Washington D.C.’s Best Outdoor Attractions

There’s more to Washington, D.C. than monuments and memorials. Use this guide to check out some of the best outdoor activities the nation’s capital has to offer.

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In case you haven’t heard, Washington, D.C. isn’t all monuments, government buildings, and memorials. Those features are impressive, but there’s a lot going on outside those serious-looking buildings. Whether you’re into rose bushes or whitewater rapids, D.C. has tons of exciting outdoor attractions just waiting to be explored.

The U.S. National Arboretum

In Northeast D.C., about 10 minutes from downtown, the U.S. National Arboretum takes 446 acres and fills it with every kind of plant you can imagine — and then some. Traveling with kids? Head straight for the Arboretum’s Ellipse Meadow to let them blow off some steam playing gladiator around the spectacular, 34-foot-tall sandstone columns that originally helped support the Capitol building nearly two centuries ago.

There’s also a reflecting pool, paths, rare plants, aquatic plants, the National Grove of State Trees, and tons of gardens. The National Herb Garden keeps it hot with more than 50 types of peppers, and the National Grove of State Trees has an official state tree from every state in the country, except for a few pinch hitters that grow better in D.C. weather than the real deal. The Arboretum’s Azalea Collection has about 10,000 azaleas — talk about flower power.

A white and brown sign signifying the Rock Creek Park labyrinth is pictured in front of the Potomac River with the Key Bridge in the background just outside of Washington, D.C. on a brisk morning.

Rock Creek Park

D.C.’s Rock Creek Park is 1,754 acres of trees, trails, and creeks that run through the city — no cars allowed. There’s a nature center and planetarium, bike paths, a tennis center, a golf course, a horse center, boat rentals, more than 32 miles of hiking trails, and even a labyrinth where kids can burn off some more energy walking in circles — and you can catch a breather.

="A hand with one finger pointing up towards an airplane taking off from Ronald Regan Washington National Airport is pictured with a woman behind it holding a camera against a clear morning sky at Gravelly Point Park in Arlington, Virginia.

Gravelly Point Park

At Gravelly Point Park in Arlington, Virginia — right next to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport — you can watch the planes take off and land. They’re big, loud, and powerful, and it’s an amazing rush to watch it up close from the ground. It almost seems like you can feel them as they zoom up and away or come in close for a landing.

Yards Waterfront Park

What’s not to love about Yards Waterfront Park on the Anacostia River? You’ve got the space-age pedestrian bridge, dancing fountains with lights that change colors, a waterfall, a shallow canal where the kids can cool off in sticky weather, and landscaped outdoor “rooms” with wavy wood benches and lounge chairs. You can even literally stop and smell the roses. All you have to do is take a sniff from one of the park’s many rose bushes.

Numerous small waterfalls are pictured in the foreground, with a forest of leafy green trees in the background, at Great Falls Park in Virginia, near Washington D.C., on a spring afternoon.

Great Falls Park

About a half-hour drive from D.C., you can see powerful waterfalls and wicked rapids rushing over the rocks from three overlooks at Great Falls Park in Virginia. The water is way too wild to swim at the park, but it’s plenty exciting to watch the Potomac River churning at its craziest.

There are hiking trails, including some along the cliffs at Mather Gorge, where the hardcore rock climbers and whitewater kayakers hang out. If you want to take the action down a notch, head for the visitor center to view museum exhibits and a park film.

On the Maryland side of the Potomac, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park offers up fun at a much slower pace, with a lazy canal and a towpath trail where you can bike, hike, camp, and check out old ruins. There’s a fee to enter either park at the Great Falls Entrance Station.

Where do you like to explore nature in Washington, D.C.? Share your top outdoor spots with us on Facebook.

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