Rock Creek Park

Parks in Washington, DC For a Nature Break

Relax and unwind in one of the many parks in Washington, DC. One of my favorite ways to unwind on a nice evening or weekend is to grab picnic food from a local shop, pack a cooler, and head to one of these parks in the city. Most DC parks have lots of interesting wildlife, plants, and even pieces of history. I picked many of these spots below because they have both walkable areas to explore and areas to relax with a book or snacks. All are free unless otherwise noted. 

The National Arboretum

The National Arboretum is one of my favorite spots in any season. Even in winter, a snowy day or chilly stroll can do wonders to calm my anxiety. Don’t miss the Capitol Columns, Asian Gardens, and The National Bonsai and Penjing Museum. Picnics are allowed in the Grove of State Trees. Stop at Roaming Rooster on Bladensburg Road (slightly north of the Arboretum) to grab some of the city’s best chicken sandwiches for your picnic. You’ll find plenty of parking, shade, and picnic tables in that area. 

The National Arboretum has various degrees of shade so dress for the weather. It is open every day except for Christmas Day. Dogs are also welcome on a leash. 

Rock Creek Park

Rock Creek Park is one of the most well-known parks in Washington, DC. Find plenty of shade in the summer and beautiful foliage in the fall. During COVID, I also discovered it is a very peaceful spot in winter. The greenery is dormant but it is hauntingly beautiful to watch the water cut through the naked trees. No matter when you visit, there’s plenty of parking, picnic areas, and walking trails. Visit the Nature Center to learn more about the park and the trails to explore. Both dog and kid-friendly with lots of easy walking options and shade on especially hot days. 

Kingman + Heritage Islands

Kingman + Heritage Islands are located just south of the National Arboretum. Since 2018, the city has invested heavily in conservation plus educational and recreational activities. During your visit, you’ll find freshwater wetlands, wildlife meadows, and 100+ species of wildlife. 

The islands are the perfect place for the whole family with picnic tables, clean bathrooms, and a playground for the little ones. Dog-friendly trails snake through the islands with waste stations and trash cans. Explore on foot or with Capital Bike Share (on-site). There’s plenty of parking or you can take the metro to Stadium-Armory. 

Roosevelt Island

Roosevelt Island is a little tricky to get to because parking is so limited. Instead, consider visiting during the week, during cooler weather, or using ride-share. The Island has a memorial to Theodore Roosevelt, lovely walking trails, and diverse wildlife. It’s a particularly nice spot for kids to explore both history and nature. Dogs are allowed on Roosevelt Island but not on any ranger-led programs. Bring a picnic and your camera!  

Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park

Meridian Hill Park sits near W and 16th Street NW and serves as a large neighborhood park for Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan, and the U Street Corridor. It is most recognized by the cascading fountains, but the water has not been turned on in a few years. Even without the fountain, the park is beautiful in any season. You’ll find flowers in the spring, colorful foliage in the fall, and miniature snowmen lining the fountain walls when it snows. The park is also home to statues of Dante, Joan of Arc, and President James Buchanan. It’s a welcoming place for kids, dogs, and just hanging out with friends. On Sundays, you’ll almost always hear an active drum circle.

Meridian Hill Park opened in 1936 and served as a gathering place for Black activists in the 1960s. In the 1970s, there was a failed petition to change the name, but many locals still honor this history by using the name Malcolm X Park.

Smithsonian Gardens

The Smithsonian Gardens are sometimes overlooked as a park in Washington, DC because when you’re on the National Mall for the museums, you aren’t always thinking about a specific garden. But behind the castle, you’ll find a rose garden, the Moongate Garden, and the Enid A. Haupt Garden. This spot is beautiful year-round but especially lovely in spring and fall. Other gardens on that National Mall include the Constitution Gardens, the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden, and the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery of Art. 

Constitution Gardens

Constitution Gardens is on the National Mall to the right of the reflecting pool when facing the Lincoln Memorial. Like the Smithsonian Gardens, this area of the National Mall can be overlooked when people are more focused on getting pictures of the Lincoln Memorial. Constitution Gardens has a small pond, views of the Washington Monument, and the signatures of the Founding Fathers in stone.

The Franciscan Monastery

The Franciscan Monastery is one of the most overlooked historical sites in DC. Located in Brookland, a lot of tourist never make it away from the National Mall to appreciate it.  The Franciscan Monastery brings the Holy Land experience to America with full-size replicas of Holy Land shrines, a beautiful church, and stunning gardens. 
No matter your religion, the gardens are open to the public to explore. Plus, don’t miss the guided tour of the catacombs under the church, which is available at select times from Wednesday to Sunday. This is one of my favorite unrated history spots in the city. Tours are free but donations are appreciated. If you get hungry while in the area, check out Brookland’s Finest for brunch or dinner. 

Hillwood Estate, Museum, & Gardens

Hillwood is the home of Marjorie Merriweather Post. Post was a prominent figure in the worlds of art, fashion, and business. After her parents died in the 1910s, she became the owner of the $20 million cereal company that would later become the General Foods Corporation. While she spent much of her life in luxury, she was a big supporter of many philanthropic causes and was beloved by the staff who worked at the estate. 

Today, the grounds are open for exploring with both rotating and permanent exhibits that celebrate Post’s life. Hillwood has many special events and the gardens look beautiful in any season. Outside food is allowed for picnics or you can purchase food from the cafe. $18/adult or consider becoming a member to visit anytime.