It’s a green Washington, D.C.: Getting outdoors in the nation’s capital

by Jeanine Barone on February 22, 2011

C&O Canal, Georgetown, Washington, D.C.

C&O Canal is a great place to enjoy the outdoors in D.C.

When I’m in Washington, D.C. and the lines are building around the all too familiar sights, including the monuments around the National Mall, I head to two of my two favorite museums, which see fewer crowds: the International Spy Museum — probably because, as a kid, I always wanted to be a spook — and the National Museum of the American Indian — because I studied Native American religions in college. At this latter museum, the landscaping is a vital part of the museum, which completely reflects Native American culture and beliefs.

But you may be aware that I prefer to spend most of my time outdoors, exploring the serene side of cities. So below are the highlights of green spaces in and around Washington, D.C. that I recommend to visitors.

1. Just minutes from the Metro, Theodore Roosevelt Island provides the opportunity to walk trails deep into a forest lush with hickory, oak and sycamore. Many hikers comment how this island feels like a vast wilderness, though it’s just stretches barely 90 acres.

2. The Mt. Vernon Trail is an 18-mile path that allows you to bike, jog or walk from Theodore Roosevelt Island to Mount Vernon. Paralleling the Potomac River, the trail gives you places to fish and picnic, bird watch in Dyke Marsh Wildlife habitat or rest among white pines in the Lady Bird Johnson Park

3. The unexpected is surely alive at Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens, which is not only a national park but it has the distinction of being the only one devoted to water plants. While so many of the district’s wetlands that were long used by the Native Americans have since been obliterated, luckily, in the 19th century, Walter Shaw, a nature lover, bought this land and cultivated water-loving plants. As a result, the land still retains some of its original wetlands that border the Anacostia River. And, carpeting the property is an abundance of water plants, more than 100,000, including rare lotuses and water lilies. But, when wandering about, take the time to walk the short River Trail that runs from the marsh that surrounds the gardens to the river. You’ll likely be able to observe blue herons, muskrats and beaver.

4. Dumbarton Oaks Gardens is a welcome retreat from the heat and chaos of downtown D.C. This ten-acre terraced property, a private estate, has plenty of winding paths and walkways past cherry trees, lilacs, dogwood, pools and fountains. What makes this site so unique is it’s design: you’ll prowl around the property and find different spaces or garden rooms, as they’re referred to, that are only visible once you’ve stepped into each. This effect is achieved by virtue of gates, walls and a plethora of other barriers that make this garden a wealth of surprises.

5. Just five miles from the White House, Rock Creek Park remains as wild, in parts, as in the 1800s. Don’t be surprised to see deer in the almost 1,800 acres of fields and ravines and forest lush with dogwood, beech and sassafras. Hikers and walkers enjoy the six-mile Blue Trail that follows the east side of the creek or the equally long Green Trail on the western ridge of the park.

6. The 184-mile Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, aka C & O, towpath is a quiet, shaded path where mules once towed boats carrying coal, timber and tobacco, can be tackled by joggers and cyclists alike. You certainly don’t have to do the whole path. In fact, it’s quite common to see weekend athletes running or biking a small portion of this trail after work or on a weekend afternoon.

7. A short drive from the Capitol, Great Falls Park is a perfect venue for experienced kayakers who negotiate treacherous rapids as the Potomac speeds over jagged rocks and drops almost 80 feet in one mile. Stretching along the Potomac, the park also provides several hiking trails where walkers scramble over rocks, stop at bluffs for spectacular views of the narrow Mather Gorge, and trek through forests and swamps.

8. More leisurely treks are found at the U.S. National Arboretum, which occupies more than 400,000 acres. Visitors can wander through the Fern Valley on a path along a stream and across a prairie and meadow. An extensive network of trails leads to a garden of dwarf conifers, an elaborate herb garden with 800 kinds of herbs and an Asian collection along the Anacostia River.

After all this walking, jogging, hiking or biking, at the end of a day I prefer to unwind at the chic Hotel Palomar DC, a boutique property that’s not only conveniently located near the Metro, but also offers a complementary wine tasting.

–Jeanine Barone of J The Travel Authority

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