You’ll never lack for entertainment in the nation’s capital, but there are still plenty of good excuses to take day trips from Washington, D.C. The city is surrounded with beauty and history, and you don’t need to go far to feel like you’re leaving the urban grind behind.
Day Trips from Washington, D.C.
Whether you’re in the mood for nature, history, sweeping ocean vistas, crab cakes, or a bit of wine, there are numerous Washington, D.C. day trips within easy reach.
Great Falls Park
Great Falls Park offers a spectacular view of the Potomac River as it churns through a rocky chokepoint, and it’s hard to believe you’re just a 30-minute drive from the National Mall. The park is administered by the National Park Service, and the river here—whose condition runs from novice to extreme—is a regional mecca for kayakers. The park also offers 15 miles of hiking trails. If the weather’s nice, go early: Great Falls gets inundated by throngs seeking relief from the D.C. rat race, and wait times just to get in can reach an hour by mid-morning.
Just 45 miles away, Baltimore is one of the great day trips from Washington, D.C. The Inner Harbor offers a slew of great tourist sites, including the kid-friendly National Aquarium, with enough sharks to populate a major motion picture. Take the edge off your hunger with the city’s famous crabs, then catch an Orioles or a Ravens game (the two stadiums are within blocks of each other, less than a half-mile from the Inner Harbor). History buffs will be hard-pressed to pass up a visit to Fort McHenry, which provided Francis Scott Key with his inspiration for the Star-Spangled Banner. And if you’ve got money burning a hole in your pocket, a slew of reputable new casinos will be happy to help out.
Thomas Jefferson’s famous hilltop plantation is another great option for people looking for day trips from Washington, D.C. Monticello lies 115 miles southwest of D.C., just outside Charlottesville, and offers incredible views of the surrounding Virginia farmland. About half of the historic 5,000-acre property is currently preserved and open to visitors. The nonprofit foundation that runs Monticello has been working to temper some of its adoring reverence for Thomas Jefferson and come to grips with the delicate issue of the man’s role as slave owner. Hundreds of slaves worked on the plantation during the years that Jefferson owned it, and several “Slavery at Monticello” tours are held each day.
Gettysburg National Military Park
Gettysburg, about 85 miles north of D.C., offers a chance to visit the site of what was both the grimmest and perhaps most hopeful chapter in the Civil War. After stunning victories against the Union, Confederate general Robert E. Lee was routed during three days of fighting, but nearly 50,000 Americans lost their lives in the battle. Today, the National Park Service protects the site, which offers a sobering opportunity for reflection.
Loudon County Wineries
Virginia has been working hard to make a name for itself as a serious wine-making region, and you could definitely find a worse place to make a day trip from Washington, D.C. than the state’s northern-most vineyards. Located just 50 miles from D.C., Loudoun County’s wineries are located in knock-your-socks-off-beautiful hill-country hollows. With 40 wineries and tasting rooms, you won’t be hard up for choices, and the area has an abundance of cozy bed-and-breakfasts if you’re in the mood to stretch your visit overnight.
Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park feels like it’s a world away and is one of the best day trips from Washington, D.C. for outdoorsy travelers. The park, located 75 miles from D.C., offers more than 500 miles of hiking trails, including the immensely popular route to the top of the 3,284-foot-tall granite crag called Old Rag. There are also plenty of campgrounds and backcountry camping opportunities, plus rock climbing. If you’re in the mood for a less vigorous itinerary, drive the Skyline Drive and then have a meal at Patrick O’Connell’s Michelin two-starred Inn at Little Washington, just outside the park.
Colonial Williamsburg, which bills itself as the world’s biggest living history museum, is 150 miles south of D.C. The fading former capital of Virginia was revived as a pet project of the Rockefeller family, and offers plenty of opportunities to step back to a time before America was even an idea. Black Americans have long struggled to find a voice to tell their side of the story at Colonial Williamsburg—as they have at Monticello—but the effort is a work in progress. If you’re hankering for a taste of history, Colonial Williamsburg also offers four historic taverns with period-appropriate cuisine (and prices that have more than kept pace with inflation). And if you’re really jonesing for a modern-day fix, Colonial Williamsburg also offers not one but three golf courses.
A little more than 60 miles northwest of Washington, D.C., the tiny town of Harpers Ferry (pop. 300) is full of history and a great day trip from Washington, D.C. Harpers Ferry is most famous as the site of abolitionist John Brown’s 1859 raid on the armory there, in an attempt to liberate weapons for use by Southern slaves in a mass uprising. Brown’s raiders were quickly defeated by a force led by Robert E. Lee; Brown was convicted of treason 17 days later, and hanged not long after that. Yet the incident set the U.S. on a path toward civil war. Today, much of the town is a national park and historic district. Sitting in a valley at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, Harpers Ferry is also blessed with an abundance of first-rate scenery.
Assateague Island National Seashore
If you are truly hankering to get away from it all, Assateague Island National Seashore is your ticket. Assateague is a 140-mile haul from D.C., but it’s a world beyond. From its famed wild ponies, which manage to survive on only salt marsh plants and brush, to its 37 miles of sweeping seashores, Assateague will fill you with wonder. The island has plenty of camping, although weekends are in high demand, and nearby towns offer plenty of hotel possibilities if you want to turn your day trip into an overnight stay.
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—Original reporting by Matt Jenkins
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