Lately, it’s been a little harder for us to plan weekend outings as a family. Saturdays and Sundays are often busy with sports, and as the kids have gotten older, they (well, mostly Owen) want to hang out with their friends more than they want to with Levi and me (why? we’re so cool!).
So, it was really nice recently when we had a long stretch of time between a morning soccer practice and an evening soccer game, and no one had anything else going on. Well, I had one small errand to run in Alexandria, so we decided to plan around that. We wanted to take advantage of the beautiful fall day and opted for a hike at Huntley Meadows Park, easily one of the best places, in my opinion, to enjoy the outdoors in that area.
Huntley Meadows Park makes for a great outing any time of year, but it’s especially lovely now as the leaves start to turn, and the weather is pleasant for walking the boardwalk that spans the beautiful wetlands.
I first learned about the park from my friend Darcy nearly a decade ago, and we have been many times since. And even in the kids’ tween and teen years, they (we) still really enjoy a visit there — hiking the trail, looking for frogs and other creatures, and taking in the beautiful scenery. Better now, though, is that we don’t have to worry about them falling in the marsh! 😉
Huntley Meadows Park is located at 3701 Lockheed Blvd in Alexandria. It’s open daily from dawn to dusk, and admission is free. You can read more about it in this post. And here are more scenes from our recent visit.
My kids are funny when it comes to hiking. Sometimes they are gung-ho, but every now and then when I suggest we hit the trail, there’s a little protest: “But it’s just walking!” is something I’ve heard more than once.
Then I explain that it’s much more than just walking. It’s observing the nature around us, enjoying some active recreation, getting out of the bustling city for peaceful surrounds, unplugging, spending quality time together. I relish a good hike and, at the risk of sounding eye rollingly cheesy, think it’s the perfect thing for a mini reboot. Taking even a little break from our busy, hurried city life to slow down and connect is good for all of us.
The thing is, I can almost always guarantee that even when there is initial resistance to the hiking plan, they end up being happy trampers. (“Mom, you were right…” is not uncommon either 😉 ). Once we get to our destination, they’re excited to be there — racing each other down the path, looking out for wildlife, finding a perfect walking stick, and just exploring the environment around us.
When we visited Prince William Forest Park in Northern Virginia this past fall, they were actually quite amenable to the idea. This mostly had to do with the fact that Owen had just been there for Nature Bridge , a three-day outdoor education program with school, and loved the location. I had been there myself a year before for a trail race and recalled it being a beautiful park with varied terrain and interesting trails. Collective enthusiasm to go someplace is never a bad thing!
Prince William Forest Park stretches over 15,000 acres in Northern Virginia. The largest protected green space in the DC-Metro area, there are over 37 miles of trails to hike, plus miles of paved and gravel paths to cycle, rivers for fishing, and cabins and tent sites for camping.
There is a $15 entrance fee per vehicle (or $7 for walk- and bike-ins) that we paid at the Visitor Center upon our arrival. While we were there, we picked up a trail map, checked out the exhibits, and learned a little more about the park’s nature and history. A couple of tidbits: The area was a significant strategic point in the Civil War, and during the Great Depression when the park was called the Chopawamsic Recreation Area, it housed children’s relief camps.
There are a few trail heads near the Visitor Center, and trails within the park are as short as a half mile and as long as almost 10. Many connect, so you can extend your hike and explore different areas. Our jaunt along the Laurel Loop Trail took us through the woods, which were vibrant with fall colors at the time, and along the Quantico Creek. Owen pointed out some of the spots he visited on his school trip, like a beaver dam and small waterfall, and we had a picnic lunch by the water.
Then we hopped onto another trail that took us deeper into the woods, and eventually to small cemetery. We learned that there over 40 family cemeteries in the park, mostly from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but some even earlier. It’s important to respect these sites and also illegal to alter them in any way. You can read about a couple of them here.
While we didn’t see much wildlife besides birds, squirrels, and fish, plenty do live there. Deer, beavers, and black bears (!) are some of the other mammals you might encounter. And sightings of snakes, turtles, and frogs are pretty common.
The variety in trails makes Prince William Forest Park a great place to hike with young children, since there are plenty of short, flat trails. And if you’re with older kids who want more of a challenge, there are longer and more difficult trails, too. You even can make it a weekend trip — cabins are available May – October, and tent sites May – November. Whether you stay overnight or just go for a few hours, it’s a perfect destination for an easy escape from the city.
Prince William Forest Park is located in Triangle, VA, about a 45 minute drive from DC. It’s open daily from sunrise to sunset. The Visitor Center is open 8am – 4pm November – February, and 9am – 5pm March – October. Admission is $20/car or $10/walk- or bike-in.
Monday – Walk amid a garden of butterflies at Brookside Garden’s amazing Wings of Fancy exhibit. The seasonal display featuring live butterflies and caterpillars from all over the world is sure to delight! Hours are 10am – 4pm. Admission is $8/ages 13 and up, $5/3-12, free ages 0-2 (admission to the rest of Brookside is free). Read about a KFDC experience at the exhibit.
Tuesday – Visit the Washington National Cathedral, one of DC’s most iconic attractions. Both guided and self-guided tours are available, and there are lots of features like stained glass, gargoyles, and wrought iron animals that children will find especially interesting. The observation gallery on the seventh floor also showcases interesting architectural designs and stunning birds-eye views of DC. Stroll the beautiful grounds outside, and head to the Beauvoir playground, open to the public since school isn’t yet back in session. The National Cathedral is open 10am – 5:30pm. Admission is $12/adult, $8/ages 5-17, free for 4 and under.
Wednesday – Explore the woods and wetlands of Huntley Meadows Park in Alexandria. Look for little creatures along the way and stop to take in some gorgeous vistas. Bring along food for a picnic, or plan to grab a bite before or after — though it doesn’t feel like it while you’re there, the park is located close to a busy area with plenty of dining options. Open daily from dawn to dusk. Admission is free.
Thursday – Make it your mission to visit the International Spy Museum, where you and the kids can go undercover to explore the intriguing world of espionage. Hours are 9am – 7pm. Regular admission is $21.95/adult, $14.95/ages 7-11, free for 6 and under, but you can find a discount on adult tickets here.
Friday – Take advantage of a special seasonal experience while you can — several exhibits and offerings around the area will end after Labor Day. Visit ICEBERGS at the Building Museum. Get free admission for kids to the Newseum thanks to the Summer Fun Deal (and get a deal on adult admission here). Look for fairy houses and enjoy more artistic delights at Annmarie Sculpture Garden. View Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea, an exhibit of colorful sculptures made from plastic debris collected from beaches, at the National Zoo. Get details about all of these special pursuits and more in the 2016 Summer Guide.
The second week of summer break was Sasha’s week. Owen had just left for his first sleep away camp adventure (a whole wonderful experience I’ll hopefully touch on more sometime), and I wanted to have a week of quality time with my girl before she started a session of Adventure Theatre’s acting camp (a whole other wonderful experience that I highly recommend).
It was a nice week of both planned and spontaneous activities, as well as some low key hanging out. We caught a performance of Jumanji, got pedicures, went on bike rides, hit the pool, lunched at Shake Shack, visited the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, popped into the Postal Museum… mostly things we’d done and enjoyed before.
But one new adventure we had was a trip to Woodend Nature Sanctuary in Chevy Chase. I’d been there for a wedding years ago, but had never visited with the kids. Which is kind of a shame, because it’s a great place to get in touch with nature and do some outdoor exploring close in to the city.
The 40-acre property is home to the Audubon Naturalist Society, a non-profit environmental organization dedicated to conservation and education. The grounds are open to the public and free to roam daily.
It’s perfect for hiking excursions with little ones, with easy trails that wind through the woods and through open meadow-y spaces. Wildlife sightings are plentiful — we saw deer, frogs, chip munks, small fish, and, of course, lots of birds. There is a look-out to climb for better viewing and a small pond where you’ll find some creatures, too. A few exhibits like a bird feeding area, bees nests, and a composting station are worth checking out. And when tired little legs need a break, there are plenty of benches and nice, peaceful seating areas around.
Stop in the gift shop to pick up a map before you begin your hike, or just park in the lot and wander — it’s not so big that you won’t find your way. And if you want to get guided tour, you can join a Family Nature Walk with a Master Naturalist the first Saturday of the month from 9-10am.
Woodend Nature Sanctuary is located at 8940 Jones Mill Road in Chevy Chase, MD. The grounds are open daily from dawn to dusk, and admission is free.
On the trail at Woodend… these boots were made for walkin’
Monday – Go for a walk in the woods and explore the grounds of Woodend Nature Sanctuary in Chevy Chase. The home of the Audubon Naturalist Society is perfect for hiking with little ones. The trails are mellow and mostly shaded, there are several small exhibits like bees nests and bird feeding areas, and wildlife sightings are practically guaranteed. Open dawn to dusk. Admission is free.
Tuesday – Take the money tour at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. It’s a great outing with kids while they’re on break from school, since tours are only offered on weekdays. Tours run every 15 minutes 9am – 6pm. Admission is free, but tickets are required, and you can pick them up at the booth on Raoul Wallenburg Place starting at 8am. This post from one of our outings there has more details about the experience.
Wednesday – Head to Capitol Hill for outdoor play, kids activities, performances by Mister G and Adam Gardner of Guster, and more at the Play-In for Climate Action sponsored by Moms Clean Air Force. This family-friendly protest against the air pollution that causes dangerous climate change will showcase exactly what’s at stake as temperatures and sea levels rise: our kids. View more info and register here. The event takes place at Upper Senate Park (200 New Jersey Ave. SE). Admission is free.
Thursday – Reach new heights of fun at ClimbZone in Laurel, Md. Kids and adults will have a blast scaling the many colorful, whimsically-themed walls at the new indoor climbing center. Hours are 10am – 9pm (10am – 8pm other weekdays). Admission is $25/ages 6 and up, $12/5 and under for a three-hour session.
Friday – See art come to life at the National Portrait Gallery through Portraits Alive!, a theatrical tour of the museum’s collections performed by teens from DC’s Summer Youth Employment Program. The journey takes visitors to a variety of portraits as the students perform biographical portrayals of the people represented in the photographs, paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints. Tours begin at 12-1pm and 1:30-2:30pm, and they’re being offered Tuesday – Friday. Admission is free.