[Note: This post was originally published in December 2020, but has been updated to reflect what’s going on for this winter.]
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 in the lot across from Peirce Mill or at the Nature Center, then hop on a marked path from there that follows the Western Ridge Trail. Admission to Rock Creek Park is free.
Potomac Overlook Park
It’s located in Arlington along the GW Parkway, but hiking the two miles of trails that meander through it feels like you’re much farther away from the bustle inside the Beltway. The short distance and pretty scenery makes it a nice place for a family walk in the woods, and a few other features make it especially great with little ones. There are rescued birds — owls and hawks — to visit outdoors, and there are opportunities to learn about Native Americans who once lived on the land and trees through QR codes on a self-guided hike. The Nature Center is wonderful, too, if you’re okay with going indoors. Open 10am – 5pm Tuesday – Saturday, and 1-5pm Sunday. Admission is free. Read more about the park in this KFDC post.
There are trails, wildlife sightings, and plenty of nature to explore on the 1,400+ acres of woods and wetlands throughout this park in Alexandria. Hike along the paved, dirt, and boardwalk trails, and you’re practically guaranteed to spot wildlife, most likely great blue herons and other birds during winter. The entire hike is just over a mile, and there are lookouts and benches where you can stop for breaks along the way to make it a couple of hours’ outing. Get directions to Huntley Meadows here.
Prince William Forest Park
This lovely oasis about a 45-minute drive from DC encompasses over 15,000 acres of gorgeous nature. There are 37 miles of hiking trails, many of them distances that are perfect to tackle with kids. Walk along the Quantico Creek to see beaver dams and tiny fish. Take the North Valley Trail to see small waterfalls, follow the High Meadows Trail to a little cemetery dating back to the 19th century. Whatever path you choose, you’ll be immersed in lovely woods. Admission is $20/car.
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, — 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.
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.
National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden
The museum’s outdoor area is always fun to stroll (or glide) through with large-scale installations and sculptures adding beauty, creativity, and and whimsy to the National Mall. See a giant typewriter eraser, a gleaming silver tree, and Lichtenstein’s optical illusion house among the many impressive works. For more active fun, rent some skates (more info below) and enjoy a whirl on the ice rink.
Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden
Enjoy the outdoor area at the art museum 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 in summer 2019, 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 (which is currently painted with a art installation by Mo Willems) are also open, and you can take a very short walk through The Reach indoors. [Note that Victura Park, the outdoor wine and beer garden and café, is has closed for the season.] Admission to everything is free.
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.
The small art museum in DC’s Foxhall-Palisades neighborhood is perfect for an art fix with kids that’s gratifying without being overwhelming. It includes a five-acre outdoor area showcasing all kinds of large-scale installations that are beautiful, interesting, even quirky and fun. There is a fountain/pool with seating and sculptures around it, a small patch of woods with art and a trail that loops around, and a grassy expanse with works that you’ll all enjoy. There’s even a piece “climbing” on the side of building, another snaking up a tree, and one that plays solar powered music. The museum is open Tuesday – Saturday with timed-entry sessions that need to be reserved in advance. Admission is free with a suggested donation of $10.
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 are 9am – 5pm Monday – Friday, 10am – 5pm on Saturday, and 12-5pm on Sunday. Admission is free for members, with a suggested donation of $5 for non-members. See 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 Youth Garden and natural play area is great to explore with kids. The herb garden just across from the Visitor Center is fun to sniff around, too! 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, here, and here.
Dumbarton Oaks Garden
One of my favorite KFDC Tips to impart because it’s another one of my favorite places in DC: During this time of year (from November through mid-March), there is no fee to roam the beautiful, enchanting garden at Dumbarton Oaks. Stroll among the various plats, find lovely tucked away places to sit, and enjoy a delightful, relaxing wander around the grounds. Hours are limited — it’s only open 2-5pm Tuesday – Sunday — but you can make a longer day of it with play time at Montrose Park next door, a hike through Dumbarton Oaks Park, some shopping along M Street, and/or a bite to eat at one of of the many options in Georgetown. This KFDC post about Dumbarton also has some nearby food recs and this one from earlier KFDC days has more info and scenes.
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. Right now, the grounds are open to wander and enjoy daily from sunrise to 4pm (they close early for the Garden of Lights holiday display, which opens at 5:3opm and runs through January 2) and the Visitor Center 9am – 4pm.
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. 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, Blue Knob, 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, Roundtop, Massanutten, Wintergreen, Seven Springs, Hidden Valley, Bryce, Blue Knob, Snowshoe, and Wisp.
Ice skating under the sky is a quintessential winter activity, and there are several places in the area to enjoy it. Take in art as you skate at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden; glide over the Potomac on The Wharf’s awesome rink; circle around Washington Harbour as you enjoy river views; meander along the Figure 8 path at Canal Park; or do some shopping then skate at Pentagon Row, Rockville Town Square, or Reston Town Center. This post has details on alfresco (and indoor) ice skating options in the area.
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 during this Covid time.) Keep in mind that if you have to drive to a sledding spot, parking likely will be limited, and residents of those neighborhoods may not be happy about having their spots snatched up.
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 our favorite 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 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. [Note: All of these have ended for Winter 2023.]
The Yards’ free annual holiday light display features 22-foot illuminated tree sculptures at the park’s sun deck that also emit festive holiday cheer . Plan for dinner at one of the many nearby restaurants then stay to play and enjoy the lights (or vice versa) along with views of the new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge. 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. Other restaurants with outdoor seating: Agua 301, Blue Jacket, Osteria Morini, Nandos, Albi, and All Purpose Pizzeria, Salt Line, Dacha Beer Garden are a short walk away by Nationals Park.
Explore a 90,000 square foot Christmas Light Maze and help Santa find his reindeer before Christmas Eve. Held at Nationals Park, Enchant Christmas also features an ice skating trail, live entertainment, food and drink, a Play Place just for little ones, a Christmas market, and Santa and Mrs. Claus. Read a KFDC review (from the last season it was here) of this newer-to-DC holiday attraction. Look for a discount on tickets!
Garden of Lights
One of our faves, the Garden of Lights is Brookside Garden’s annual holiday display. Step into a magical winter wonderland illuminated with more than one million dazzling colorful lights shaped into hand-crafted, original art forms of flowers, animals and other natural elements. Stroll from garden to garden enjoying twinkling tree forms, sparkling fountains, and whimsical winter scenes. Afterwards, warm up at the Visitor Center — sip hot cocoa and listen to one of the nightly musical performances. KFDC Tip: Go on a weekday if you can swing it to avoid crowds. View scenes from one of our past visits there.
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. And if you to make it extra special, they are also offering horse carriage for an added cost.
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.
Winter Walk of Lights
Bring your family and friends to be dazzled by the magical Winter Walk of Lights at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna, Virginia. Every year from mid-November until just after New Year’s Day, the garden is transformed into a half-mile, walk of lights. Revisit perennial favorites such as the animated Lakeside Lights, the Fountain of Lights, and the Holiday Nature Walk – and look for new displays each year. Put on your walking shoes and bring the family to experience a Northern Virginia festive tradition. Round out your visit by roasting marshmallows and sipping on hot beverages by the fire. (Available for purchase at S’more Snacks Shop).
Bull Run Festival of Lights
Opening earlier than usual this year, there’s a little more time to experience the Festival’s 2.5 miles illuminated by holiday light displays. As you drive the festival route, turn off your headlights and just follow the magical glow. And back this year is the holiday village and carnival with even more fun to accompany the lights show.
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.