Hitting the trail at Cunningham Falls State Park
Ah, the great outdoors…aka Owen’s favorite potty. What is it about releasing kids into the wilderness that makes them want to find a tree and pee? Or is it just my kid (and I’m now that embarrassing mom who just planted material that is sure to come back to haunt her son in about 10 years)? Regardless, that’s often the first thing my boy wants to do when we get out in nature. And yesterday was no exception. We barely had the car door open when we arrived at Cunningham Falls Sate Park before his pants were down and he was headed for the nearest natural urinal.
But I digress. This post is supposed to be about good places in the area to hike with kids.
Before our babes entered our world, my husband and I loved to go tramping in the woods and managed to cover a good amount of ground doing so. We’d seek out new places both in the area and on our travels where we could hike for miles, sometimes with a destination in mind, like a campground or a swimming hole. Other times, the pursuit would be a steep climb up a mountain or loop through the forest. No matter where or what, we relished the recreation — the fun, exercise, company, and escape from the usual stir of the city.
Our enthusiasm for hitting the trails hasn’t changed since having kids, but as with many activities since the KT (Kid Takeover), we’ve had to compromise how we go about them. No longer do we aspire to many miles or steep climbs. Owen’s four-year-old feet can’t handle much more than two or three easy miles. And while Sasha generally loves the ride in the pack or Ergo, she starts to fuss after a couple of hours. And let’s be honest: being stuck in the middle of the woods with a couple of unhappy kids doesn’t a fun family outing make.
But we work around it. We pick trails that loop in two or three miles, that lead to cool sights like waterfalls or scenic overlooks, and promise interesting flora, insects, and wildlife sightings along the way. So, we may not cover as much ground or get as much exercise as we did during our days of carefree yore, but it’s just as much fun, and the company is even better.
Here are some great places we’ve tramped with the kids, both close to the city (even in it) and beyond. And please feel free to add more in the comments section, as I can only cover so many and know there are tons not listed here!
[Note: This has been updated with new additions and reorganization over the years.]
Pick a Rock Creek trail
Rock Creek Park
Surely, this isn’t a new suggestion for most, but this oasis within the city deserves a mention on a list for hikes with kids. One of the largest natural, forested urban parks, Rock Creek contains miles of dirt trails and paved paths that wind through its 1700+ acres. The best hiking trails follow the creek (blue) and the western ridge (green) and can probably be looped in a couple of hours. And if you’re all up for more fun afterward, you can check out the nature center, horse stables, National Zoo, or Peirce Mill (though depending on where you start and end, you may have to hop in the car and drive there). Free admission, open during daylight hours.
An autumn walk at the Arboretum
U.S. National Arboretum
The 450-acre locale showcasing an amazing variety of plant, tree, and flower collections tops my round-up of the best places in DC to hang with the kids outdoors. It was one of my very favorite places before I had kids, and I appreciate it even more so with them. There is a lot to see and do, much of which involves walking. And with so many delights within the vast grounds, the whole fam will be into it. You can take a hike through woods, cross footbridges over small creeks, walk the paths among beautiful blooms, and seek out “magic” sitting areas like gazebos and spaces beneath tree canopies as you explore the grounds. The centerpiece of it all are the old National Capitol columns standing magnificently smack in middle of the Ellipse Meadow, which you can tramp to from many directions. A must-stop is the wonderful Washington Youth Garden, where young visitors can see the cultivation process, and the natural playground lets them engage in fun activities.
Hanging with Teddy at Roosevelt Island
I always think of this national memorial honoring President Theodore Roosevelt and his contributions to the environment as very “DC.” Its 91 acres are located amidst a natural woodsy setting accessible by a long wooden footbridge crossing the Potomac. Vegetation grows thickly along two and a half miles of paved paths looping through the preserve. And smack in the middle of it all – the “DC” part — is a stone tribute to Roosevelt, a 17-foot bronze statue of Teddy himself, flowing fountains, and large granite slabs inscribed with Roosevelt’s tenets on conservation. It’s all quite impressive to both kids and adults. And the island itself is perfect for an outing with kids with short, easy hikes, wildlife sightings (we’ve seen deer and other small animals there), and a chance to splash around in water a bit (just hands and feet – there’s no jumping in these fountains).
The beginning of the summer bloom
Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens
The grounds here are unlike any place else in the area. Numerous ponds are filled with giant lily pads, lotus flowers and water lilies (during the summer), and a variety of interesting aquatic plants. Paths winding among them make for excellent nature walks, letting visitors get a close look at the flora and fauna that thrives there. It’s very possible to spot frogs, turtles, geese, great blue herons, and more marshland creatures. There is also a boardwalk to follow that leads to wetlands that are a tidal flood plain of the Anacostia River. Lookouts offer great views as well as areas to sit and take it all in. The best time to go is when the weather is warmer and the flowers are in bloom. But a stroll through Kenilworth any time of year is a wonderful way to get a nature fix without leaving the city. Open daily 8am – 4pm. Admission is free.
Take a hike and take in the spectacular views at Great Falls
Great Falls (In Virginia, too)
This is another one that most Washingtonians know all too well, and for good reason—the magnificence of its main attraction (the falls) and miles of trails are a wonderful constant. The Billy Goat on the Maryland side is probably the most popular hike, but better suited for older children — there is a lot of scrambling over the clusters of large rocks, some close to edges with big drops down. With younger children, I suggest sticking to easy walks on trails along the river on the Virginia side or dirt paths that snake through the woods in Maryland. The trail map you get upon arrival will help determine where to take your crew. Admission to Great Falls is $10 per vehicle, $30 for an annual pass. Open 7am – dark.
Swinging bridge on the Grist Mill Trail in the Avalon area of Patapsco
Patapsco Valley State Park
About 40 minutes from the city in Howard and Baltimore Counties, Patapsco covers over 14,000 acres of terrain with at least 70 identified, hike-able trails. Several are around three miles or less, and many lead to falls or follow a stream. During warm months, it’s a great place to swim — the Avalon and Hilton entrances offer best access to swimming areas in the Patapsco River. The Casade Falls loop trail is a popular one to hike, though there is some uphill hiking on rooty areas, something to keep in mind with little ones. The park is large enough that it’s not too crowded, and there are picnic areas for lunch al fresco. To find the right hike for your family, visit the Patapsco website or Trails.com for detailed info. Entrance fee is $3/person, open during daylight hours.
Exploring the woods at Woodend Nature Sanctuary
Woodend Nature Sanctuary
The 40-acre property in Chevy Chase, MD, 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 — deer, frogs, chipmunks, small fish, and, of course, lots of birds reside in the woods. 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. The grounds are open daily from dawn to dusk, and admission is free.
Woodlawn Manor Cultural Park
At this park in Montgomery County, you can take a hike with historical significance on the Underground Railroad Experience Trail. The walk through the woods and along edges of fields offers insight into what it was like for enslaved people as they escaped to freedom, and it’s an interesting, enlightening, and active way to spend time outdoors. It’s about two-mile walk each way (there and back; the trail doesn’t loop) along edges of fields and through woods generally flat and easy for little legs to tramp. All hikes are currently self-guided, but you can print out the map and an explanation of the trail to bring along for context. Guided tours will be available after park programming begins again. The trail and park are open dawn to dusk, and admission is free. The Visitor Center is closed right now.
Taking in river views at Quiet Waters Park
Quiet Waters Park
There are 340 acres of recreational bliss at this park in Annapolis. Hiking and biking trails wind through woods and paved paths that stretch along large grassy fields and other areas of the park, and there’s dirt path that meanders along the South River, which is lovely to walk and take in the views. You can easily make a day of it at Quiet Waters — there’s plenty of room for picnics and pick-up games, a garden adorned with sculptures, a Visitor Center with art galleries, and paddling opportunities. (Note: Some of this is closed during COVID-19; the trails and kayak rentals are open.) Hours are 7am – dusk daily, except for Tuesdays when the park is closed. Admission is $6/car.
Little O on the Cunningham Falls trail
Cunningham Falls State Park
It’s just over an hour from the city, about 15 miles north of Frederick, but Cunningham Falls in the Catoctin Mountains feels much further away. Part of it is the drive out there—the landscape slowly goes from the urban chaos of crazy beltway drivers to suburban strip malls along 270 to farmland, becoming more picturesque and serene as you go. Once inside the park, the mass of tall trees and forest blanketed with bright green plants and strewn with large boulders are indicators that you’ve arrived. There are plenty of short hikes for kids that lead to the falls, nice mountain overlooks, and remains of old stone buildings. Stop at the visitor center on the way in for a trail map. Free entrance, open during daytime hours.
Savor the view from the Sugarloaf Mountain summit
Just a little under an hour from DC in Frederick County, Sugarloaf offers several hiking options for families. If your kids are bigger or you’re all feeling ambitious, there is a 7-mile loop (blue) that is apparently less crowded than the shorter hikes. Otherwise, you can drive to the parking lot close to the mountain top, then walk up a winding trail or opt for a shorter, but steeper one that’s less than a mile. No matter which way you go, your final destination, the summit, offers stunning views. Admission is free. After your hike, savor some time at the nearby Sugarloaf Winery or The Comus Inn.
Enjoy some time by the water on Wye Island
Wye Island Natural Resources Management Area
Beyond the Bay Bridge and just over an hour away from DC, this area is lovely to explore. It’s 2400+ acres are located in the tidal recesses of the Chesapeake Bay between the Wye River and the Wye East River. There are about 12 miles of trails that edge fields of tall grass and ponds, wind through the woods, and run along the Wye River. All of it is flat and easy for little ones to walk. It’s fun to look out for wildlife, mostly birds, and notice the variety of vegetation, from large open expanses to verdant wooded areas with large trees green marsh plants blanketing and brightening the ground to sandy shores with scenic views. There is a restroom near the small parking lot as well as a picnic table, but I’d recommend bringing your lunch along the hike and enjoying an alfresco meal by the river.
Hike and camp close to DC at Greenbelt Park
So close, yet so unknown, Greenbelt is just 15 minutes from the city and perfect for a hiking trip with the kids that won’t take all day. Four trails in the park range from one to just over five miles. A picnic area and playground round out the activity. And if you’re so inclined, camping is available (perhaps for a close-to-home first camping experience) for $20/campsite.
On the boardwalk portion of the Calvert Cliffs trail
Calvert Cliffs State Park
Calvert Cliffs State Park, an hour’s drive from DC in Lusby, MD, is best known for its beach and shark tooth hunting. But just as good is the hiking. There are 13 miles of trails total within the park, including one that is the direct route to the beach. It’s pretty evident where to catch the Red Trail from the parking lot, then it’s a two-mile ramble to reach the sand and surf, but a fairly easy and very scenic one. The route is flat and mellow for the most part, so little ones can tackle it, and stretches through woods and along edges of marshes. Part of the trail is a wide dirt path shaded by tall leafy trees and part is a boardwalk that extends along wetlands. You can walk and take in expansive views of the marsh areas filled with lily pads and aquatic plants. In a few places, the boardwalk extends out into them for a closer look, and there are a couple of benches on the way to sit and enjoy the scenes. Entry to Calvert Cliffs is $8/vehicle, and it’s open sunrise to sunset.
Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuge
Eastern Neck is a couple of hours away on the Chesapeake Bay, just beyond the town of Rockhall. Several hiking trails traipse the refuge, winding through areas of thick marsh grass, pine-filled woods, and sandy beaches, often leading to spots along the Chester River and Bay. The hikes are easy, short, and offer plenty of cool sights for kids. From the parking lot, a long wooden boardwalk leads out over the marsh to a bird lookout. It’s not unusual to see great blue herons or osprey gliding inches above the water in search of fish or turkey vultures circling overhead. The diamondback terrapin swims the waters and bald eagles nest in trees (though catching sight of either one is considered lucky). For a guaranteed good view, the Bayview Butterfly Trails offers some of the Eastern Shore’s best vistas of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. No entrance fee, open during daylight hours.
A springtime hike among the bluebells at Riverbend
Just a few miles away from Great Falls on the Virginia side, Riverbend is mellower version of its more popular neighbor. Sprawling along the Potomac, its 400 acres offer over 10 miles of hiking trails through the forest and along the river, including a 2.5-mile portion of the Potomac Heritage Trail and the paved Duff’N’Stuff trail accessible to strollers. A picnic area near the nature center is perfect for a riverside lunch, and open space just beyond that is ideal for running around or tossing a Frisbee. Admission to the park is free, open 7am – dusk.
Walking the boardwalk Huntley Meadows
There are trails, wildlife sightings, and plenty of nature to explore on the 1,425 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 turtles of all sizes, frogs, great blue herons, cardinals, and a variety of other birds. The entire hike is just over a mile, and there are lookouts and benches where you can stop for breaks and snacks along the way to make it a few hours’ outing. Don’t forget sunscreen, hats, and water, as there’s no shade through the wetlands section of the park. Get directions to the Huntley Meadows here.
You can’t beat those views of the Shenandoah Valley
Shenandoah National Park
It’s an obvious recommendation, but a given on any list of recreation in the DC area. Shenandoah has it all — grand mountains, nearly 200,000 acres of forested terrain, 500 miles of varying levels of trails, abundant wildlife (spotting deer right along the trail is not uncommon), swimming areas, waterfalls, sweeping views. And it’s all just a 75-mile drive from the city. With so much to offer, you need to check out the trail map of Shenandoah hikes for yourself and see which walks work best for your family. You can also stop in the visitor center and get advice from a park ranger—they’re always nice and happy to help. Admission is $30/vehicle. An annual park pass is $55. (NOTE: Parts of Shenandoah National Park are closed due to COVID-19.)
Immerse in nature at Prince William Forest Park
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. And if you go during the fall, you’ll be surrounded by brilliant seasonal hues. Admission is $7/car.
Ramble through the lush, green summer woods at Potomac Overlook
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 but a few other features make it especially awesome with little ones. The nature center has hands-on exhibits and live creatures to view, there are rescued birds — owls and hawks — to visit outdoors, and there are opportunities to learn about Native American who once lived on the land as well as trees through QR codes on a self-guided hike. Open 10am – 5pm Tuesday – Saturday, and 1-5pm Sunday. Admission is free.
Bridge crossing at Turkey Run
Turkey Run Park
A great option for hiking with kids. Located right off the GW Parkway near 495, Turkey Run contains nearly 700 acres of woods, 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 — or have a picnic if you’re so inclined. Fallen trees are fun to scramble over or walk upon, and a few small footbridges let you cross over streams. Birds and squirrels are easy to spy, and keep your eyes peeled for deer. A few picnic areas with tables are perfect for lunch al fresco, and 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.
Small but lovely falls at Scotts Run Nature Preserve
Scott’s Run Nature Preserve
Another fantastic alternative when Great Falls is crowded (or even when it’s not), Scott’s Run offers a nice local dose of nature in a short drive from the city. Trails that meander through lush woods lead to lovely hang out spots and great views of the Potomac. The locale may not boast the spectacular vistas that it’s larger, better known neighbor does, but it’s peaceful and pretty and makes for a nice hiking experience with kids. Scott’s Run Nature Preserve is located in McLean just off Georgetown Pike. It’s open from just before sunrise to just after sunset. Admission is free.
Peak foliage at Pohick Bay
Pohick Bay Regional Park
Located in Lorton, VA, about a 40 minute drive from DC, there are eight and half miles of hiking trails that traverse the wooded area and offer lovely views of the Bay. Fall and spring are the best seasons for a hike, when the colors are vibrant with fall foliage or spring flora and you can enjoy it all in moderate temps. There’s even more to do there off the trail, including a disc golf course, a nearby regular golf course, fishing (license required in VA), equestrian trails, and a playground. During warmer seasons, there is mini golf, camping & cabins, paddling opportunities, and outdoor programs. And in the summer, Pirate’s Cove Waterpark is a super fun way to cool off after a hot walk in the woods.
Some of the trail options at Sky Meadows State Park
Sky Meadows State Park
Our first visit to this park in Delaplane, VA, was during COVID-19. Recommended by a friend who had been and confirmed it was open and spacious enough for good social distancing, we headed out there for a lovely walk through woods and pastures with great scenic views. There are bunch of trails to follow, most of them easy and short, so it’s a good place to go with the whole family. You can even hike the AT — a three-mile stretch of it runs through the park. And some trails are open to biking and horseback riding (BYO horse) as well. There is also a Visitors Center, picnic and play areas, and cabins and camping. Hours are 8am – dusk. Parking is $7/weekdays, $10/weekends.
Fountainhead Regional Park
Located in Fairfax Station, VA, about 35 minutes from DC, Fountainhead is a 2,000-acre sprawl of trails and the Occoquan Reservoir, all of it practically screaming active recreation. For hiking, the Bull Run Occoquan Trail winds through the park and actually continues through Bull Run Marina, Hemlock Overlook Park, and Bull Run Regional Park, about seven miles of it is along a well-maintained trail in Fountainhead. There’s a lot of up and downhill, but it’s not too strenuous, and the path is mostly flat, with just a few rocky and rooty areas. There are several short footbridges to cross and small creeks, and the surrounding scenery full of tall trees is lovely. From some parts of the hike, glimpses of the Occoquan Reservoir can be caught through the trees from above, or you can walk down to the banks for closer views. Open daily sunrise to sunset, and admission is free.
Hike from West Virginia to Maryland at Harpers Ferry
Just over an hour’s drive from DC, where the Potomac meets the Shenandoah River — and Maryland meets West Virginia — this locale is a great place for woodsy treks. Located along the famous Appalachian Trail, there are ample tramping options, from easy, flat nature walks to more strenuous uphill hikes. The popular Maryland Heights Overlook Cliffs Trail, about a three-mile ascent to the cliffs, offers gorgeous views of the rivers and the town of Harpers Ferry. Be sure to do some exploring in town, too — there are Civil War remnants, and many of the “shops” along the main street are actually museums offering a glimpse into the town’s past.