Tourists flock to Washington DC for its outstanding Smithsonian Museums, elegant monuments and memorials, and imposing government buildings. But the city is also home to a surprising amount of green space. Of course, everyone knows about the Tidal Basin thanks to its annual cherry blossom display, and the National Mall with its wide open view of the Washington Monument. But there are many other Washington DC parks and gardens to explore! And if you have a car, neighboring Virginia and Maryland have several gems that are worth the drive. I’ve compiled some of my favorite metro-area parks and gardens here for easy reference. How many will you add to your DC bucket list?
Washington DC Parks and Gardens
U.S. National Arboretum
The U.S. National Arboretum is a sprawling park with nearly 10 miles of pathways. Its most notable feature is the National Capitol Columns. These 22 Corinthian columns are made from Virginia sandstone and are original to the east portico of the U.S. Capitol Building. They were relocated to the arboretum in 1958 when the building was enlarged. The arboretum is a center for scientific study that’s managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It boasts a wide array of trees and plants and is one of the best spots to see fall foliage in DC. Even though the arboretum is very popular, especially on sunny weekends, there are plenty of places to park. Dogs are allowed in the arboretum and there is no entrance fee.
Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens
In the 1880s, a Civil War veteran bought some land near the Anacostia River in southeast DC. He began cultivating waterlilies, which thrived in the marshy region. Today, the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens encompass over 700 acres and are a haven for birds, fish, and wetland plants. While the gardens are best known for their summer waterlily display, they are lovely to visit year round. Dirt tracks, which are often muddy, lead through the first half of the park, while a raised wooden boardwalk loops around the main ponds. There is no entrance fee for the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens and dogs are welcome. The closest Metro stop is Deanwood on the Orange line; it’s about a mile from the station to the gardens. Free parking is also available.
Theodore Roosevelt Island
Theodore Roosevelt served as the 26th president of the United States from 1901 to 1909. He was an avid outdoorsman and conservationist, and used his authority to protect 230 million acres of public land. It is only fitting the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial in Washington DC should be located on a forested island in the middle of the Potomac River. Over a mile of trails winds around Theodore Roosevelt Island and it is a favorite destination for local joggers and hikers. A five meter-tall statue of the president stands at the center of the island along with large fountains and reflecting pools. The island is free to enter and accessed via a footbridge on the Virginia side of the river where there is also a small parking lot. Dogs are allowed. You can see great views of Key Bridge and Georgetown University from here.
C&O Canal National Historic Park
The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal is a 19th century waterway that begins in DC’s Georgetown neighborhood and ends in Cumberland, Maryland. It was used primarily to transport coal from the Allegheny Mountains to city markets on the coast. Mules trod a dirt towpath beside the canal and helped pull heavy flat-bottomed boats downstream. Today, the flat track is beloved by local runners and cyclists. C&O Canal National Historic Park stretches for 185 miles, and includes the locks and aqueducts that kept the water moving. Abner Cloud House, built in 1801, is the oldest structure in the park. It’s located at Fletcher’s Cove, a busy recreation center with lots of free parking. There is no entrance fee and dogs are welcome. Special life vests are available if you want to go for a boat ride with your four-legged friend.
Hillwood Estate Museum & Gardens
Marjorie Merriweather Post was heiress to the Post Cereal fortune and one of the richest women in America. Her opulent Washington DC home, Hillwood Estate, is now a museum filled with Imperial Russian antiques. The estate’s manicured gardens are equally impressive. They cover 25 acres and include a formal French parterre, a terraced Japanese garden with water features, and a peaceful cemetery for Marjorie’s beloved dogs. (Leave your own dogs at home; they are not permitted anywhere on the property.) A large glass greenhouse is packed with orchids, which were her favorite flower. Admission to Hillwood Estate comes with a “suggested donation,” and there is a small parking lot behind the visitor’s center.
Rock Creek Park
Rock Creek Park dates to 1890, making it the third oldest national park in the USA. Much like New York’s Central Park, Rock Creek Park runs vertically through DC and offers a wide variety of recreational activities. These include a planetarium, tennis courts, horse stables, an 18-hole golf course, picnic greens, and an amphitheater for outdoor concerts. Hiking trails lace the 1,700 acre park, through pristine forest and over historic stone bridges spanning the creek. A must-see attraction is Peirce Mill, a water-powered grist mill dating to the 1820s. Free tours are offered on weekends, and live mill demonstrations are given during the warmer months. Rock Creek Park is free to enter and dogs are allowed. Part of the road running through it is closed to traffic during the day, making it an ideal locale for biking. There are multiple parking lots around Peirce Mill.
Virginia Parks and Gardens
Great Falls Park
The Great Falls of the Potomac are among the region’s most impressive natural attractions. The cascading rapids drop a total of 76 feet in less than a mile. Great Falls Park stretches along the Virginia side of the river and is home to over 15 miles of hiking trails. The River Trail is the most scenic as it runs parallel to the water which courses through Mather Gorge. The park has three large observation decks strategically placed at different vantage points around the falls. Overlook 1 is close to one of the steeper drops and has the most dramatic perspective, while Overlook 3 is best for a sweeping panorama. Great Falls Park is located about 30 minutes from Washington DC. Entrance costs $20 per vehicle and passes are valid for seven days. Dogs are welcome in the park.
Scott’s Run Nature Preserve
A short drive from Great Falls sits 336 acres of primordial forest. The Scott’s Run Nature Preserve is home to an astonishing assortment of rare plants, including a hemlock grove that has been growing undisturbed since the ice age. Walking and hiking trails weave through the trees and over rocky cliffs that were once on the ocean floor. The easiest hike follows Scott’s Run stream to a small waterfall that spills into the Potomac River. The trail is mostly flat, though you will cross the stream twice by hopping across concrete pillars. If you plan to visit, go early. The preserve’s two small parking lots fill up fast. There is no entrance fee and swimming in the water is not allowed.
Huntley Meadows Park
In the 1980s, some enterprising beavers began constructing a dam on marshy land once owned by George Mason, one of the nation’s original Founding Fathers. The beavers’ dam now stretches over 400 feet long and forms a wetland habitat that is a haven for birds and wildlife. A boardwalk with observation towers encircles Huntley Meadows, making it a favorite spot of birdwatchers and nature photographers. The park gets its name from Historic Huntley, a nearby mansion built by Mason’s grandson in the 1820s. Huntley Meadows Park is free to visit and there is a small parking lot beside the main entrance. Dogs are allowed on the woodland trails but not on the boardwalk as they scare off the birds.
Meadowlark Botanical Gardens
Driving through the crowded streets of Vienna, Virginia, it’s hard to believe that this bustling DC suburb is home to one of the region’s best public gardens. Meadowlark Botanical Gardens began as a private family farm and was donated to the Virginia Park Authority in 1980. It encompasses 95 acres of rolling hills, forested trails, fish ponds, and ornamental gardens stocked with native flora. During the warmer months, Meadowlark hosts a popular “Music in the Gardens” series, with performances ranging from local acts to the Virginia Chamber Orchestra. But even if you don’t make it for a concert, Meadowlark is an exceptional place to explore. Dogs are not allowed in the garden.
Maryland Parks and Gardens
Black Hill Regional Park
Montgomery County is home to over one million people, making it the most populous county in Maryland. I was surprised to learn that it also has some of the state’s largest parks. Black Hill Regional Park occupies over 2,000 acres of prime real estate next to Little Seneca Lake. You can rent a boat to explore the large reservoir or go fishing along the shore. Land lovers will appreciate the park’s 20 miles of hiking trails and large covered pavilions perfect for family picnics. Black Hill Regional Park is free to enter and has abundant parking, which can be difficult to come by at some of the area’s more popular spots. Dogs are allowed.
At a mere 54 acres, Brookside Gardens is tiny but mighty. It has won awards for its intricate display gardens and cultivated landscapes. The diverse plantings include azaleas, roses, Japanese maples, and perennials. There are also several water features which give the garden its name. Brookside Gardens is considered the jewel of the Montgomery County park system. Its immense popularity means that the parking lot fills up fast on sunny weekends. (I had to wait about 10 minutes for a spot to open up.) Entrance is free, but dogs are not permitted.
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Which of these Washington DC parks and gardens would you most like to visit? Know of any others I should add to this list?