicott City, MD. For over thirty years, families from near and far visited the popular fairy tale complex. Generations were captivated by the park’s ability to recreate a spellbinding world filled with delight and allure. As larger and more impressive entertainment complexes began to open throughout the area, the Enchantment Forest’s appeal began to wane, causing the park to close in the early 1990s.

More than a decade later, nearby Clark’s Elioak Farm made the decision to revive the storybook-themed park by gradually acquiring and reinstating a number of the forgotten fairy tale items. In 2004, much to the delight of parents and kids, they procured the Cinderella pumpkin coach. A year later, they restored a slew of other items, including Mother Goose and her Gosling, the Beanstalk affixed with the Giant at the top, multiple Gingerbread Men, the six Mice that pulled Cinderella’s Coach, and the Crooked House and the Crooked Man.

Over subsequent years, more items were obtained and refurbished, further enhancing the revived forest by adding over 20 new fairy tale characters and a newly created Enchanted Forest Pine Tree Maze.

Read All About It:  Read more about the Enchantment Forest at Clark’s Elioak Farm on pages 134-135 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure. You can also find it in the KFDC round-up of best outdoor places around the area and among the places to go for Easter fun.

Go and Explore: Clark’s Farm will reopen on Thursday, April 1. The farm and forest are open Tuesday through Sunday from 10am to 5pm. Admission is $7 per person.

Where: Clark’s Elioak Farm, 10500 Clarksville Pike, Ellicott City, MD


Gravelly Point Park

Aviation enthusiasts and those simply dreaming of escaping to faraway destinations should look no further than Gravelly Point Park, a small grassy park located a mere hundred feet north of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. It’s here in this delightful park in which both aircraft lovers and travel addicts can convene to witness commercial planes soaring overhead throughout the course of the day.

Situated along the George Washington Parkway in northern Virginia, the attractive picnic spot is where arriving planes descend to their landing strips. Flights arriving at the capital city travel over the Potomac River to reduce noise disturbances to the city. The park’s proximity to the north end of Reagan’s runway 1/19 makes it one of the premier spots in the United States for airplane sightings. Spectators willing to brave the thunderous noise are rewarded with unobstructed views of aircraft departing and arriving at the airport.

While flight tracking is the primary draw here, Gravelly Point Park attracts more than just aviation fanatics. It’s also a wonderful place to enjoy a picnic lunch, throw a frisbee or football, walk your dog, or ride a bike while surrounded by arresting scenic views. Regardless of your reason to visit, you’re guaranteed to be flying high in this picturesque park.

Read All About It:  Learn more about Gravelly Point Park as you soar through pages 50-51 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure. You can also find it in the KFDC round-up of best outdoor places.

Go and Explore: Entrance and parking are free to the public. By car, Gravelly Point is only accessible heading north on the GW Parkway. Runners and cyclists can access the park by taking the scenic Mount Vernon Trail.

Where:  George Washington Parkway, Arlington, VA


The Abandoned Shipwrecks of Mallows Bay

Near the shores of Mallows Bay, a small bay on the Maryland side of the river, lies what’s known to be the largest shipwreck armada in the Western Hemisphere. Over the last century, the bay’s turbid waters have become home to nearly 230 fallen ships, creating an enormous fleet graveyard.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, 1,000 wooden steamships were commissioned for construction to help boost the number of transport vessels needed. Due to time constraints, the wooden ships were hastily and shoddily built, falling far below the standard of being ready to be used in wartime. In fact, not one of these poorly crafted vessels ever even crossed the ocean. The following year Germany surrendered, and the availability of steel increased, causing the ill-conceived wooden ships to become abandoned and obsolete. The decaying remnants of the nearly forgotten ships continue to occupy the muddy waters of Mallows Bay to this day.

In the 1960s, researchers began to evaluate the environmental effects of the shipwrecks on the river and its inhabitants. It was determined that the wooden shipwrecks were non-toxic and had in fact become a foundation for a flourishing ecosystem. The ghostly ships have managed to bring new life to the river, completing the circle of life!

Read All About It:  Plunge into Mallows Bay and learn more about its abandoned shipwreck fleet on pages 60-61 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.

Go and Explore: Kayakers and canoeists who paddle up and through the wreckage will ultimately get the best views of the neglected ships. Charles County Recreation & Parks will soon be offering guided kayak tours of Mallows Bay. Visit their website to learn when 2021 tour dates will be added.

Where:  Wilson Landing Road, Nanjemoy, MD


The Awakening at National Harbor

Over the past several years, National Harbor has burgeoned as an expansive multi-use waterfront development. Conveniently located across the Potomac River from the District and Alexandria, VA, the lively complex is an ideal place to escape the city and enjoy a relaxing day. One particular attraction here, particularly for kids, is “The Awakening” sculpture, a gigantic statue emerging from a man-made beach along National Harbor’s waterfront. The statue is practically begging to be touched and climbed upon by gaggles of giggling children.

Constructed from five cast-aluminum pieces and measuring more than 70 feet across and 15 feet high, “The Awakening” was created in 1980 to portray a bearded man trapped on Earth who has been aroused. Artist J. Seward Johnson’s colossal creation is comprised of a man’s head, hand, outstretched arm, bent knee and foot that’s been arranged to suggest that he’s breaking free from Earth. The aluminum sculpture was previously buried at the public parkland at Hains Point in Washington, DC and was owned by the Sculpture Foundation, an organization that promotes public art. The foundation sold the colossal sculpture for a whopping $740,000 and subsequently dug it up from its previous residence and transported it by trucks to its current waterfront home.

While no real restoration was needed when “The Awakening” arrived at National Harbor, a small change to the art installation was needed. When the sculpture resided at Hains Point, the five pieces were slightly askew, causing the figure to be anatomically incorrect. When the statue’s wire base was reburied in the man-made beach, one of its legs was marginally moved. “The Awakening” instantly became a popular attraction of National Harbor and continues to be a major draw today.

Read All About It: See more about visiting The Awakening and National Harbor in this KFDC post.

Go and Explore: National Harbor is accessible from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, I-495, I-95, and I-295, as well as by water taxi from Washington, DC, and Alexandria, VA.

Where: National Harbor: 153 National Plaza, Oxon Hill, MD


*  *  *  *  *


JoAnn Hill has lived in Washington, DC, with her husband Thalamus and dog Jackson for over 19 years. An avid traveler and foodie, JoAnn writes about their DC living and dining experiences, as well as their global travel adventures, on her blog Her writing has been published in BELLA Magazine, Escape Artist, and Triptipedia. JoAnn served as a DC Public Schools teacher for 17 years before co-founding Capitol Teachers, a tutoring company servicing the greater DC area. This is her first book.


Leave a Comment

Filed under All ages, Maryland, Ongoing, Outdoor, Virginia

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *