Off-Radar Guide: Washington, D.C. for Outdoor Lovers

by  Elena Sonnino | Sep 16, 2015
Billy Goat Trail
Billy Goat Trail / Elena Sonnino

When most people plan a trip to Washington, D.C., they focus on the major attractions like the National Mall, the White House, and Smithsonian Museums. But scattered around the city (and, in some cases, just a few steps outside its boundaries) lie under-radar locales that exist far away from the museum and tourist crowds. Here are five places to explore the outdoors for a different side of the nation’s capital.

1. See the city from the water.
Although walking provides one of the best ways to see a city, taking it all in from the water is a close second. The Potomac River offers a perfect way to complement a day of exploring neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. Kayak, canoe, and standup paddleboarding rentals are available in multiple locations along the river, but our favorite spot to paddle is in Georgetown , taking you past the trendy Georgetown Waterfront and infamous Watergate building. Rentals start at $15 an hour, or you can take a $45 guided tour for a narrated experience.

2. Stroll along on island in the middle of the Potomac River.
You might forget that you're on an island in the middle of the river while standing on Theodore Roosevelt Island. Located on the Potomac between the Georgetown and Northern Virginia waterfront, the island offers much more than a living memorial to America’s 26th President. Previously known as Mason’s Island, three trails traverse the interior and perimeter from woods to swamp. There are no commercial services on the island, so pack a snack or picnic and water bottle, then sit back and watch boaters float by or planes make their final approach into the airport from the trails’ edge.

3. Take a tour into an oasis of peace.
You don't have to be religious to appreciate the peaceful atmosphere at the beautiful Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America. Tucked away in a residential neighborhood, this church, monastery, and artfully sculpted gardens are often missed even by locals. The Monastery was built in the late 1800s in the Byzantine style, after the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Take a free guided tour of the interior and catacombs, but be sure to allow enough time to explore the grounds. We love the Rosary Portico and the stunning gardens filled with varieties including roses, tulips, and lavender.

4. Scramble over a cliff at Great Falls.
Great Falls, Maryland spans the area between the Potomac River and the Chesapeake and Ohio Historical Park, and it's just a short drive outside of the city. Here, the Billy Goat Trail offers jaw-dropping views and a rock scramble that will give you bragging rights on Facebook. The trail is divided into three sections, with varying levels of challenge from Section A (1.75 miles, difficult), Section B (1.4 miles, moderate), and Section C (1.6 miles, moderate). Each offer river views, waterfalls, and trails through floodplain forests. This area can be busy with locals on the weekend, but weekday mornings are the perfect time to trek in peace. Pro tip: Bring water and snacks -- and avoid paying for parking at the Great Falls Tavern Visitors Center by parking at the access area across from Old Angler’s Inn.

5. Get in the saddle in Rock Creek Park.
Horses aren't just for mounted police in Washington, D.C. Whether you're an experienced rider or brand new to the saddle, the Rock Creek Park Horse Center offers lessons and guided tours through the woods in the middle of the city. While most Washingtonians think of Rock Creek Park as the place to run, walk or bike, this relaxed riding tour is a great way to see the area. For $40 per person, these small group (4 people max) spend a leisurely hour exploring the natural beauty of this urban park.

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