It is always refreshing to be able to step a few miles outside the bustling, hurried pace of city life in the District and take time off to smell the roses. For people who get tired of the everyday grind of traffic and business, the District offers relaxing alternatives in nature only several miles away.
The most accessible park located within D.C. is the National Mall. Surrounded by the rich culture of the Smithsonian, monuments and memorials, it also becomes a hub of activity on warm sunny days. From soccer to Frisbee players, to ones who want to laze and lie in the grass and soak up some sun, the Mall is a great place to bring bikes, Rollerblades or a good book to read. Designed by French architect Pierre L’Enfant, this parkland is lined with 2,000 elms and 3,000 Japanese cherry blossom trees currently in bloom.
Rock Creek Park
A little bit farther north in the District is Rock Creek Park, a park that not only offers leisure to its visitors but also a slice of history. The Old Stone House stands as a reminder to the humble beginnings of the nation’s capital. The Pierce Mill showcases the advancement in technology and economic growth of the city.
The park is open to the public seven days a week during daylight hours and offers plenty of activities. Biking, bird watching, hiking, horseback riding, ranger-led interpretive programs, nature walks and, if D.C. is lucky enough to see some snow in the winter, cross country skiing are popular activities.
Three types of hiking trails crisscross the vast parkland: a blue-blazed trail following the east side of the creek, a green-blazed one following the western ridge of the park and tan-blazed connector trails. The park also includes a 1.5-mile exercise trail that begins near Calvert Street and Connecticut Avenue.
Rock Creek Park offers 13 miles of bridle trails and horseback riding lessons and guided trail rides offered by the Rock Creek Park Horse Center. It is closed Mondays, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
Great Falls Park
Fourteen miles upriver from D.C. is the breathtaking Great Falls Park, an 800-acre park that lies in both Maryland and Virginia. The park opens everyday at 7 a.m. and closes at sundown. It offers a variety of activities, such as biking, bird watching, climbing, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, nature walks and whitewater rafting. The park has a $3 entrance fee for individuals and a $5 fee for vehicles.
Several 20-foot waterfalls that drop as much as 76 feet down line the park. The Potomac falls are said to be the steepest fall line rapids of any eastern river. The sound of the flowing water is calming to visitors who just want to sit around and admire the awesome view. A sunset paints a thousand colors on the waters, a magic scenery that a city dweller would normally have to drive more than just 14 miles to see.
For the serious bikers and runners, there are many trails around the D.C. area. The Mount Vernon Trail is an 18-mile paved trail that runs from Roosevelt Island along the Virginia bank of the Potomac River all the way to George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon.
The trail is one of the oldest and most popular in the area, not only for its convenience but also for its great views and sites on the way. The trail passes Arlington Cemetery, National Airport, Old Town Alexandria and ends at the Mount Vernon estate. The grassy area next to the airport is usually packed on sunny weekends. Watching airplanes land and take off right under your nose can be an interesting way to picnic, although it can get somewhat noisy.
Washington and Old Dominion Trail
The Washington and Old Dominion Trail is a 45-mile trail that runs through Northern Virginia counties, starting at Shirlington in Arlington and ends out in Purcellville, Va. It passes through many Virginia cities like Falls Church, Reston, Herndon and Leesburg. A bridle trail runs side to side along much of the trail.
For those interested in adventuring the whole trail – 90 miles there and back – breaking it in two halves is a wise idea. Bed and breakfasts litter the trail.
Even though the W&OD does not come near D.C., a connecting trail leads runners and bikers into the city. The 4-mile Martha Custis Trail connects the W&OD from Shirlington to the District and crosses the W&OD at its 4-mile marker. Coming from D.C., the trail is practically an extension from the Mount Vernon Trail and breaks off along Lee Highway in Rosslyn, Va., right in front of the Key Bridge Marriott hotel.
Rock Creek Trail
Maryland also provides a 14-mile Rock Creek Trail that runs through southern Montgomery County and follows a route through a wooded section of the Rock Creek stream valley. Although dodging cars is not necessary because of its traffic-free set-up, the trail lacks directional signs. Getting lost on side trails can be a problem.
The southern end of the trail finishes off on Beach Drive, where it enters the District, and the northern end starts in a few miles east of Rockville, Md.
With spring already here and summer quickly approaching, D.C.’s parks and trails beckon.