Hidden D.C.: Outdoor spaces that aren’t the National Mall

Washington, D.C. is one of the top tourists destinations in the US, chock full of museums, history, internationally-recognized restaurants and a growing independent arts scene. What it’s not well-known for is its outdoor spaces–but that doesn’t mean the District is without green oases.  

The most famous “park” in D.C. is, of course, the National Mall – two miles of “America’s front garden” that is home to the iconic monuments, including the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument. The Mall is a must-see for a first trip to the nation’s capital, but if you’re a return visitor and ready to get away from the tourists while you soak up the D.C. humidity, here are some spots to check out:

Rock Creek Park

Rock Creek Park covers over 2,000 acres smack in the middle of D.C., but remains, somewhat confusingly, a complete mystery to tourists and visitors. I didn’t learn about it until I had lived in D.C. for several months, and had unknowingly walked through parts of it.

The park is easily accessible at a number of points along its main drag, Beach Drive. One could get lost easily for hours exploring the winding trails, forests, and historic structures along the water. The park is also home to a nature center, planetarium, the Carter Barron amphitheatre, and guided walks.  

Make it a day: Rent bikes from a Capital Bikeshare station, and spend a few hours cycling or going for a leisurely walk, on the paved trails. Work your way over to the National Zoo, which is easily accessible directly from the trail, and treat yourself to a meal at one of the many spots in the Woodley Park or Cleveland Park neighborhoods.  

Georgetown Waterfront

A selection of colorful boats at the Key Bridge Boathouse, where you can rent kayaks to set out on the Potomac River near the Georgetown Waterfront.

Georgetown is known for its shopping district and world-famous university, but the waterfront park along the Potomac River is effectively its “village green” – a central spot where students, families, sunbathers, athletes, and tourists gather to enjoy the sunshine and take a break from their day out in the historic district.

The park, which has plenty of open green space, benches, and a small boardwalk lined with restaurants, is just steps away from downtown Georgetown. The are doesn’t have many tall trees, allowing for a clear view of Roosevelt Island, the Washington Monument and the Watergate Hotel. It is also the docking spot for Potomac river cruises, and the water taxi that takes passengers down the river to Old Town Alexandria, a slightly quieter and even cuter destination for shopping and restaurants.

Make it a day: If you’re visiting in summer or early fall, start the day with an early morning paddle. Kayaks (1 or 2-person) and stand-up paddleboards are available for rental by the hour at the Key Bridge Boathouse. After you’ve toweled off, walk the shops along Georgetown’s historic M Street (but don’t limit yourself to the main drag – the best-kept secrets are along the canal and tucked away on side streets). The restaurants located at the waterfront tend to be pricey and packed, so if you get hungry, I’d recommend picking up a picnic from Dean & Deluca and enjoying it at the waterfront park while you watch families playing in the fountain and rowers gliding by in the Potomac.

Gravelly Point

Watching planes and cyclists zoom by at Gravelly Point can make a beautiful afternoon disappear quickly.

In addition to views of the U.S. Capitol, Washington Monument, and Lincoln Memorial on the way there, Gravelly Point is about as close to flying planes as you can get. This small park along the Mount Vernon Trail is one of the best-kept secret spaces in the Washington-Arlington area. Gravelly Point is a destination in itself, but can also be just a stop along the way from D.C. to George Washington’s Mount Vernon or Old Town Alexandria, both easily accessible by bike further along the trail. Keep an eye out for waterfowl along the riverbank!

Make it a day: Pack a picnic and a frisbee, and rent bikes from a Capital Bikeshare station or other bicycle shop. Hop on the Mount Vernon Trail entrance at the Kennedy Center and take the trail to Gravelly Point, a gathering place next to Washington Reagan National Airport where you can spend a few hours planespotting as the Boeings and Airbuses glide just over your heads to land. Download an app like Plane Finder or Flightradar24 to help you identify the aircraft overhead.

US National Arboretum

*Disclaimer: Avery spent several years working for the National Bonsai Foundation, which supports the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum at the U.S. National Arboretum

The entrance to the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum courtyard, a tranquil space at the U.S. National Arboretum.

The U.S. National Arboretum is a bit more difficult to access than the other spots on this list, but if you have access to a car (or taxi), it’s a must-visit. The Arboretum is the nation’s center of botanical research, and is chock-full of impressive trees, flowers, bushes, and public art. The Arboretum frequently hosts events, from festivals to group hikes to yoga classes. And since it’s comprised entirely of living beings, it is a new experience every time you visit. Add the U.S. National Arboretum to your list for a D.C. visit in any season.

Make it a day: The U.S. National Arboretum opens at 9 am nearly every day of the year – get there early to enjoy the grounds before it gets too sunny, making sure to visit the Capitol Columns, the National Herb Garden and the Bonsai & Penjing Museum (open at 10 am.). When you’ve had your fill of the outdoors, call a cab or take the bus over to the Eastern Market for lunch and boutique shops.

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