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Best nearby beaches

We explored the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, its tributaries and a lake to come up with ideas to enjoy the sand and sea spray without scrambling for a hotel reservation or even a full tank of gas. Photos

Chesapeake Beach

Bayside Road and Chesapeake Beach Road, Chesapeake Beach, MD 20732  |  Web site »

Less than an hour's drive southeast of D.C., the neighboring Maryland towns of Chesapeake Beach and North Beach on the Chesapeake Bay offer the best of everything for a day by the water: nature, sports, quality seafood, a public beach and a funky, small-town vibe.

Start with a peaceful stroll down the Chesapeake Beach Rail Trail, a short nature walk that opened in 2011. Behind the Chesapeake Beach Water Park, the boardwalk-style trails wind along the route of the old railroad that transported passengers to and from Washington until it ceased operations in 1935. On a recent walk, it was easy to see a heron, a red-winged blackbird and a boat full of local fishermen. While you're in the town of Chesapeake Beach, stop for a seafood feast at Abner's Crab House or pick up a bucket of fresh crabs to go at Tyler's Tackle Shop and Crab House.


Downtown North Beach

Bay Avenue and Fifth Street, North Beach, MD 20714  | 410-252-9463

North Beach is an expanse of white sand bisected by a long pier. On a warm, sunny day, the beach attracts a sizeable crowd. (The beach charges admission in the summer months and rents umbrellas and chairs.) There is also a lot to explore in the town of North Beach, including a candy store and a string of antique shops selling such items as driftwood mobiles by local artists and old-fashioned telephones.


Flag Ponds Nature Park

1525 Flag Ponds Pkwy., Lusby, MD 20657  | 410-586-1477  |  Web site »

Don't be deterred by the name of this park. You won't be taking a dip in shallow, standing water full of biting mosquitoes.

Situated on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay in Lusby, Md., Flag Ponds Nature Park does have ponds, but it also has miles of grassy dunes that give way to white sands and gentle waters. A bin of colorful toy buckets and shovels, shared on the honor system, are the only indication that the beach has occasional visitors.

Those who make the half-mile walk to the beach are treated to a quiet stretch of sand, a fishing pier, a bathhouse and little else. Rather than rows of high-rises, the dunes are bordered by thick groves of Virginia pines and mighty beech trees that shade miles of hiking trails.

Up until the 1950s, the area was home to a thriving pound-net fishery, and a few remnants remain. Peek in the rehabilitated fisherman's shanty and pound-net maker on display near the trail between the beach and the parking lot.

But the history that really makes the area notable is its deposit of Miocene-period fossils and the beach's view of the 15-million-year-old Calvert Cliffs. A display in the visitor center shows off the shark teeth and whale bones collected by a park employee. Visitors are welcome to collect their own ancient souvenirs, just be sure to return the toy buckets and shovels.


Downs Park

8311 John Downs Loop, Pasadena, MD 21122  | 410-222-6230  |  Web site »

Dogs deserve sand in their paws, sea spray tickling their wet noses and the right to chase tennis balls in the surf as far as their owners can throw. But at most public beaches, man's best friend is relegated to the hours when most men are in bed.

Then there is Downs Park in Pasadena, Md. Located on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay, the small sandy cove is designated dogs only -- all day, every day.

The only two places dogs aren't allowed, the visitor center and the pier, have designated "dog parking." The park has plenty for two-legged visitors to enjoy as well, with miles of paved bike paths, playgrounds and outdoor concerts Sundays in June and July.

The beach is minimally enclosed with a fence to the north, large rocks to the south and a thicket of tall grasses to the west. Of course, the cool waters of the bay, a tennis ball or a few new friends will keep any well-behaved pup from straying.

If you want more to do with your dog, head to nearby Annapolis; the capital of Maryland is just a 15-minute drive from the park. Stop in Paws Pet Boutique on State Circle for some oh-so-Maryland crab plush toys, nautical flag collars and sailboat-shaped treats. For people food, make your way to Rams Head Tavern or Stan and Joe's Saloon. Both West Street restaurants have dog-friendly outdoor seating.

If you are wondering whether an establishment is


Leesylvania State Park

2001 Daniel K. Ludwig Dr., Woodbridge, VA 22191  | 703-730-8205  |  Web site »

This park isn't all that far from the District, a fact you'll be reminded of as you sit in traffic on I-95 before crossing into Prince William County. But burrow your toes in the sand of Leesylvania State Park's beach along the Potomac River and the city will seem farther away than the 30-mile drive.

The park offers nature trails, historic sites, picnic areas, playground equipment, a fishing pier, a marina and a visitor center with educational displays, all a short distance from the river's edge.

On a recent Saturday, families took advantage of the plentiful public grills and picnic benches for cookouts in the wooded area just beyond the sand. Swimming is prohibited, but park rules allow for wading into the river. The rules didn't stop people from pulling up in boats or on jet skis to take a dip.

For history buffs, Leesylvania offers plenty to explore. One of the park's five trails takes you through the woods high atop a ridge to the site of a Civil War gun battery; the remains of two Colonial homes, one owned by the Lee family (it was the birthplace of Gov. Henry Lee III, a Federalist and the father of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee) and another owned by the Fairfax family; a cemetery shared by members of the two families and the site of an old railroad line that ran through the forest.

Inside the visitor center, artifacts and displays tell the history of the land, from the time when Native Americans lived in the area until plans for the park were devised after a riverfront luxury resort fell through in the 1950s.

The park's natural beauty is not overlooked, with an adjacent room documenting the many animals that call the woods home. Even if all you need is a bit of an outdoorsy getaway from the city slog, Leesylvania has more than enough.


Lake Anna State Park

6800 Lawyers Rd., Spotsylvania, VA 22553  | 540-854-5503  |  Web site »

If you've never visited Lake Anna, chances are you've heard of it from the numerous radio commercials touting its latest built-to-own golf course community. But it also is (most important) home to a state park, a protected patch of nature that enables everyone access to the lake's calm waters.

The lake was created in 1971 to supply cooling water to the North Anna Nuclear Power Station, and it has become a popular destination for vacationers. Even on a recent overcast Saturday, the sandy strip of beach was crowded with families frolicking in the shallow water under the watchful gazes of lifeguards. Picnics were spread on the grass beyond the shore, and fishing lines were cast into a nearby pond. A snack bar serving traditional fare as well as beach necessities (towels, swim goggles, etc.) did a steady business.

While the park's most popular attraction is the beach, stop by the visitor center, where you'll find displays about the area's wildlife and history, trail maps and information on daily programs.

One hike not to miss is the 3.1-mile Gold Hill Trail, which meanders near an abandoned mine left over from the area's gold rush that peaked during the 1880s. Visitors can try their hand at gold panning during ranger-led programs.

Also not to be missed are the ranger-led canoe trips. On one trip, groups can paddle to a meadow that was once a family farm, which sits atop a hill carpeted by wildflowers and offers lovely views of the lake.


Colonial Beach

Colonial and Washington avenues, Colonial Beach, VA 22443  |  Web site »

Back when wars were fought over oysters, gambling boats cruised the Potomac River and boats were the main mode of transportation, Colonial Beach was a thriving vacation spot attracting wealthy Washingtonians to what was lovingly dubbed the "Playground on the Potomac."

The small town on Virginia's Northern Neck bordered by the Potomac River and Monroe Bay is a bit more quiet nowadays. But, without crowds, it has become even more charming. Small antique shops and ice cream stands dot the main streets, neighbors visit on wraparound front porches and cruising through town is done by golf cart.

Beyond soaking up the sun on the second-longest public beach in the commonwealth, visitors should set aside a few minutes to explore the small Museum at Colonial Beach. Among the town mementoes on display: antique water-skiing shoes, room keys from a long-gone grand hotel and a basketball signed by the local high school team that won the state championship.

For dinner and drinks, head to either High Tides on the Potomac or Riverboat on the Potomac. The former has a sandy outdoor tiki bar that often hosts bands; the latter harkens to the time when boats would skirt Virginia gambling laws by staying in Maryland waters.

A stop in the area would not be complete without a visit to another time capsule of sorts: the George Washington Birthplace National Monument. The home in which the Founding Father was born is long gone (burned in a fire), and where it stood is marked with crushed oyster shells.


Matapeake Park and Beach

1112 Romancoke Rd., Stevensville, MD 21666  | 410-758-0835  |  Web site »

For people who grew up in Maryland, crossing the Bay Bridge signals the beginning of vacation. Once you start driving across the water, you know you're on the way to the beach -- and there are only about two more hours before you get there.

Unless, that is, you're going to Matapeake Beach, a small strip of public-access sand less than three miles south of the eastern tip of the Bay Bridge, with a fantastic view of the span and the Chesapeake Bay.

Before the bridge opened in 1952, Matapeake was the eastern terminus for a ferry that ran from Annapolis to Kent Island. (The large clubhouse building at Matapeake Beach was once the ferry's waiting room; it's now used for private events.) The beach and three acres of parkland around it opened to the public in 2009.

As with most Chesapeake beaches, you can't compare it with anything on the Atlantic coast: The narrow swath of sand is speckled with driftwood and tufts of seagrass, plus the occasional beached jellyfish. But you can swim, and the water's warm enough. Spread a couple of towels and crack open a book while soaking in the sun. If you arrive early, there are picnic tables and benches just steps from the water.

There's no need to pack a picnic when your route to the park takes you past the Stevensville Crab Shack, a locals-only kind of spot with terrific no-filler crab cakes, spicy shrimp salad sandwiches, homemade pasta salad and creamy coleslaw. This is a cheap lunch: A crab cake sandwich platter with two sides costs $10.99; basic sandwiches with a bag of chips cost less than $8. (Don't miss the deviled eggs, which go for 50 cents each.)

Another advantage Matapeake has over Ocean City: Your dog is invited to come splash around with you on the dog beach at the northern end of the sand, which turns into a carnival of sniffing and fetching on weekends.

Take a cue from the shaded Adirondack chairs on a hill overlooking the water: This beach is a place to relax.

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