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Washington, D.C., is a vibrant city full of iconic landmarks and things to do, but when you’re ready to leave city life and sidewalks behind, it’s a great starting point for exploring the great outdoors.
Whether you’re looking for natural beauty, hiking trails, or historic sites, you’re in luck. Within a 90-minute drive from the nation’s capital, you’ll find a wide variety of sites that can rejuvenate your spirit, teach you something about the past or help you connect with nature.
From the tumbling waters of Great Falls, Virginia, to the serene expanse of Arlington Cemetery, these quick day trips offer an incredible blend of scenic landscapes, rich history, and exciting recreational activities.
Best Washington DC Road Trips
Great Falls, Virginia
You won’t need much gas to get to the natural wonderland of Great Falls, VA, which lies just 15 miles northwest of Washington, D.C.
Great Falls is one of those places that you have to see to believe. The 800-acre Great Falls State Park features stunning waterfalls, as well as various hiking trails and picnic spots.
The park contains three overlooks for you to view (and almost feel) the water plunging over the rocks. All of the overlooks are within a ten-minute walk from the Visitor Center, and two of them are wheelchair accessible.
Mather Gorge is the most popular place to view the “Great Falls” because the river narrows and drops 75 feet into a canyon.
If you want to go for a hike, the River Trail offers the best opportunities to view the Potomac River along the way, and makes a lovely place to soak up some sunshine while getting a little exercise. If you’d rather ride a bike, there are five miles of trails in the park.
Don’t forget to pack your lunch. You can bring chairs and set up a spot or grab one of the many picnic tables that are set up throughout the park. Sun or shade? It’s up to you. There’s plenty of each.
Pro Tip: If you’re a bird-watching enthusiast, you might want to bring your binoculars. There are 163 species of birds in the park, including ducks, herons, woodpeckers and kingfishers.
Although Great Falls State Park is known for its natural beauty, history lovers will also enjoy this destination because it’s home to the Matildaville Ruins. These ruins are what’s left of a town that once thrived, thanks to a project envisioned by our first president and Revolutionary War hero George Washington.
If you’re looking for something to do outside on a summer day, Great Falls is the perfect escape to reconnect with nature without straying too far from the city’s edge.
The drive from D.C. to Great Falls Park takes approximately 30 minutes, depending on traffic. There is a $20/vehicle entrance fee to enter the park during the summer months.
You can also access Great Falls from the Maryland side.
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Arlington Cemetery and Arlington House
Another quick trip from Washington DC is a visit to the serene and poignant Arlington National Cemetery.
If you think visiting a cemetery isn’t an interesting thing to do, then you don’t know the story behind Arlington.
Located just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., Arlington holds a significant place in American history and serves as the final resting place for more than 400,000 individuals, including military personnel, veterans, and notable figures from American history (including two presidents: John F. Kennedy and William H. Taft).
One of the highlights at Arlington is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is dedicated to unidentified American soldiers who sacrificed their lives for our country. The Changing of the Guard ceremony, conducted by what is known as “The Old Guard,” is a must-see tribute to fallen soldiers.
The eternal flame that burns at the site of President Kennedy’s gravesite is also a notable feature in the cemetery, as is the site where the crew of the Challenger Space Shuttle are buried.
What many people don’t know about Arlington National Cemetery is the history of how it came about and the stately manor home that sits on top of the hill overlooking the cemetery.
Arlington House is a Greek Revival-style mansion that dates back to the early 1800s when it was built as a residence for George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted grandson of George Washington.
During the Civil War, the property was owned by Robert E. Lee (because he married a Custis) and was occupied by Union forces. Due to the circumstances, the grounds were turned into burial ground for Union soldiers for symbolic reasons.
The Arlington House is open for tours and offers a unique blend of historical significance, natural beauty, and a tranquil setting. You can wander through the grounds, the gardens and the outbuildings of the estate and learn about life at Arlington before the Civil War.
Exploring Arlington House and seeing the rows of white marble headstones against the backdrop of the city skyline can be a moving experience.
The proximity of Arlington National Cemetery to Washington, D.C., makes it easily accessible for a day trip. Visitors can take a short Metro ride or drive across the Potomac River to reach the cemetery.
There is a Visitor Center where you can get oriented with a map of the expansive cemetery. If you don’t feel like walking, you can pay to hop on and off a trolley that also provides helpful information about the cemetery.
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
About 65 miles northwest of Washington, D.C. is the charming small town of Harpers Ferry, W.V. Nestled between mountains at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, this historic community has a special appeal and character all its own.
For those who like to hike, you will find plenty of scenic trails around Harpers Ferry that offer breathtaking views of the river and town. For those who are less energetic but want to spend time outside, you can take a slow ride in a large innertube down the river.
If you just want to explore the town of Harpers Ferry, you’ll find beautiful stone architecture and lots of unique shops. Don’t miss the climb to get pictures of the iconic Jefferson Rock that overlooks the town.
Sturdy walking shoes are recommended because there are lots of steps and steep uphill climbs.
In addition to its outdoor activities, Harpers Ferry is a haven for history lovers, going back to the colonial area and playing a significant role in the Civil War.
The town itself is part of the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, and many of the buildings are set up to look as they did in the mid 1800s. You can get a peek inside a bakery, a provost marshal’s office, a bar, and a general store, to name a few.
Harpers Ferry is probably best known for being the site of a raid in 1859 by John Brown.
Brown, an abolitionist, led a group of men in an attempt to seize the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry and spark a slave rebellion. His raid was part of a plan to establish an independent stronghold of freed slaves in the mountains of Maryland and Virginia.
If you want to mix history with pleasure, don’t miss stopping in at True Treats Historical Candy Store. Part candy store and part museum, this town treasure depicts the evolution of candy from Biblical times to more modern day.
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, offers a unique blend of history and nature. The drive from D.C. takes about 1.5 to 2 hours.
There is a $20 fee to park and weekends in the summer are very busy.
Gettysburg, PA, is a perfect destination for a day trip from Washington, DC, that offers a unique blend of history and natural beauty.
Just a 90-minute drive away from the bustling capital city, Gettysburg is best known as the site of a major battle in 1863 that lasted three days and caused 50,000 casualties.
Visitors can explore the 6,000-acre Gettysburg National Military Park through self-guided tours, guided tours, or even horseback rides.
Many of the monuments in the park are stunning works of art that are amazing to see up close. Park your car and walk to get a better understanding of the history. There are three towers on the battlefield that also offer unique perspectives and provide a 360-degree view of the landscape.
Beyond its historical importance, Gettysburg also boasts stunning natural beauty. The battlefield is characterized by rolling hills, picturesque landscapes, tranquil meadows, and plenty of wildlife.
The idyllic scenery provides the perfect setting for outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, and picnicking. The farmland that surrounds Gettysburg also makes it a great place for Farmer’s Markets and pick-your-own fruits and vegetables.
In addition to its historical and natural attractions, Gettysburg offers a charming and vibrant downtown area. Brick sidewalks are lined with quaint shops, museums, wineries restaurants, and pubs.
Visitors can browse through antique stores, pick up unique souvenirs, or try some delicious regional or period cuisine. The small-town charm of Gettysburg makes it the perfect place to explore and relax after a day of historical exploration.
No matter what time of day or year you visit Gettysburg, you can also find a ghost investigation or walking tour. After all, Gettysburg has been called one of the most haunted towns in America!
The town has at least one major Civil War reenactment every year and 2023 marks the 160th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, so there are two. It’s a great time to watch history come to life as you can see and hear what life was like in July of 1863 in Gettysburg.
Whether you’re a history enthusiast, nature lover, or simply seeking a peaceful getaway, Gettysburg is close enough to DC to make it a great day trip when you’re
Nestled along the picturesque banks of the Potomac River, just a stone’s throw away from the nation’s capital, lies the enchanting city of Alexandria.
In addition to charming cobblestone streets and rich history, Alexandria boasts a vibrant waterfront that makes it a great escape from the hustle and bustle of Washington, DC.
Whether you’re a history buff, a food lover, or are simply seeking a change of scenery, Alexandria is a great destination to consider for an outdoor excursion.
As one of the oldest cities in the United States, Alexandria showcases a treasure trove of architectural gems in its well-preserved historic district, known as Old Town.
Put on your walking shoes, and make sure you don’t miss the skinniest house in America at 523 Queen Street. The “Spite House” is just seven feet wide and was built in 1830 to keep loiterers out of an alley.
You can also tour the church where George Washington worshipped and the famous Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, which hosted the first five presidents.
Outdoor enthusiasts can take advantage of 20 miles of trails and 900+ acres of open space, including eight waterfront parks.
In addition to its historical charm, the city’s waterfront provides a picturesque backdrop for leisurely walks or bike rides along the water. At the heart of Alexandria’s downtown is King Street, a walkable mile that is recognized as one of the “Great Streets” America.
From Alexandria you can book a sightseeing boat cruise or water taxi, or keep your feet on land and take a specialty tour, like a delicious “foodie” tour or a scary ghost walk.
Alexandria has numerous art galleries including the iconic Torpedo Factory Art Center, a converted naval munitions factory turned vibrant artists’ haven that is nationally recognized.
Getting to Alexandria from Washington, DC is a breeze, making it an ideal day trip destination. Conveniently accessible by car, metro, or even by boat, you can choose the mode of transportation that suits your preference.
If you’re up for a bike ride, you can start in Alexandria and ride to George Washington’s Mount Vernon. If you’re too tired for the return trip, you can take a boat back to your starting point in Alexandria.
George Washington’s Mount Vernon
George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate is a must-see for everyone, and is conveniently close to Washington, DC.
For those who are spending the morning in Alexandria, you can rent a bike (or bring your own) and pedal your way to the estate on the Mount Vernon Trail.
If you’re starting from DC, you can pick up a bike at the Mall in DC and start from there.
The paved Mount Vernon trails stretches along the riverbank, winding through woodlands, parks, and waterfront communities.
The distance to Mount Vernon from Alexandria is less than 10 miles and takes about an hour. There are water fountains and restrooms along the way.
The majestic estate of Mount Vernon, nestled on the banks of the Potomac River, is the iconic plantation home of George Washington, the first President of the United States.
It is the most popular historic estate in the United States, and has been toured by more than 80 million visitors. There is plenty to do outside, but if you want to cool off, you can visit the Mount Vernon Museum and Education Center to find out more about the nation’s first president.
You can spend hours wandering around this massive property, exploring the grounds, gardens, burial sites, and a colonial farm. Guided tours of the mansion are also available.
Mount Vernon was once a working plantation that covered 8,000 acres. Today the estate encompasses 500 acres so is still quite wide and vast, with many original outbuildings including: slaves quarters, a spinning house, shoemaker’s shop, smokehouse, washhouse and salt house, to name a few.
Not only can you see the inside of Mount Vernon where George Washington lived, you can explore his farm and learn about the agricultural innovations he made, including a greenhouse where he grew citrus and exotic plants.
The Pioneer Village at Mount Vernon is a four-acre farm site where colonial farm life is displayed. You can also learn about Washington’s role in developing new innovations in the field of agriculture.
A walk down to the Wharf at Mount Vernon is a good workout. It’s also where you can grab a boat to take you back to Alexandria if you walked or rode a bike.
Final Thoughts: Best Road Trips from Washington DC
As you can see, there is no limit to the places that are a short drive from Washington, D.C.
Whether you seek the serenity of nature’s wonders, the thrill of an outdoor adventure, or a deeper connection to our nation’s history, these day trips will help you disconnect from the hustle and bustle of city life.
Enjoying every moment is what the summer months are for, so get out and explore new places.
You’ll be surprised at the many opportunities that are available practically in your own back yard.
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