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10 Day Trips From Washington D.C For Nature Lovers

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Are you a nature lover looking for a quick escape from busy Washington D.C.? Then you’ll be happy to learn the nation’s capital is closely surrounded by stunning peaceful mountain landscapes and seaside adventures. 

From hiking along the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Shenandoah National Park to kayaking in the Chesapeake Bay, there’s something for everyone.

If you’re looking for something closer to the city, at Great Falls Park you can hike along the Potomac River while discovering stunning waterfalls. And it’s under a 30 minute drive from the city.

For an oceanside beach day, head to Assateague Island National Seashore on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where you can swim, sunbathe, and even spot wild horses.

No matter what you’re looking for, Washington D.C. has plenty of close by destinations for nature lovers in under a 3 hour drive.

Key Points You’ll Discover

  • Shenandoah National Park and Harpers Ferry National Historical Park are popular day trip destinations with lots to do for nature lovers near Washington D.C.
  • Great Falls Park is great options for those looking for outdoor adventures closer to the city.
  • For beach lovers, Assateague Island National Seashore on Maryland’s Eastern Shore has trails, beaches, guided adventures, camping and wild horses. 
  • With so many stunning natural landscapes just a short drive away, Washington D.C. is the perfect destination for nature lovers.

1. Shenandoah National Park

One of the most popular day trips from Washington D.C. for nature lovers is the stunning Shenandoah National Park.

Located just 75 miles and about 2 hours away from the city, this gorgeous park is home to over 500 miles of hiking trails, including the famous Appalachian Trail, stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and a variety of outdoor activities..

You’ll have the opportunity to see breathtaking waterfalls, sweeping vistas, and an abundance of wildlife throughout.

Here are some of the things you can do in Shenandoah National Park: 

Skyline Drive

3 deer during sunset at Shenandoah National Park

The Skyline Drive is a scenic drive that runs the length of the park. It’s a great way to take in the beautiful views of the mountains and valleys.

Along the way, there are several overlooks where you can stop and take pictures or have a picnic.

Keep an eye out for wildlife, including black bears, deer, and wild turkeys.

Old Rag Mountain

For a more challenging outdoor adventure, consider hiking Old Rag Mountain. This 9-mile hike is considered one of the best on the East Coast, with stunning views from the summit.

The hike includes rock scrambles and steep climbs, so it’s not for the faint of heart. Make sure to bring plenty of water and snacks, and wear sturdy hiking shoes.

Dark Hollow Falls

For a shorter hike, Dark Hollow Falls is amazing. This 1.4-mile hike takes you to a beautiful waterfall, with several smaller falls along the way. The trail is well-maintained and relatively easy, but there are some steep sections.

Make sure to wear comfortable shoes and bring a camera to capture the stunning scenery.

Overall, Shenandoah National Park is a great day trip option for nature lovers. With stunning views, challenging hikes, and easy trails, there’s something here for everyone.

Entrance passes are and can be purchased online or at the park.

 

2. Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

 

If you’re a nature lover, you’ll find plenty to explore at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Located at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, this park is a popular destination for hiking, exploring history, and enjoying river activities.

About a 90 minute drive from downtown D.C., here, you can hike the Appalachian Trail, go whitewater rafting, or explore Harpers Ferry, the historic town that played a crucial role in the Civil War.

Here are some of the things you can do in Harpers Ferry National Historical Park:

Hiking the Appalachian Trail

One of the most popular activities at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is hiking the Appalachian Trail. The trail runs through the park and offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains and rivers.

You can choose from a variety of hikes, ranging from easy to strenuous. The park offers several styles of trails that are perfect for families with young children, as well as longer hikes for experienced hikers.

Exploring Civil War History

Harpers Ferry played a significant role in the Civil War, and you can explore its history at the park. The town was the site of a famous raid by abolitionist John Brown in 1859, and it changed hands between Union and Confederate forces several times during the war.

You can visit several historic sites in the park, including the John Brown Museum and the ruins of the town’s armory.

River Activities

View over the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry

If you love water activities, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park has plenty to offer. You can go tubing, kayaking, or rafting on the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers.

The park has several outfitters that offer rentals and guided tours, so you can enjoy the rivers even if you don’t have your own equipment. You can also go fishing in the rivers, which are home to a variety of fish species.

Overall, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is a great destination for nature lovers who want to explore history, hike through beautiful scenery, and enjoy river activities. You can buy entrance passes online or at the visitor center entrance station.

 

3. Great Falls Park

If you’re a nature lover looking for a day trip from Washington D.C, Great Falls Park is a must-visit destination. Located just 15 miles from the city and 800 acres (3.2 km2), this park offers stunning views of the Potomac River and its waterfalls.

Here are some of the things you can do in Great Falls Park:

The Potomac River and Waterfall Views

2 people kayaking the river in Great Falls Park

The park’s main attraction is the Shenandoah National Park Wildlife, which offers breathtaking views of the waterfalls and rapids. You can take a leisurely walk along the trails or hike to the top of the cliffs for a panoramic view of the river. Be sure to bring your camera to capture the stunning scenery.

For action on the river, try kayaking or whitewater rafting.

Billy Goat Trail

Another popular activity at Great Falls Park is hiking the Billy Goat Trail. This trail is divided into three sections, each with its own level of difficulty. The trail offers beautiful views of the river and the park’s surrounding landscape.

Be sure to wear appropriate footwear and bring plenty of water, as the trail can be challenging.

Visitor Center Exhibits

Stop into the Great Falls Park Tavern Visitor Center for exhibits on the park’s history, geology, and wildlife. The exhibits are informative and engaging, making them a great way to learn more about the park and its surroundings.

The visitor center is currently closed for renovation, so check the website for opening dates before planning a visit.

Overall, Great Falls Park is a great day trip destination for nature lovers. With its stunning views, hiking trails, and informative exhibits, there’s something for everyone to enjoy. All visitors require an entrance pass.

4. Assateague Island National Seashore

If you’re looking for a nature-filled day trip from Washington D.C., Assateague Island National Seashore is an excellent option.

This beautiful 37 mile, 48,000 acre barrier island with a variety of bayside and oceanside camping areas is located just three hours from D.C.. And there lots to do. Famous for its wild horses, and diverse wildlife here you can also explore its pristine beaches, trails, coastal bays, salt marshes and maritime forests. 

Here’s what else there is to do on Assateague Island:

See Wild Horses

Two Assateague Ponies being playful in the marsh.

One of the main attractions of Assateague Island is the hundreds of wild horses that roam freely on the island. Made famous from Marguerite Henry’s book Misty of Chincoteague, spotting them in their natural habitat is an experience you won’t forget.

While many believe the horses are the decedents of survivors of a shipwreck off the Virginia coast, the National Park Service says:

“While this dramatic tale of struggle and survival is popular, there are no records yet that confirm it. The most plausible explanation is that they are the descendants of horses that were brought to barrier islands like Assateague in the late 17th century by mainland owners to avoid fencing laws and taxation of livestock.”

While there’s not way to know exactly where the horses will be, you can take a guided kayak or boat tour to increase your chances of seeing them. Both Assateague Explorer and Assateague Outfitters offer cruises, kayak, canoe and wildlife tours.

If you’re exploring on your own, the horses are often be seen roaming the beach, marshy areas, or spotted at the National Park’s Over Sand Vehicle section of the park. If you want to be able to drive on the beach, you need a four-wheel drive vehicle and permits are required.

Whatever way you decide to explore Assateague, remember to keep a safe distance from the horses, since they’re wild animals and are unpredictable.

Head to the Beach Activities

Assateague Island is home to some of the most beautiful beaches on the East Coast. The island has two public beaches, the Maryland side and the Virginia side accessed in nearby Chincoteague, VA, both of offer miles of pristine sand and waters.

You can swim, sunbathe, or go for a walk along the shore. The beaches are also great for fishing, crabbing, and clamming.

If you’re feeling adventurous, you can rent a kayak or paddleboard and explore the island’s waterways.

Camping Options

If you want to spend more than a day on Assateague Island, there are several camping options available. The island has two campgrounds, both of which offer tent-only and RV camping. Assateague also offers horse camping, where equestrians can bring their horses overnight and ride the trails during the day.

The campgrounds are located in the Maryland District and the Virginia District, and both offer easy access to the beach and other island activities. Keep in mind that camping on Assateague Island requires a permit, and reservations are recommended, especially during the peak season.

Overall, Assateague Island National Seashore is a must-visit destination for nature lovers in the D.C. area.

With its wild horses, beautiful beaches, and diverse wildlife, it’s the perfect place to escape the city and immerse yourself in nature. You can visit the park’s website to plan your visit, make camping reservations and buy passes.

5. Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park

If you’re a nature lover looking for a day trip from Washington D.C, Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park is a great choice.

Back in 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower decided to turn the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal into a National Monument. Why? To protect this historic canal and its original structures which carried coal, lumber, and goods throughout the region.

 Nowadays, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park is like a treasure hunt. You can explore history, nature, and fun stuff along its banks. 

The park stretches 184.5 miles tracing the Potomac River, and connecting Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown section all the way to Cumberland, Maryland. 

Here are some of the things you can do in the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park:

Towpath Biking

The towpath is a flat, gravel path that runs alongside the canal. It’s perfect for biking, and you can rent bikes at the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center entrance of the canal.

The park offers 10 tips for biking the C&O Canal to help you plan your trip. You can also bring your own bike and ride the entire length of the towpath.

Lockhouse Stays

If you want to spend more than a day in the park, stay in one of the historic lockhouses for a unique experience.

According to the National Park Service:

“A lock is an elevator for boats. It lifts boats up or down to the next level on the canal. There are 74 locks on the C and O Canal. Only one boat at a time can fit in the lock. Locks are 100 feet long and 15 feet wide.”

The lock house historic buildings were originally used by lock keepers in the 19th century and have been restored for overnight stays. You can rent a lockhouse for a night or longer, and experience what life was like for the lock keepers.

Water Activities and Boat Ride Experiences

Water lovers can take a mule-towed boat ride on the canal.  This one isn’t your average boat ride.  The boat rides are popular, so it’s best to make a reservation in advance. 

The Great Falls side of the park offers rides on a replica 1870’s packet boat while the Williamsport, MD launch site gives visitors rides on a replica 1900’s electric launch boat.

Whether you’re biking, staying overnight, or taking a boat ride, Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park is a great day trip from Washington D.C.

6. George Washington & Jefferson National Forests

If you’re a nature lover looking for a day trip from Washington D.C., the George Washington & Jefferson National Forests are a great option.

Covering land located in western Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky these forests cover nearly 1.7 million acres and offer a variety of outdoor activities for visitors to enjoy.

Here are some of the things you can do in the George Washington & Jefferson National Forests:

Hiking Trails

The George Washington & Jefferson National Forests have over 1,925 miles of hiking trails, making it a great destination for hikers of all levels. Whether you’re looking for a short day hike or a multi-day backpacking trip, there’s a trail for you.

Some popular trails include the Appalachian Trail, the Crabtree Falls Trail, and the Dragon’s Tooth Trail.

Fishing and Hunting

If you’re an angler or hunter, the George Washington & Jefferson National Forests offer plenty of opportunities to get a great catch.

The forests have over 2,000 miles of lakes, rivers, ponds and streams and nearly 40 species of fish, including trout, bass, and catfish. There are also hunting opportunities, with a variety of game species such as deer, turkey, and bear.

Campgrounds

If you want to spend more than a day in the forests, there are several campgrounds to choose from.

In addition to 3 cabins The George Washington & Jefferson National Forests has over 40 campgrounds, ranging from primitive sites to fully-equipped RV sites.

Some popular campgrounds include the Sherando Lake Recreation Area and the Loft Mountain Campground.

Overall, the George Washington & Jefferson National Forests are a great day trip destination for nature lovers. With plenty of hiking trails, fishing and hunting opportunities, and campgrounds to choose from, there’s something for everyone to enjoy. You can purchase park passes and plan your trip here.

7. Catoctin Mountain Park

If you’re looking for a nature-filled day trip from Washington D.C, Catoctin Mountain Park is a must-visit. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, this park is home to 25 miles of hiking trails, waterfalls, and wildlife.

Here are some of the highlights of Catoctin Mountain Park that you won’t want to miss:

Waterfall Fun at Cunningham Falls

One of the most popular destinations in the park is Cunningham Falls, a 78-foot waterfall that cascades into a crystal-clear pool.

Cunningham Falls is the largest cascading waterfall in the state of Maryland.  To access it, you’ll need to take a 2 mile round trip hike on park’s Falls Nature Trail that leaves off the parking lot across from the visitor center.

There are also plenty of opportunities for swimming and picnicking in the area.

Catoctin Wildlife Preserve

Another must-see attraction in Catoctin Mountain Park is the Catoctin Wildlife Preserve.

This incredible 50-acre preserve is home open seasonally April through November is home to over 300 exotic animals, including zebras, giraffes, and kangaroos.

Visitors can take a guided safari tour of the preserve or explore on their own.

Camping and Picnicking

If you want to spend more than a day in the park, there are plenty of lodging, camping and picnicking opportunities available. The park has three campgrounds with a total of 100 campsites, cabin rentals and several picnic areas with grills and tables. If you want to camp, be sure to make a reservation .

Whether you’re looking for a day of hiking, a chance to see exotic animals, or a peaceful picnic in nature, Catoctin Mountain Park has something for everyone. You can plan your trip and buy entrance passes at the park’s website.

 

8. Mason Neck State Park

If you’re a nature lover looking for a day trip from Washington D.C., Mason Neck State Park is a great choice. Located in southern Fairfax County, the park is just a short drive from the city and offers a variety of outdoor activities multi-use trails, a large picnic area, a playground, canoe and kayak rentals.

Here are some of the highlights of Mason Neck State Park that you won’t want to miss:

Bird Watching

A Red-winged Blackbird lands on a Great Blue Heron in the water.

Mason Neck State Park is a popular destination for bird watchers. The park is home to a variety of bird species, including bald eagles, ospreys, and great blue herons.

There are several observation areas throughout the park where you can watch these birds in their natural habitat.

Kayaking and Canoeing

If you enjoy kayaking or canoeing, Mason Neck State Park is a great place to visit. The park offers a car-top boat launch for easy access to the water.

You can rent kayaks and canoes from April through October and explore the park’s wetlands and bay.

Hiking Trails

Mason Neck State Park has several hiking trails that offer beautiful views of the park’s natural beauty.

The Bay View Trail is a 3-mile loop that takes you through the wetlands and offers views of Belmont Bay.

The High Point Trail is a 2.5-mile loop that takes you through the forest and offers views of the Potomac River.

Overall, Mason Neck State Park is a great day trip destination for nature lovers in the Washington D.C. area. Whether you enjoy bird watching, kayaking, or hiking, there’s something for everyone to enjoy at this beautiful park.

Entrance passes are required to get into the park and can be purchased online.

 

9. Prince William Forest Park

If you’re looking for a nature escape from the hustle and bustle of Washington D.C, Prince William Forest Park is a perfect choice. Located just 30 minutes from the White House, this park is a natural refuge with fragrant woods, trickling streams, and over 37 miles of hiking trails.

Here a few things to do in Prince William State Park that you won’t want to miss:

Cabin Camping

Stay overnight in one of the park’s five rustic cabins and enjoy a true wilderness experience. Four of the cabins are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

The cabins are equipped with basic amenities such as beds, a table, chairs, and a wood stove. There are also campsites available for tent camping. Be sure to make cabin reservations before you go.

Nature Walks

Explore the park’s diverse ecosystem on one of the many nature walks available. The park’s trails range from easy to strenuous, so there’s something for everyone.

Keep an eye out for the park’s wildlife, including deer, foxes, and even black bears.

Historical Sites

Prince William Forest Park has a rich history, dating back to the 1930s when it was used as a Civilian Conservation Corps camp. Today, you can explore the remnants of the camp, including the original mess hall and cabins.

The park also played a role in World War II as a training ground for spies and saboteurs.

Whether you’re looking for a peaceful retreat or an outdoor adventure, Prince William Forest Park has something for everyone. Don’t forget to pack a picnic and enjoy lunch in the great outdoors. Park passes can be purchesed online or at the park with a debit or credit card.

 

10. Rock Creek Park

If you’re a nature lover visiting Washington D.C, then Rock Creek Park is a must-visit attraction. It is one of the biggest and oldest urban forests in the nation, spanning 4.4 square miles across the northwestern quadrant of the city.

Here are some of the amazing things to do at Rock Creek Park:

Nature Center and Planetarium

The Nature Center and Planetarium is a great place to start your visit to Rock Creek Park. Located at the northern end of the park, it offers a range of educational exhibits and interactive displays that are perfect for all ages.

The planetarium offers a range of shows that will take you on a journey through the stars and beyond. 

Horseback Riding

A young woman Horseback Riding in the fall at Rock Creek Park

In the woods of the park, you’ll find Rock Creek Horse Center. The only public riding facility in Washington D.C., this stable offers horseback riding lessons, barn tours, pony rides and guided trail rides. It is a great way to explore the park’s trails and see the natural beauty of the area. 

The stable is open year-round, and the rides are suitable for riders of all levels. Reservations are required.

Peirce Mill

Peirce Mill is a historic gristmill located in Rock Creek Park. It was built in the 1820s and operated until the early 1890s. Today, this museum offers a glimpse into the history of milling and the importance of water power in the development of the nation.

Visitors can take a tour of the mill and learn about the milling process and the people who worked there.

Rock Creek Park is a great place to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city and enjoy the natural beauty of the area. Whether you want to go hiking, horseback riding, or just relax and enjoy the scenery, there is something for everyone at Rock Creek Park.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the top nature destinations within a day’s drive from Washington D.C.?

Some of Washington D.C.’s  the top nature destinations within a day’s drive include Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia, and Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland. These parks offer scenic drives, hiking trails, and stunning views of the natural beauty of the region.

Which nearby parks offer the best outdoor experience for a day trip from D.C.?

If you are looking for the best outdoor experience for a day trip from D.C., then head to Great Falls Park in Virginia or Rock Creek Park in D.C. Both parks offer hiking trails, picnic areas, and stunning views of the Potomac River.

You can also visit the Patuxent Research Refuge in Maryland, which offers wildlife viewing, hiking trails, and educational programs.

How can I plan a romantic nature getaway day trip from Washington D.C.?

If you are looking for a romantic nature getaway day trip from D.C., then head to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. The valley is known for its stunning mountain views, wineries, and charming small towns.

Take a scenic drive on the Skyline Drive, hike to a waterfall, or enjoy a picnic with your loved one. You can also visit the Shenandoah Caverns or for incredible views take a hot air balloon ride over the valley.

What are some unique natural attractions for a day trip accessible from D.C. by train?

If you are looking for a unique natural attraction for a day trip accessible from D.C. by train, then head to the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Suffolk, Virginia near Norfolk.

The refuge is home to a variety of wildlife, including black bears, bobcats, and river otters. Guided boat tours are available or hike on one of the many trails in the refuge.

Where can I find scenic winter landscapes for a day trip near Washington D.C.?

If you are looking for scenic winter landscapes for a day trip near Washington D.C., then head to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.

The mountains offer stunning views of snow-capped peaks and frozen waterfalls.

You can also go skiing, snowboarding, or snowshoeing at one of the many ski resorts in the area. Bryce Resort is one ski resort about two hours west of Washington, D.C.

What are the best car-free options for experiencing nature on a day trip from D.C.?

If you are looking for car-free options for experiencing nature on a day trip from D.C., then head to the National Arboretum in D.C where you can explore 446 acres of flora and fauna.

The arboretum has a variety of gardens and collections and ongoing events. Don’t miss their famous magnolia, azalea, or Asian Collections. 

Another option is to take a bike ride on the Capital Crescent Trail, which offers stunning views of the Potomac River.



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