In 1868, naturalist John Burroughs said of Washington, D.C., “There is, perhaps, not another city in the Union that has on its very threshold so much natural beauty and grandeur, such as men seek for in remote forests and mountains.”
Today, the capital is still known for an abundance of green space, offering serene escapes in the midst of urban bustle. In fact, 27 percent of the city’s land is under the protection of the National Park Service. Headquartered here, the NPS runs two dozen sites in D.C., which draw nearly 42 million visitors annually. The National Mall, of course, is the biggie, but several off-the-tourist-track oases are well worth a visit, too. This year, as the NPS turns 100, celebrate by exploring some of these fascinating spots.
Rock Creek Park
It runs through the center of the capital, but partisan politics feels far away from this wooded oasis where deer, foxes and even coyotes roam. Created by an act of Congress in 1890, the oldest natural urban park in the NPS system comprises 2,000 acres along a trickling stream from the Maryland border to the Potomac River.
The park’s size and 32 miles of trails may seem daunting, but a helpful nature center offers ranger-led tours, lectures and films—plus the only planetarium in a national park. Other amenities include an 18-hole golf course, a tennis center that hosts pros every summer for the Citi Open, the Carter Barron Amphitheatre with outdoor concerts, the historic Peirce Mill and horse stables, where even novice equestrians can settle into the saddle for a one-hour trail ride.
Insider tip: Sections of Beach Drive, which parallels Rock Creek, close to traffic on weekends and holidays, giving extra space to cyclists, hikers and joggers.
Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park
For nearly a century (1831-1924), barges of coal, lumber and produce plied this waterway stretching 184 miles from D.C.’s Georgetown to Cumberland, Maryland. Made obsolete by the railroad, the canal now draws walkers and bicyclists onto its hard-packed dirt towpath. To ride the entire length takes time and dedication—not to mention a cushy bike seat. But close-in segments give intriguing glimpses of the past, along with a restorative dose of nature.
Insider tip: At Great Falls, just outside of D.C. in Maryland, history buffs climb aboard a replica passenger boat pulled by mules and tour an original lockhouse.
Theodore Roosevelt Island
Near Georgetown, this 88.5-acre forested retreat in the Potomac River serves as a living tribute to the 26th president, an ardent outdoorsman known for conserving public land. Hikers (no bicycles allowed here) follow trails through the trees and across marshland. A 1.5-mile path loops around the edge of the island, offering great views of the Watergate, the Kennedy Center and the graceful arches of Key Bridge. Don’t miss the memorial plaza, a clearing in the woods that features two large fountains, a 17-foot statue of Roosevelt and giant stone slabs etched with his words.
Insider tip: Most visitors access the island via a footbridge off Virginia’s George Washington Memorial Parkway, but you can also get there by kayak from the Key Bridge Boathouse.
Meridian Hill Park
Between Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights, this elegant 12-acre landscape was designed in the style of an Italian garden. Its most dramatic feature? A 13-basin cascading fountain, the longest in the country. Visitors enjoy quiet, shady nooks for reading plus a diverse set of activities like alfresco yoga and on Sundays the ever-popular African drum circles. Sightlines to the south take in the White House and the Washington Monument.
Insider tip: This park holds the city’s only female equestrian statue, which depicts Joan of Arc atop a trotting steed and is a copy of a sculpture in Reims, France.
Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens
At this unexpected site flanking the Anacostia River in northeast D.C., exotic lilies and lotuses are the botanical stars. They bloom by the thousands in July, when they’re celebrated with an annual festival (this year on July 16). But the park, with paths winding around 44 cultivated ponds and a boardwalk leading to natural marshes, remains picturesque year round. Look for the Victoria lily, an Amazon variety whose giant pads can support the weight of a child, plus wetland wildlife like turtles, otters and elegant wading birds.
Insider tip: Photo ops abound here, but arrive early to catch the blooms at their most vibrant before they close up in the midday heat.