You’d be hard pressed for a person in a group of 50 to suggest Washington DC as an ideal destination for nature lovers. The nation’s capital, however, and its surrounding areas have plenty of green, open spaces and many living in the district enjoy a brisk run along the Tidal Basin (more on that later). For visitors, DC’s reputation is as a place steeped deeply in American history where the people and events that have altered its course are memorialized in marble to be revered forever; but don’t let this stoicism fool you. When it comes to options for lovers of the outdoors, there are more than enough to satisfy.
U.S. National Arboretum
If you fancy yourself an amateur botanist or horticulturist or if maybe you swoon a little when surrounded by striking examples of plant life and other flora, it doesn’t get much better than this place. With an almost 12 million dollar annual budget allocated by the federal government, this education and research facility houses a dizzying array of just about any species of plant or flower you can possibly think of. With 446 acres and 9.5 miles of winding pathways to explore, this is a great place to satisfy your nature fix.
Theodore Roosevelt Island
There aren’t many better candidates to name a nature retreat after than this champion of conservation and the outdoors. What was once neglected, overgrown farmland, landscapers converted the former Mason Island as a nature preserve dedicated to the 26th President of the United States. There are plenty of things to see and experience at this National Park, like ranger-led kayak excursions on the Potomac River that circumnavigate the entire island. There are also guided tours that take you throughout the entire park for a more comprehensive view. Whitetail deer, fox, box turtles, squirrels, coyotes, bats, and chipmunks call the 800 acres of land here home. Bird-watching is another activity that this area is very well suited for.
Rock Creek Park
Much like Central Park serves as a pressure valve of sorts for the millions of people who hustle and bustle up and down the narrow and dense borough of Manhattan, Rock Creek Park serves much the same role for the citizens of Washington DC. Enjoy a hike on the over 32 miles of trails and paths where you’ll pass the Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, a prime example of a garden, Victorian cemetery where notable military leaders and politicians are interred such as the son of Abraham Lincoln. There are a variety of ranger-led programs worth investigating and there’s even a planetarium on the premises that uses high-tech software to project the image of the night sky onto a large, dome-shaped ceiling – A real treat for stargazers!
Now, if camping is on the agenda, you’re going to have to venture outside of the city proper. These next destinations would require you to drive anywhere from 16 to 150 miles from DC.
Savage River Lodge
The farthest of these campsites, or ‘glamp-sites,’ this one is geared for those who want to commune with nature without literally exposing themselves too much in the process. This is the land of the yurt, a large, portable, round tent, usually set up on a wooden platform. Each has a king bed, full bathroom, deck, gas fireplace, and radiant-heat floor. Not exactly roughing it, but there’s nothing wrong with being pampered in the middle of the woods beneath a starry sky.
Bull Run Regional Park
Only 30 miles outside the city limits, this convenient campsite is great for the entire family; and if anyone in your group happens to be a Civil War buff, even better! The 41 designated campsites are all fully equipped with picnic tables, grills, fire rings as well as bathhouses with hot showers and toilets. The historical significance of this location is the fact that it was the site of the Battle of Bull Run, the first major battle of the Civil War that ended in the defeat and subsequent retreat of Union forces. The Second Battle of Manassas also occurred here. Try your eagle eye and steady hand on the outdoor shooting range, hike the 18 miles of trails and get in a round of disc-golf all in the same place!
Smack dab in the middle of the Beltway is a massive body of water that’s approximately 10 feet deep and 107 acres in size known as the Tidal Basin. On its banks you’ll find some of the most well-known of DC’s many vaunted landmarks such as the Jefferson Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and the FDR Memorial. Besides functioning as a drainage receptacle when the Washington Channel overflows, the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park is a hotbed of outdoor activities. Joggers, kayakers, bikers and everyone in between flock here year round, especially in late March and early April when the park is a wash in bursts of pink during cherry blossom season!