More than 27% of Washington’s land space is national parkland. When you add in the parks and gardens maintained by the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation, as well as private estates that are open to the public, you’re talking thousands and thousands of green acres!
Part of National Mall and Memorial Parks, bordering the Potomac River along the west and southwest ends. www.nps.gov/nama. tel 202/426-6841. Free admission. Daily 24 hr. Metro: Smithsonian (12th St./Independence Ave. exit).
The National Mall and Memorial Parks’ individual spaces known as West and East Potomac parks are 720 riverside acres divided by the Tidal Basin. The parkland is most famous for its display of cherry trees, which bloom for a mere 2 weeks, tops, every spring, as they have since the city of Tokyo first gave the U.S. capital the gift of the original 3,000 trees in 1912. Today there are more than 3,750 cherry trees planted along the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park, East Potomac Park, the Washington Monument grounds, and other pockets of the city.
The sight of the delicate cherry blossoms is so special that the whole city joins in cherry-blossom-related hoopla, throwing the National Cherry Blossom Festival. The National Park Service devotes a home page to the subject, www.nps.gov/cherry, and the National Cherry Blossom Festival officials another: www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org. The trees usually begin blooming sometime between March 20 and April 17; April 4 is the average date.
To get to the Tidal Basin by car (not recommended in cherry-blossom season—actually, let me be clear: impossible in cherry-blossom season), you want to get on Independence Avenue and follow the signs posted near the Lincoln Memorial that show you where to turn to find parking. If you’re walking, you’ll want to cross Independence Avenue where it intersects with West Basin Drive and follow the path to the Tidal Basin. There is no convenient Metro stop near here. If you don’t want to walk or ride a bike, your best bet is a taxi.
West Potomac Park encompasses Constitution Gardens; the Vietnam, Korean, Lincoln, Jefferson, World War II, and FDR memorials; the D.C. World War I Memorial; the Reflecting Pool; the Tidal Basin and its paddle boats; and countless flower beds, ball fields, and trees. It has 1,678 cherry trees bordering the Tidal Basin, some of them Akebonos with delicate pink blossoms, but most are Yoshinos with white, cloudlike flower clusters.
East Potomac Park has 1,681 cherry trees in 10 varieties. The park also has picnic grounds, tennis courts, three golf courses, a large swimming pool, and biking and hiking paths by the water. East Potomac Park’s Hains Point is located on a peninsula extending into the Potomac River; locals love to ride their bikes out to the point; golfers love to tee up in view of the Washington Monument.
Rock Creek Park
From the Potomac River near the Kennedy Center northwest through the city into Maryland. www.nps.gov/rocr. tel 202/895-6070. Free admission. Daily during daylight hours. Metro: Access points near the stations at Dupont Circle, Foggy Bottom, Woodley Park–Zoo, and Cleveland Park.
Created in 1890, Rock Creek Park was purchased by Congress for its “pleasant valleys and ravines, primeval forests and open fields, its running waters, its rocks clothed with rich ferns and mosses, its repose and tranquility, its light and shade, its ever-varying shrubbery, its beautiful and extensive views,” according to a Corps of Engineers officer quoted in the National Park Service’s administrative history. A 1,750-acre valley within the District of Columbia, extending 12 miles from the Potomac River to the Maryland border, it’s one of the biggest and finest city parks in the nation. Parts of it are still wild; coyotes have been sighted here, joining the red and gray foxes, raccoons, and beavers already resident. Most tourists encounter its southern tip, the section from the Kennedy Center to the National Zoo, but the park widens and travels much farther from there.
The park’s offerings include D.C.’s oldest standing structure, the 1765 Old Stone House in Georgetown (located on a busy street in Georgetown, outside the park but considered a park property, nonetheless); playgrounds; an extensive system of hiking and biking trails; sports facilities; remains of Civil War fortifications; and acres and acres of wooded parklands. In upper Georgetown, Rock Creek Park includes the family-friendly Montrose Park, a favorite place for picnicking and playing tennis, and Dumbarton Oaks Park, a 27-acre rustic preserve. Both Montrose and Dumbarton Oaks parks adjoin each other and the Dumbarton Oaks estate and formal gardens .
For full information on the wide range of park programs and activities, visit the Rock Creek Nature Center and Planetarium, 5200 Glover Rd. NW (tel 202/895-6070), Wednesday through Sunday from 9am to 5pm. To get to the center by public transportation, take the Metro to Friendship Heights and transfer to bus no. E2 to Military Road and Oregon Avenue/Glover Road, then walk up the hill about 100 yards.
The Nature Center and Planetarium is the scene of numerous activities, including weekend planetarium shows, nature films, crafts demonstrations, live animal demonstrations, guided nature walks, plus a daily mix of lectures, films, and other events. Self-guided nature trails begin here. All activities are free, but for planetarium shows you need to pick up tickets a half-hour in advance. The Nature Center is closed on federal holidays.
At Tilden Street and Beach Drive, you can see the recently refurbished, water-powered 19th-century gristmill, used until not so long ago to grind corn and wheat into flour. It’s called Peirce Mill (a man named Isaac Peirce built it). The mill is open for tours (Nov, Dec & Mar: Sat–Sun 10am to 4pm; Jan–Feb noon to 4pm; Apr –Oct Wed–Sun 10am–4pm). Check the website, www.nps.gov/pimi, or call tel 202/895-6070.
You’ll find convenient free parking throughout the park.
Theodore Roosevelt Island Park
In the Potomac River, btw. Washington and Rosslyn, VA. www.nps.gov/this. tel 703/289-2500. Free admission. Daily 6am–10pm. Metro: Rosslyn, then walk 2 blocks to Rosslyn Circle and cross the pedestrian bridge to the island.
A serene, 91-acre wilderness preserve, Theodore Roosevelt Island is a memorial to the nation’s 26th president in recognition of his contributions to conservation. During his administration, Roosevelt, an outdoor enthusiast and expert field naturalist, set aside a total of 234 million acres of public lands for forests, national parks, wildlife and bird refuges, and monuments.
Native American tribes were here first, inhabiting the island for centuries until the arrival of English explorers in the 1600s. Over the years, the island passed through many owners before becoming what it is today—an island preserve of swamp, marsh, and upland forest that’s a haven for rabbits, chipmunks, great owls, foxes, muskrats, turtles, and groundhogs. It’s a complex ecosystem in which cattails, arrow arum, and pickerelweed grow in the marshes, and willow, ash, and maple trees root on the mud flats. You can observe these flora and fauna in their natural environs on 2.5 miles of foot trails.
In the northern center of the island, overlooking a terrace encircled by a water-filled moat, stands a 17-foot bronze statue of Roosevelt. Four 21-foot granite tablets are inscribed with tenets of his conservation philosophy.
To drive to the island, take the George Washington Memorial Parkway exit north from the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge. The parking area is accessible only from the northbound lane; park there and cross the pedestrian bridge that connects the lot to the island. You can also rent a canoe at Thompson Boat Center and paddle over, or take the pedestrian bridge at Rosslyn Circle, 2 blocks from the Rosslyn Metro station. Expect bugs in summer and muddy trails after a rain.
Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park
Enter the towpath in Georgetown below M St. via Thomas Jefferson St. www.nps.gov/choh. tel 301/767-3714. Free admission. Daily during daylight hours. Metro: Foggy Bottom, with a 20-min. walk to the towpath in Georgetown.
One of the great joys of living in Washington is the C&O Canal and its unspoiled 185-mile towpath. You leave urban cares and stresses behind while hiking, strolling, jogging, cycling, or boating in this lush natural setting of ancient oaks and red maples, giant sycamores, willows, and wildflowers. But the canal wasn’t always just a leisure spot for city people. It was built in the 1800s, when water routes were considered vital to transportation. Even before it was completed, though, the canal was being rendered obsolete by the B&O Railroad, which was constructed at about the same time and along the same route. Today its role as an oasis from unrelenting urbanity is even more important.
A good source of information about the canal is the National Park Service office at Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center, 11710 MacArthur Blvd., Potomac, Maryland (tel 301/767-3714). The center is open Wednesday through Sunday year round, 9am–4:30pm. At this 1831 tavern, you can see museum exhibits and a film about the canal; there’s also a bookstore on the premises. The park charges an entrance fee: $5 per car, $3 per walker or cyclist.
In Georgetown the Georgetown Information Center, 1057 Thomas Jefferson St. NW (tel 202/653-5190), can also provide maps and information. The center is open weekends, June through August 9:30am–4:30pm.
The park offers many opportunities for outdoor activities, but if you or your family would prefer a less strenuous form of relaxation, consider the park’s mule-drawn 19th-century canalboat trip, led by Park Service rangers in period dress. They regale passengers with canal legend and lore and sing period songs. Georgetown barge rides have been suspended for the foreseeable future, but boats operate at Great Falls April 15 to October 31, Wednesday through Sunday. Barge rides last about 1 hour and 10 minutes, and cost $8 per adult, $6 for seniors, $5 per child, and free for children 3 and under.
Enter the towpath in Georgetown below M Street via Thomas Jefferson Street. If you hike 14 miles, you’ll reach Great Falls, a point where the Potomac becomes a stunning waterfall plunging 76 feet.