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In the Covid-19 pandemic, people had to change travel plans last minute. Even in ‘normal’ times, other issues arise and you might need to totally rearrange your itinerary. But there are so many things to do in DC that the trip can still be a success. And the best day trips from Washington DC work for visitors and residents.
Travel can be challenging. There are lot of reasons why vacation plans change — severe weather, illness, a pandemic, to name just a few. The key is to be flexible and have a Plan B in mind before you leave home.
My husband and I learned this the hard way when we were in Washington, DC, for one last weekend before our middle daughter left the city for good. We arrived to find undrinkable water and unbearable heat.
Yet, with some creative thinking and flexibility, we were able to salvage our weekend. Rather than spending the weekend in the city, drinking bottled water and trying to stay cool, we hopped in the car and took some day trips nearby.
Washington DC Day Trip: Hiking
We drove to Great Falls Tavern, where there are hiking trails along the Potomac River and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. We were scared off the difficult Billy Goat Trail, where dogs, pregnant women and those with back conditions are warned away. But we were still able to hike most of the day, in shade. The parking lot has bathrooms and water (it was safe to drink!) but there is no water on the trails. Bring more water than you think you will need. In summer, figure at least two bottles per person. And one or two more for the dog, depending on the animal’s size.
Other hiking options include Sky Meadows State Park. That’s where you can access the Appalachian Trail and Leesylvania State Park, which includes Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail; both are in Virginia.
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, in West Virginia, offers Civil War history and is the midpoint of the Appalachian Trail. If you’re feeling presidential, go to Catoctin Mountain Park, in Maryland, where you can hike near Camp David.
Great Falls Park, in Northern Virginia, features short trails and is just a short drive from the nation’s capital. It seemed ironic to visit this national park since water is the main feature and we couldn’t drink the DC water. But it is a great place to photograph.
Washington DC Day Trip: Mount Vernon
Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, is a huge estate that commands a full day. The National Historic Landmark, in Virginia, is just a short drive from DC.
If you make a last minute plan to visit, you can still save a few dollars on admission. My savvy daughter noticed the shorter line for prepaid admission and quickly went on her phone. She ordered four tickets, which we immediately redeemed. We saved $8 and got inside much faster.
Things to Do at Mount Vernon
Whether you buy your ticket in advance or at Mount Vernon, you choose a time to tour the mansion. But you still have to line up for the tour. Try to get a tour within 90 minutes of arrival, giving you time to see the intro film and gardens on the way to the mansion. There is also an interactive theater where you can “Be Washington.”
The meticulously restored home is first on many visitors’ list, but you really can spend the day exploring the grounds and outbuildings. There are four gardens, a working farm, and animals. We expressed some interest in the heirloom sheep and spent half an hour talking about them with a docent. Be sure to visit the slave memorial, near Washington’s tomb.
Special free activities include historical reenactments, a meet and greet with Martha Washington, and games and crafts for kids.
You can tour the working distillery and gristmill. Avoid the long walk (2.7 miles) and catch the shuttle, especially on a sultry summer day. You can even buy whiskey made on site. This guided tour is free. Other tours, including a boat ride on the Potomac, cost extra.
The Mount Vernon food court has plenty of options, including lots of vegetarian and gluten free choices. The kitchen is nut and peanut free. The tavern has a formal dining room, with a children’s menu. It is not nut free.
TravelingMom Tip: If you are visiting Washington DC with a dog, Mount Vernon allows dogs on its extensive grounds. You can’t, however, tour the house or the gristmill with a dog.
Washington DC Day Trip: Old Town
We had planned to bike from Washington DC to Old Town, Alexandria, Virginia. But biking 16 miles round trip from The District seemed foolhardy in the oppressive heat. Definitely a good idea for cooler times. There is a mostly flat, protected bike path, the Mount Vernon Trail.
We drove to Old Town instead and found plenty of street parking, both metered and non.
On Saturdays, there is a huge farmer’s market, with live music and lots of samples. Get there early; by noon, every vendor disappears.
Stroll historic King Street, with local boutiques and restaurants. The whole street is about a mile long. A free trolley is a great way to see the architecture from a different vantage point.
There are cobblestone streets (leave the heels at home) and brick sidewalks. We walked through artists’ studios at the Torpedo Factory Art Center. The building actually was a torpedo factory. And a real torpedo is on display and can be touched. Different studios offer free art demonstrations on Saturdays.
Old Town has several small museums, including the free National Inventors Hall of Fame and the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum. This historic drugstore is a far cry from CVS.
Washington DC Day Trip: Get in a Short Bike Ride
Despite high temperatures, we biked briefly along the shaded C&O Canal towpath. This national park runs from Georgetown to Cumberland, Maryland, along the Potomac River. Fun fact: I actually biked the entire 184.5 mile trail the summer I was 15. It’s a popular spot for walking, running and biking.
The towpath is completely flat, so it isn’t a challenging ride. But in the heat, a few miles was all we could manage. Basically, we biked long enough to treat ourselves to ice cream after. Pitango Gelato, made with organic Pennsylvania milk, has six DC locations.
More than a Day Trip from Washington DC
With more time, you can explore the wineries of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate, the Inner Harbor and National Aquarium in Baltimore, the University of Virginia, and Arlington, VA.
Washington DC Getaway: Even Longer Trips
Luray Caverns, the largest caves in the eastern United States, are another, closer option. Not for us – I am extremely claustrophobic, as is the daughter we were visiting. But for the rest of the population, the underground torture chambers – er -caverns – offer a respite from the heat. Beneath Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, explore stone columns and pools. I have chills just thinking about it. Which in that heat, maybe isn’t such a bad thing.
What You Need to Know About the Mazda3
Mazda loaned us a small, sporty Mazda3 to drive to DC. The agile sedan was easy to park on the streets in Alexandria. The drive is expensive, with tolls on bridges and tunnels, and the New Jersey and Pennsylvania Turnpikes. Parking at our hotel added another $54 a night.
Just because the Mazda3 is small doesn’t mean it can’t be fully loaded. The car has heated and cooled front seats, a huge moonroof, heated steering wheel and radar cruise control, among other goodies. You could listen to satellite radio through Bose speakers.
My daughter and her boyfriend said the seats were comfortable. And despite extreme heat, they were cool, too.
The Mazda3 had a premium package, which included an easy to use navigation system and radar cruise control.
The Mazda3 has blind spot monitoring, lane keep assist and rear cross traffic alert. It also has a 5-star government safety rating.
With one seat folded down in the back, (there’s a 60/40 split) we were able to cram quite a bit of stuff in the car.
We truly put the Mazda3 to the test, using every cubic inch to bring out daughter’s stuff home. I viewed this as a puzzle and enjoyed the challenge. The 60/40 split seats allowed us to fold down one seat and still have room for a back seat passenger. Two if you count the large dog.
We got 35 miles per gallon on the highway. So our gas costs for the trip were low.
The Mazda3 sedan is under $25,000, which includes goodies like a huge moonroof and rain sensing wipers. The model I drove, with premium package, came to $27,720.
Where to Stay in DC
We stayed at the ultra family friendly Homewood Suites by Hilton Washington, DC Downtown, right near the Convention Center. The hotel has a kitchen, a pull out couch, with a door separating the living room from the bedroom, and free breakfast. There is plenty of space for a family – and if you bring a dog, there is no extra charge. There was even a little ark across the street where she could do her business.
Our oldest daughter still has her Mazda3, which has required very little maintenance and still sparks joy. Our middle daughter, who left Washington, DC, also off-loaded the boyfriend.