Washington, DC visitors spend a lot of time on the National Mall, a National Park Service unit that gets more yearly visitors than Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, combined! Park enthusiasts won’t have to spend all of their time on the Mall. There are plenty of other great National Parks near DC.
In this episode Rob is joined by Danielle Jacobs-Erwin. She is the host of Everybody’s National Parks, a podcast dedicated to family adventure in our national parks.
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The National Park Service (NPS) is an agency of the U.S. government inside the Department of the Interior. Most people know NPS from the parks, like Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. But NPS also oversees park units, including national monuments, parkways and historic sites. There are over 400 total NPS units across the country. We identified five worthwhile NPS units near Washington, DC.
Chesapeake and Ohio Canal
The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (C&O for short) is one of the closest National Parks near DC. It is in Washington, DC and Maryland. The park stretches all the way from Georgetown to Cumberland in Maryland. The C&O is about 180 miles long and there are seven visitor centers in the park, Danielle’s favorite is the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center.
George Washington promoted the creation of a canal to connect to the Ohio River. It never made it that far, but it functioned as a canal in the 1800s. Eventually railroads and other issues with the canal put it out of business.
This is a great park for hiking, biking and even taking a mule ride (pick up your mule at the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center. The Billy Goat Trail is a beautiful place to go for a hike. Danielle also calls a hike out to the Olmsted Island Bridge and Overlook is a must-do. The gold-mine hike gives you a chance to experience some of the little-known gold mines on the east coast. In the Georgetown portion of the park you can rent a kayak from Key Bridge Boathouse and go on a water adventure.
On the Virginia side of the Potomac River, about 15 miles from DC you can experience Great Falls Park. This park gets its name from the water of the Potomac River as it falls over steep and jagged rocks as it flows toward the nation’s capital.
Great Falls is a great option for visitors with limited mobility or who aren’t confident hikers. There are three amazing overlook views of the falls right from the parking area. During warm weather months, make sure to go early because the parking lot fills up quickly!
Many Washington, DC visitors don’t pick up a rental car at the airport. You can certainly drive to Great Falls but it’s not required. Great Falls is about 15 miles from DC so you can hire an Uber or Lyft to get here. If you’re a solo traveler it may be more cost effective to take the Metro silver line to one of the stations near Tysons Corner and hire a ride the rest of the way from there.
Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park isn’t the closest national park near DC, but if you’re into the parks it is well worth getting the rental car and making the drive. The closest entrance to the park (Front Royal) is about 75 miles from downtown. You can get there in an hour and 20 minutes (best case scenario) but traffic often makes the drive a bit longer.
This is a linear park where you can enter on one end and exit on the other. Skyline Drive is the famous 105 mile road that winds its way through the park. Unlike other parks, you don’t have to visit everywhere in the park. The park is split into north, central and south districts. Every district has waterfalls, vistas, historic sites and the Appalachian Tail.
Shenandoah offers over 500 miles of hiking trails! There are hikes for everyone. Some are easy and others are more challenging. The waterfalls are typically easy to access from the various parking areas. Danielle suggests stopping at a visitor center before you begin to consult with a ranger and make a plan for the day.
Many parks (including Shenandoah and Great Falls) do have a parking fee or entrance fee. You can pay for a single visit (up to 7 consecutive days) or buy a park pass to get access to multiple parks. At Shenandoah the fee is per vehicle, not per person.
The Blue Ridge Mountains runs through the park. It goes from 500 feet to 4,000 feet. It has a very unique ecosystem. There are plants and animals in this area that you can’t find anywhere else in the world! Keep an eye out for black bears because Danielle has personally experienced them in Shenandoah on every visit.
Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens
As far as the National Parks near DC go, this one is entirely inside the District of Columbia. Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens is located on the east bank of the Anacostia River. It was created by Congress in the 1920s to help preserve the waterways in Washington, DC.
This park is an excellent spot for birding and photography. The Lotus Flower is the signature flower of the park and there is a Lotus and Water Lily Festival in the summer when it’s in bloom. People come here to paint and picnic and just enjoy nature in the middle of an otherwise busy city.
George Washington Memorial Parkway
A lot of people visit the George Washington Memorial Parkway without even knowing it! That’s because it includes sites like Arlington Memorial Bridge, Netherlands Carillon, and the Marine Corps Memorial (Iwo Jima Memorial).
Danielle’s favorite thing to do in the Parkways is go for a bike ride. Start at the Memorial Bridge and then turn left on the Mount Vernon trail. You can ride to Old Town Alexandria. If you ride all the way to Mount Vernon you will pass the Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve among other sites. If you turn right at the bridge you can spend some time at Theodore Roosevelt Island.
A few other notable sites in the Parkway include the Clara Barton National Historic Site and Glen Echo Park. Washington Reagan National Airport is adjacent to the park and you can stop at Gravelly Point to watch takeoffs and landings.