Best Outdoor Activities in Washington

Safely Socially Distance At These Top D.C. Outdoor Spots

After winter has dropped its final flakes and temperatures are above 40 degrees, there is no excuse to be indoors. Put the phone down, grab some sneakers and head outside. You'll find a number of can't-miss outdoor activities to marvel at the beauty Washington, D.C. has to offer visitors and residents. 

Put together a picnic lunch and head down to the National Mall where the Washington Monument, U.S. Capitol and Smithsonian buildings are your attention-grabbing guests. Rock Creek Park encompasses more than 2,000 acres and has a bevy of activities to enjoy inside including hiking trails, ranger-led astronomy programs at their planetarium and boat rentals. 

One of the most popular outdoor attractions in the nation's capital is the National Zoological Park featuring a variety of mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Come early to see the zoo's star Xiao Qi Ji, a young panda born at the zoo in 2020.

Since the district goes heavy on the history, head to the C & O Canal National Historic Park to see how goods made their way throughout the region before the days of planes, trains and automobiles.

Whether you chose to hike to enjoy nature or just sit and ponder it, the nation's capital will not disappoint with its abundance of unique outdoor activities.


Gravelly Point Park
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Country singer Gary Allan once sang "I'm just sittin' out here watching airplanes take off and fly." If you want to live out this song, head to this Arlington-based park where you get amazing up-close views of the metal birds. Folks will often pack picnic lunches, throw down a blanket and wait to see planes as they descend into Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Weather will sometimes allow for the path to reverse and you can see planes take off instead. While this park is great for the eyes, the sound may bother some as the aircraft are quite loud as they speed overhead.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: This venue is great to walk around or just sit and take in its stunning beauty.

Gina's expert tip: On beautiful days, avoid trying to find a parking spot as space is limited. Walk there via nearby trail.

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Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens
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Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens was originally owned by Civil War veteran Walter B. Shaw. Longing for his home state of Maine, he had wild water lilies planted on the estate. He later started W.B. Shaw Lily Ponds in 1912 which was visited by presidents and politicians. The area was bought by Congress in 1938 and is now run under the National Park Service. Visitors today will find a wide variety of lotus and lily flowers, wetlands and wildlife that will make you forget you are minutes from the nation's capital. Be sure to check out their annual Lotus and Water Lilly Festival in July featuring hands-on activities and performances.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: The nation's capital may be known for its cherry blossoms, but the wetlands are also a great spot to see beautiful flowers.

Gina's expert tip: If you are coming to see the summer flower blooming period, late May through September are the best months. Be sure to come early as the flowers close later in the day.

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C & O Canal National Historic Park
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Before the days of planes, trains and automobiles, goods made their way across the region via the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. Stretching 185 miles and hugging the borders to three states, this travel route dates back to the early 1800s. Declared a national monument in 1961 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the canal is now known as a National Historical Park. Bicyclists are a common site on the trails, so if you're walking, be sure to share the path. Another great activity here is taking a canal boat ride, which is put on by the National Park Service.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: Be transported back in time as you walk or bike the trail. Exercise can be fun with such beautiful scenery to observe.

Gina's expert tip: Horseback riding, boating and kayaking are allowed on certain parts of the canal. Just double-check before you go.

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The works of Leonardo Da Vinci, Auguste Rodin, Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas are quite enchanting, but before you make your way inside the National Gallery of Art, be sure to check out the museum's memorable sculpture garden. See installations like Robert Indiana's Instagram worthy AMOR statue and Roy Lichtenstein's House I. These pieces are outside, but you're still not allowed to touch them, so hands off. Opened in 1999, the site is the vision of landscape architect Laurie Olin. The 6.1-acre garden is open year-round and hosts a popular ice rink in the winter months.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: Open year-round, this venue is great to check out every season.

Gina's expert tip: If you ride a bike to the garden, you are not allowed on it while inside. Just walk beside the bike.

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Theodore Roosevelt Island and Memorial
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Perhaps most remembered for his conservation efforts, it is only fitting that the nation's 26th president Theodore Roosevelt has a living memorial. In the 1930s, crews transformed the neglected overgrown farmland site, then known as Mason's Island, into an oasis of trails, forests and swamplands which folks still flock to today. Fun fact: each trail is named for the habitat it passes through including swamp, upland and woods. Catch one of their ranger-led programs or bring your binoculars for wildlife viewing. Kids may also earn a Junior Ranger badge by completing tasks in their program book.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt loved the outdoors and you can too, thanks to this living memorial park created in his memory.

Gina's expert tip: While the park is open year-round, the restrooms are not from October to April. Do not fear because they do offer a portable toilet during the winter months.

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Rock Creek Park
Rock Creek Park
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There are so many things to do at Rock Creek Park, you may need more than a day to complete them. Encompassing more than 2,000 acres, the park features over 32 miles of hiking trails, a bevy of roads and trails for bicyclists to take on and multiple picnic spots to savor a tasty meal. Check out the free ranger-led astronomy programs at their planetarium or grab a racket for a friendly game of tennis. Got a horse? Take it through paths totaling 13 miles. Let the kids frolic at the playground or head to the Thompson Boat Center to rent kayaks, canoes, and small sailboats.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: Forget traffic congestion and tourist crowds. Head to this park to get back to nature for some peace and quiet.

Gina's expert tip: There are quite a few events that happen at this park, so be sure to check out their events calendar online.

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National Zoological Park
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Lions, monkeys and elephants, oh my! Located in Northwest Washington, D.C., The National Zoological Park features a variety of mammals, reptiles and amphibians. The stars of the show are the pandas, especially Xiao Qi Ji, who is the youngest born in 2020. Fans will line the fences at their exhibit with large telephoto lenses to capture every panda movement. The best part is visitors get to see all of these unique animals from around the world for free. Make sure you wear good walking shoes because the 163-acre park has hills. Also, don't stand under the ropes when the orangutans are on the move. You will thank me later!

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: See some of the world's most fascinating mammals, reptiles and amphibians in one of the best zoos in the country.

Gina's expert tip: Timed entry passes are required to enter the zoo. If you plan on seeing the pandas, you will need to secure additional free passes.

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United States National Arboretum
Photo courtesy of iStock / Tim Brown

The nation's capital is crammed full of buildings, streets and Metro stops but for those looking for a quiet getaway inside the district's borders, head to the United States National Arboretum. The 446-acre campus features trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants where people may observe and learn more about them. Admission is free and you can walk, drive or bike through the nine miles of roadway inside the arboretum. Here's a fun fact: scientists at the Arboretum have developed more than 650 plants through years of research. Be sure to check out the 'What's Blooming' page on their website to see what will be on full display during your visit.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: Want to see a variety of different plant life on your visit? This is one of the best venues to visit.

Gina's expert tip: Check out the arboretum's calendar of events for lots of unique programs. Go early because programs fill up fast.

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National Cherry Blossom Festival
Photo courtesy of iStock / Melissa Kopka

In 1912, Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki gifted Washington, D.C. with 3,000 cherry trees. To commemorate his generosity, the Cherry Blossom Festival was born and will be hosted in 2022 from March 18 to 27. Tourists from all over the world come to the Tidal Basin to see the blooms. The peak bloom date, known as the day that 70 percent of the blossoms are open, varies each year. While the blooms may be the main attraction, the festival features a variety of creative and diverse activities that promote contemporary arts and culture, the environment and education. While most events are free and open to the public, some require paid admission.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: After a long winter stuck indoors, folks can rid themselves of the winter blues and cabin fever by attending this huge spring kickoff.

Gina's expert tip: Come in the early morning or evening hours to avoid large crowds. During the COVID-19 pandemic, parking and pedestrian traffic was limited during peak bloom period.

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The National Mall
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Kids love to run around and most of the indoor attractions in the area frown upon that so turn them loose on the lawn portion of the National Mall. On warm days, you will find a number of people setting up picnics or playing pick-up games of soccer and football. Be sure to take a silly photo with the Washington Monument where it looks like you're a giant. Some people pretend like they are touching the top of it while others are leaning against it. And you can't leave without taking a whirl on the Carousel. Try to grab the lone sea dragon seat as it's the most popular.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: One of the best spots to see major attractions yet also relax and have a picnic.

Gina's expert tip: Get a Junior Ranger activity booklet from a National Parks ranger. Once your child completes it, they can earn a junior ranger badge. The activity is also offered online.

Read more about The National Mall →


Meet Gina Gallucci White

Gina Gallucci White is an award winning freelance writer with articles appearing in such regional publications as Frederick Magazine, The Daily Record, Montgomery Magazine and The Gazette. She...  More About Gina