Finally, you’ve booked your family’s educational, once in a lifetime visit to the capital of the United States of America, Washington DC. The good news is that there are enough monuments, memorials, and Smithsonian Museums to keep a family busy for days or even weeks in the nation’s capital. The bad news is that walking from memorial to memorial and fighting the crowds at the museums can get exhausting very quickly, especially during the hot, humid days of summer. The best solution to avoid burnout is to jump in a car and go for a drive. Here are ten day trip ideas less than 90 miles from the White House that are just as worthy of your family’s precious vacation time as a walk through the National Air and Space Museum.
Lead image by Bigstock/Bobby17
George Washington’s Mount Vernon – 17 Miles
George Washington’s Mount Vernon is most tourist’s top day trip choice for obvious reasons; it is a relatively short half hour drive from Washington DC, and it has undeniable historical significance. In addition to the historic home, there is also a high quality museum dedicated to the life of the nation’s first president, and the grounds of the classic 18th Century Virginian plantation overlooking the Potomac are open for families to explore.
A leisurely visit to Mount Vernon could easily take all day; however, if your family is looking to pack even more history into your visit to the Capital Region, you should consider heading further down Highway 1 to the National Museum of the Marine Corps near Quantico, Virginia. This museum gets my vote as one of the top five history museums in the country; in fact, in my opinion, there is no better place to learn about the military conflicts and wars that the United States has fought in over the past two hundred years. Learn about the Vietnam War and Korean War one day, and then go pay your respects at the memorials on the National Mall the next.
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Great Falls of the Potomac – 18 Miles
Need to escape the politics, museums, and business of the city for a day? The closest place to go for a memorable hike outside of Washington DC is along the Potomac River in Virginia or Maryland. It doesn’t make much difference if you travel south or north on the I-495 beltway, the walk to the falls and views of the Great Falls of the Potomac are similar from both Great Falls Park in Virginia and the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center at the C&O Canal National Historic Park in Maryland.
On the Maryland side of the Potomac River at the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center, families can learn about the historic C & O Canal and even ride a mule drawn canal boat through the locks during the summer months after viewing the Great Falls. The Great Falls Visitor Center is also an access point for the popular Billy Goat Trail, which closely follows the river from the Great Falls area back towards Washington DC with a notorious 40 foot high rock scramble. For families that forgot to bring their hiking boots on vacation, the C & O Canal Towpath is a level path that is bike, stroller, and pet-friendly.
On the Virginia side of the river, there is also a visitor center run by the National Park Service at Great Falls Park, and the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail runs through this region. Nearby Scotts Run Nature Preserve and Riverbend Park are also good choices for families looking to hike along the Potomac River.
Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center and Manassas National Battlefield Park – 30 Miles
If your family likes the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall, you’ll love the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center located west of the capital in Virginia near Dulles Airport. Featuring the Space Shuttle Discovery and the Enola Gay, there is plenty of room in the stadium-sized airplane hangar to feature a variety of the world’s most notable aircraft. The museum also includes a tower with an amazing view of the runways at the Dulles International Airport and an IMAX theater.
Despite the fact that the Udvar-Hazy Center has over 150 airplanes on display, it is unlikely that a family will need to take an entire day to tour the museum. Families should consider extending their trip to include one of two nearby sites: either the Great Falls of the Potomac to the north or the Manassas National Battlefield Park to the south. Two Civil Bar battles were fought at the battlefield by the current city of Manassas near Bull Run; the first battle was fought just months after the war began at Fort Sumter and the second about a year later. Several times throughout the spring, summer, and fall, especially during the months of July and August, there is living history displays at Manassas National Battlefield Park that include infantry and artillery demonstrations. Families fascinated by Civil War history should not miss the Ben Lomond Historic Site, a historic home in Manassas that was used as a Civil War hospital and now offers tours.
Looking to Dive Deeper into the History of Prince William County, Virginia? Check out Trekaroo’s Road School: Civil War and American History in Prince William County, Virginia.
Annapolis, Maryland – 32 Miles
Like Washington DC, less than an hour away, Annapolis is also a capital city, and it also sees its fair share of service men and women walking the streets in uniform due to the presence of the US Naval Academy right in the city’s historic downtown. Aside from these superficial similarities, Washington DC and Annapolis could not be more different. Washington DC is full of hurried politicians and tired tourists while the small city of Annapolis is centered around its charming tourist-friendly downtown historic district featuring colonial-era houses, small locally owned businesses, and lovely family-friendly restaurants.
In between breakfast at Chick & Ruth’s Delly, a snack at the Annapolis Ice Cream Company, and browsing the lovely Annapolis Bookstore, families will want to make to sure that their visit to Maryland’s Capital includes both the Maryland State House and the US Naval Academy. The Maryland State House, which served as the US Capitol for nearly a year in 1783-1784, saw the resignation of George Washington from his role as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army and the ratification of the Treaty of Paris. Now the State House is home to the Maryland State Assembly and its Old Senate Chamber has been meticulously restored to serve as a museum detailing the history of the building. The US Naval Academy is a beautiful university campus sitting on the banks of the Severn River as it joins the Chesapeake Bay; the academy features a historic chapel with detailed stain glass windows depicting scenes from US maritime history and a nice museum with dozens of ship models that will enthrall even the youngest mariner.
Need more family-friendly restaurant recommendations for your Annapolis day trip? Here’s a Weekend Itinerary for a Family-Friendly Annapolis Getaway that will give you all sorts of ideas for spending time in Annapolis with the family.
Baltimore, Maryland – 41 Miles
To be perfectly honest, Baltimore deserves much more time than a day trip would ever allow. The city is rich in history and boasts museums that rival those of is major metropolitan neighbors, Washington DC, and Philadelphia. If your family has only one day to tour the city of Baltimore, I recommend visiting both the world-class National Aquarium located in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and the city’s most important historic site, Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, where the American flag that inspired Francis Scott Key’s famous poem turned national anthem waved in the dawn’s early light. Have a bit more time? Make a stop at either the Walters Art Museum or the Baltimore Museum of Art; both are kid-friendly and free!
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Have more time to spend in Baltimore? Check out Trekaroo’s Top 10 Things for Families to do in Baltimore.
Fredericksburg, Virginia – 54 Miles
Photo by: Michelle Carbone
Tired of the impersonal crowds of the Nation’s Capital? Fredericksburg is an easy day trip south of DC on I-95 or the VRE train. Folks in Fredericksburg greet you in the stores, on the street, and even wave to you on the Trolley Tours of Fredericksburg. In fact, our favorite part of a visit to Fredericksburg is the people. There is plenty of Southern small town charm and so much to see and do!
Fredericksburg has an activity that match the interests of everyone in the family. History lovers are sure to enjoy any of the four Civil War battlefields in the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. Children love the Hugh Mercer Apothecary Museum where they can interact with the “doctor’s assistants” that greet visitors upon entry; seeing and learning about the leeches was the highlight of my son’s trip, and he mentions them anytime anyone asks him about Fredericksburg. Technology lovers will enjoy the self-guided iPad tour available at George Washington’s Ferry Farm, and history buffs will love seeing the area that once held George Washington’s boyhood home. Hiking at Government Island or visiting the Virginia Outdoor Center in downtown for canoe/kayak rentals is a sure bet for outdoor enthusiasts in the family.
Just strolling down Caroline Street for boutique and antique shopping is another great way to spend a relaxing day in Fredericksburg. My favorite part of this district was all the local artisan shops along the way that sold everything from handmade furniture and glassworks to greeting cards. Kids love seeing the collectible toys while window shopping, and eating lunch at Goolrick’s Pharmacy. Another absolute must-eat while in Fredericksburg is Carl’s, which has been serving up custard since 1947; Carl’s serves three flavors numerous ways but be sure to bring cash. It is amazingly good!
Check out more of what Trekaroo Superoo Michelle Carbone has to say about Family-Friendly Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Harpers Ferry National Historic Park – 63 Miles
There are more historic sites and battlefields on this list than any family could fit into a single visit to Washington DC. However, Harpers Ferry is so much more than just a historic site. Yes, there’s plenty of history from Thomas Jefferson’s “stupendous” view atop what is now known as Jefferson’s Rock to John Brown’s Raid on the Federal Armory at Harpers Ferry in 1859, but Harpers Ferry is also where the Appalachian Trail crosses the Potomac River from Maryland into West Virginia and one of the region’s premier rafting and outdoor adventure destinations.
The best way to enjoy this region where the states of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia converge and the Shenandoah meets the Potomac is to simply get outdoors by hiking, rafting, floating downriver or playing up in the trees. Trekaroo families have enjoyed rafting down the Shenandoah River, zip lining through the trees, and climbing around on an aerial adventure park with Harpers Ferry Adventure Center. River and Trail Outfitters and River Riders have similar adventures to offer families; my daughter and I enjoyed a lovely afternoon last summer floating down the Shenandoah with River and Trail Outfitters. Of course, a simple walk on the Appalachian Trail from Harpers Ferry over the bridge to Maryland and along the Potomac River on the C&O Canal Towpath is both beautiful and relaxing.
Antietam National Battlefield, the location of the “bloodiest one day battle in American history,” is a scenic 25 minute drive from Harpers Ferry. History buffs will already have this historic location on their must-visit list; however, this is also the perfect stop for families who would like to visit the location of one of the most important Civil War battles yet don’t have the time to visit Gettysburg. There’s a small visitor center with a few exhibits detailing the history of the battle, regularly scheduled ranger talks, an observation tower, hiking trails, and a junior ranger program.
Want to extend your vacation to spend more time in the Shenandoah Valley? Check out Trekaroo’s Overview of the Shenandoah Valley Kids Trail.
Front Royal Entrance to Shenandoah National Park – 72 Miles
A day trip to Shenandoah National Park will undoubtedly result in more driving and hiking than any other day trip on this list. However, once you’re out on the trail, all the city traffic and crowds will be a distant memory. Don’t forget to stop at the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center upon entering the park. Rangers at the visitor center will be able to give your family a few options for hiking trails that match both your time constraints and ability level.
My kids enjoy the short hike up to Mt. Marshall about a 16 mile drive from the northern park entrance. Like many of the viewpoints along Skyline Drive, it provides plenty of opportunities to rock scramble with a nearly 360 degree view. Or, if you brought your hiking boots along on vacation and you’re itching for an adventure, I recommend planning a hike to Overall Run Falls. After three miles of downhill hiking from the parking lot at the Hogback Overlook, the Tuscadora- Overall Run Trail begins to run alongside a stream which leads to a series of cascades including the largest waterfall in Shenandoah National Park.
Want to know more about traveling with kids to Shenandoah National Park? Here’s Trekaroo’s guide to Hiking in Shenandoah National Park with Kids.
Historic St. Mary’s City in Southern Maryland – 75 Miles
Photo by: Melissa Moore
Admittedly, very few tourists make their way down to Southern Maryland where suburban sprawl eventually gives way to rural farmland. However, there are a few reasons why Southern Maryland might be the perfect day trip for your family. First, if your family had wanted to explore Williamsburg and Jamestown on your trip to the Capital Region but just ran out of time in your itinerary, you’ll want to check out Historic St Mary’s City. Historic St Mary’s is a living history museum very similar to Virginia’s Jamestown Settlement where families can experience early colonial Maryland in the late 17th century. Families can tour the Maryland Dove, a ship similar to the one that colonists used to transport their tobacco back to the European continent; touring the ship and learning how to use early navigational tools was easily my boy’s favorite part of our day in Southern Maryland.
One of the best ways to get a feel for authentic Maryland culture and cuisine, is to spend time on the Chesapeake Bay. Driving north from St Mary’s to Solomons across the Patuxent River, provides several opportunities to explore more of Maryland. Families can explore the Calvert Marine Museum, which is home to one of the best exhibits that I have seen on the ecology of the Chesapeake Bay, or drive up the bay further to the Flag Ponds Nature Park to search for shark teeth washed off the Calvert Cliffs. Simply strolling the Solomon’s Island Boardwalk is a relaxing way to spend an afternoon or evening.
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Gettysburg National Military Park – 83 Miles
Photo by: Shutterstock
After reading the Gettysburg Address off the walls of the Lincoln Memorial and seeing the flags draped over the location where President Abraham Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theater, it seems only appropriate to make the hour and a half drive up to the location of the Battle of Gettysburg to imagine what life was like for Americans during the most notable battle of the Civil War. A day trip to Gettysburg from Washington DC is certainly manageable for families with older children, but it is a long day. A full visit to Gettysburg National Military Park should include checking out the museum, seeing the video and cyclorama, going on a tour of the enormous battlefield either as part of a tour group or in your own car, and walking out to various viewpoint and cemeteries along the battleground tour route. Investing the time and money to make this a top-notch learning experience is important, a visit to Gettysburg is something that your kids will remember for a lifetime.
Want to know what is like to visit Gettysburg with your family? Read Trekaroo’s How to Visit Gettysburg with Kids.
Many thanks to Northern Virginia Superoo Michelle Carbone for her Washington DC area reviews and contributions to the Fredericksburg section of this article.
Disclosure: The authors of this article were hosted by Visit Annapolis, Visit Fred, and Visit Balitmore. All opinions are our own.