Between high gas prices and airline headaches, 2011 is the year of the staycation. Or at least the close-to-home-cation. Cambria Suites, part of the Choice Hotels group, is helping out by sponsoring a roundup of blog posts describing weekend itineraries for the travel gems in bloggers’ own backyards.
This post is my entry into the Cambria Suites / TBEX blog carnival. And I took the challenge literally (well, maybe metaphorically): The itinerary below highlights the outdoor wonders found in “backyards” all over Washington, DC.
Admittedly, DC isn’t known for its outdoor wonders. The DC area is the 7th largest metropolitan area in the United States, with no proximity to snow-capped mountains or other spectacular backdrops. Any references to the “political jungle” are purely symbolic. And you’re more likely to spot a lobbyist in the wild than a mountain lion. (Wildlife experts recommend treating both with equal caution.)
But it’s a shame that so many of DC’s outdoor attractions go unexplored by visitors. This is, after all, a city built on two rivers (the Potomac and the Anacostia), in a lush area between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Chesapeake Bay. Visitors can hike, bike and paddle, sometimes even within walking distance of a Metro stop. And what DC may lack in snow-capped mountains, it more than makes up for in famous monuments.
DC Monuments by Night, photo by capelle79 on Flickr
Friday Evening: Get Acquainted
Whether this is your first time in DC or a repeat visit, you’ll probably want an overview of the National Mall, with its cluster of Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument. Many visitors find the monuments to be most beautiful when lit up at night, and as an added benefit crowds are fewer in the evening. From the Washington Monument, a short walk across Constitution Avenue will take you to the White House. Be sure to visit the lesser-known World War II Memorial, which lies between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Its granite columns, so austere during the day, turn warmly golden under nighttime lights.
Urban hikers can explore the entire Mall by walking two miles from the Capitol Building in the east to the Lincoln Memorial in the west. Though it’s not directly on the straight stretch of Mall, the Jefferson Memorial is well worth the extra walk around the Tidal Basin. The FDR Memorial, a favorite of many locals, also lies along the Tidal Basin.
It’s hard to completely avoid walking during a Mall adventure. But if you can’t hoof it too far, or just aren’t in the mood, other options include a three-hour evening Segway tour of the Mall and Monuments from City Segway Tours or inexpensive bike rentals from Capital Bikeshare.
End your Mall visit relaxing with refreshments and a view. The W Hotel, at 15th and F Streets NW, features White House and Monument views from its P.O.V. Roof Terrace.
Great Falls, photo by ewilfong on Flickr
Saturday: Explore the Potomac
On Saturday, spend your day along the Potomac River. For the active set, there are multiple options for exploring the Potomac by boat and its shores by foot or by bike. Start the morning at Great Falls, where the Potomac tumbles over jagged rocks in its trip through narrow Mather Gorge. Great Falls is the best-known attraction of the DC area for active outdoor exploration, offering five miles of bilking trails, fifteen miles of hiking trails, and options for climbing (several areas, with difficulty around 5.0) and whitewater kayak or canoe (rapids range from Class II to a heart-stopping Class VI).
In the afternoon, explore the banks of the Potomac. The most common option is eighteen-mile Mount Vernon Trail, which runs directly along the Virginia side of the Potomac from Roosevelt Island in the north to George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate in the south. Roosevelt Island is small and its monument to Teddy Roosevelt a bit neglected, but it’s worth a visit for the experience of being on a wooded island with sandy beach, right in the middle of the city. The route south along the George Washington Parkway takes you past several marinas, the flightpath of Reagan National Airport (stop by Gravelly Point if you love the feeling of jetliners zooming directly overhead), a wildlife preserve, and painfully charming Old Town Alexandria. Bike rentals are available at Big Wheel Bikes in Alexandria or the Washington Sailing Marina along the Parkway, or you can pick up a Capital Bikeshare bike at the Rosslyn Metro in Arlington or at several spots in Crystal City. If you don’t wish to follow the whole trail, you could simply hop the Metro at Rosslyn, Pentagon City, or Reagan National Airport. Alternatively, you could head north from Arlington, crossing the river into Georgetown and then following the towpath of the Chesapeake & Ohio (C & O) Canal for a few of its 184 miles.
Potomac River Kayaks, photo by runneralan on Flickr
Prefer the water route? Potomac Paddlesports offers four-hour beginner-level kayak tours. Or, there are several boathouses in the Georgetown area for daylong or by-the-hour kayak and canoe rentals. Check out the Thompson Boat Center, Jack’s Boathouse, or Fletcher’s Boat House.
Not the athletic type? There are still plenty of ways to enjoy nature up and down the river. Great Falls is worth a visit even if you can’t take advantage of its trails; three scenic overlooks are within a ten-minute walk from the Visitor’s Center, and two are wheelchair accessible. Or, crank down the windows and drive the beautiful stretch of George Washington Parkway from Old Town Alexandria to Mount Vernon. Even if you choose not to visit the actual Mount Vernon estate (or don’t get beyond its comprehensive gift shop), the trip is memorable for the drive alone.
For a leisurely view from the water, spend the afternoon taking in the river air on one of DC’s many boat tours. There’s an array of choices, including straight-up tours, water taxis between Old Town Alexandria and the National Harbor marina, and brunch, dinner, or cocktail cruises. Companies include Spirit Cruises, Odyssey Cruises, Dandy Dinner Cruises, DC Cruises, and the Potomac Riverboat Company. Goldstar almost always has discount tickets for various boat tours; be sure to check before you book.
After an active day, evening brings time for rest and a bite of dinner. During baseball season, it’s hard to beat the combination of relaxation, entertainment, city views, food and fresh evening air at Washington Nationals games. Nationals Park is a beautiful, new-ish stadium and offers a wide range of food options. Do as the locals do — don’t worry too much about the score (hint: it may not favor the Nationals) and just soak up the ballpark experience.
Rock Creek Park, Washington, DC, photo by tomfs on Flickr
Sunday: Cultivated Pursuits
All that fresh air leaves a person relaxed — feel free to sleep in on Sunday. Once you’re up, head to brunch somewhere with a patio. Sequoia in Georgetown has waterfront views, or you can watch the world pass by at landlocked favorites like Cashion’s Eat Place in Adams Morgan, Tabard Inn or Kramerbooks in Dupont Circle, or Monmartre or Belga Cafe on Capitol Hill.
The afternoon offers a chance to explore the many parks and cultivated gardens of the DC area. If you’re up for more running, hiking or biking, head to the National Arboretum or Rock Creek Park. The Arboretum is an oasis of green in one of the most urban areas of the city and offers nine miles of roadways for active pursuits or easy parking and a tram tour for the less active. Rock Creek Park includes over 1,700 acres; as one of the first National Parks (circa 1890), it remains natural and undeveloped in many areas. While exploring the park, be sure to scope out sites for the clandestine meetings and espionage drops that sometimes take place in remote sections of the Park. Rock Creek Park also offers horseback riding, though the program is so popular you must reserve many months in advance.
Rock Creek Park, Washington, DC, photo by frted on Flickr
There are also multiple options for garden tours around the District. Hillwood Estate, the former home of Marjoree Merriweather Post (of Post Cereals fame), features gorgeous gardens, a home full of spectacular French and Russian antiques, and a small garden cafe with outdoor dining. Dumbarton Oaks, in Georgetown, has ten acres of gardens organized into separate “rooms” that provide a series of unique settings to garden visitors. Brookside Gardens, in the Maryland suburbs, is a free county park with fifty acres of beautifully landscaped greenery and flowers and a popular live butterfly exhibit. For a different sort of garden, the National Park Service maintains the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in wetlands along the Anacostia, featuring marsh life and dramatic water bloomers like lotus and water lily.
And finally … head home, knowing you’ve enjoyed DC in a manner few tourists are able to experience.