Where to Park Your Picnic
By Karen-Lee Ryan
Special to the Washington Post
Friday, June 11, 2004; Page WE30
Summer just wouldn't be summer without a few picnics. There's something romantic and adventurous about dining alfresco – the fresh air, an umbrella of leaves, nature's soundtrack.
The settings offer as much diversity as the potential picnic fixin's. Some days call for spreading blanket and basket under the trees or near a lake with cheese, fruit and prepared salads for two. Other days demand a series of red-checkered-tablecloth-clad tables topped with hot dogs, burgers, chips and cookies near a bustling playground. And the evenings are the perfect time to gather a group of friends, along with a medley of munchies and a carryout dinner, to listen to live music as the day dims into night.
Oh sure, a few ants – and, for a couple more weeks, flailing cicadas – are likely to crash any picnic party, but that's part of the fun of leaving the security of the home kitchen or the convenience of a restaurant.
The region is filled with public spaces suitable for do-it-yourself outdoor dining. The nearly two dozen locations detailed below are a few of many scattered throughout the metropolitan area and offer something for just about everyone. The "Kid-Friendly Picnic Parks" have playgrounds, train rides, paddle boats or other diversions to keep youngsters active. "Picnic Parks With a View" highlight more scenic (and sometimes more quiet) destinations. The "Picnic Parks Good for Groups" section details places where picnic shelters can be reserved for family reunions, church groups and company picnics; these areas typically require advance payment, as well as a security deposit. And the "Picnic Parks With Entertainment" offer something a little extra beyond a place to park a picnic basket – live music or classic movies. Every park is listed only once, although some locations could fit in multiple categories.
KID-FRIENDLY PICNIC PARKS
1. BURKE LAKE PARK – 7315 Ox Rd., Fairfax Station. 703-323-6601. www.co.fairfax.va.us /parks/lakefront.htm. Open daylight hours; free. This park offers plenty of activities to keep children of all ages busy for an entire afternoon. Younger kids gravitate toward a sizable playground, with swings, slides and climbing areas. Nearby, a carousel makes its rounds, and the Burke Lake Railroad miniature train pulls out of an old-fashioned station to wind through the woods. Teenagers can check out the tree-filled disc golf course and sand volleyball courts or rent a rowboat at the 218-acre Burke Lake (must be at least 16). And the new 18-hole miniature golf course near the ever-popular ice cream parlor satisfies just about everyone. Two small areas with unreserved picnic tables sit within the park, so bring a blanket in case they're full – or to enjoy a summer spread near the lake. Can't fit in all the activities? Stay overnight at one of the park's 140 campsites.
2. CABIN JOHN REGIONAL PARK – 7400 Tuckerman Lane, Rockville. 301-299-4160. Open daylight hours; free. www.mc-mncppc.org/parks/facilities/regional_parks/cabinjohn/index.shtm. This park makes it easy to eat and play, sometimes simultaneously. With picnicking clustered around an outsize play area, kids can't help but get distracted mid-meal by all the rungs to climb, bridges to cross and tubes to slide through. Pre-K youngsters get their own play area, with swings, geometric shapes to climb and cars to "steer." A miniature train departs its station a few hundred yards away, taking a surprisingly long ride through the woods. And don't miss Porky the Litter Eater, a garbage can that snorts whenever someone "feeds" it. For groups up to 40 people, the park offers a dozen shady shelters within the same vicinity. To reserve a shelter, call 301-495-2525 or visit www.parkpermits.org.
3. COSCA REGIONAL PARK – 11000 Thrift Rd., Clinton. 301-868-1397. www.pgparks.com/places/parks/cosca.html. Open daylight hours; free. While this regional park covers nearly 700 acres in southern Prince George's County, the picnicking is centered around children's play areas, a miniature train and a small lake with paddle boats. The "adventure" playground provides designated areas for different age groups. The section for ages 2 to 5 features a Viking ship, climbable dinosaurs, animals on springs and mini-slides, while the area for 5- to 12-year-olds includes ramps, slides, bridges, serpentine swivel poles and more. A couple of dozen picnic tables sit near the play areas and on a ridge above them. Another cluster of tables sits closer to the lake and near some old concrete shapes to climb, such as a "Swiss cheese" wall and dolphins. The Cosca Cannonball, a mini-train on wheels, weaves between the two picnic spots. The Clearwater Nature Center and a small campground are a short drive away.
4. FORT WASHINGTON PARK – 13551 Fort Washington Rd., Fort Washington. 301-763-4600. www.nps.gov/fowa. Fort and visitors center open daily 9 to 5; grounds 8 to dark. Park entrance fee is $5 per vehicle. Don't expect swing sets and jungle gyms here – this is a historical playground. From the minute most Scout-aged kids cross a former drawbridge, they're fascinated by the massive 1815-era brick and stone fort. There are barracks to look at, cannons to touch, a parade ground for running and various rooms and passages to explore. And parents savor the expansive Potomac River views that offer distant peeks of the Washington Monument, Alexandria's Masonic Temple and the Washington National Cathedral. Picnicking isn't allowed inside the fort, but several tables at its base – along the river's edge – offer great views and easy (if uphill) fort access. Several shady tables also line the fort access loop, which creates a grassy meadow ideal for playing catch or tossing a Frisbee. History comes to life once a month through live artillery demonstrations: July 11, Aug. 1, Sept. 5 and Oct. 3. The park has several areas to accommodate groups ranging from 80 to 800; call the park for more information.
5. LAKE ACCOTINK PARK – 7500 Accotink Park Rd., Springfield. 703-569-3464. www.co.fairfax.va.us/parks/lakefront.htm. Open daylight hours; free. It's tough to snag one of the few first-come, first-served picnic tables. Parents love the shade and proximity to Lake Accotink (with pedal boats, rowboats and canoes), a snack bar, Lucky Duck mini-golf and the oldest carousel in Fairfax County's park system. And just about everyone enjoys the walk past the dam and onto an old railroad-bed-turned-trail, especially when a train chugs by overhead. The concrete and steel trestle is the fourth one in the same location. During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers burned the initial wooden bridge, but the Union quickly rebuilt it – and it has been rebuilt twice since then. To learn more of Accotink's once rural history, pick up a self-guided walking-tour brochure at the park office.
6. LAKE FAIRFAX PARK – 1400 Lake Fairfax Dr., Reston. 703-471-5415. www.co.fairfax. va.us/parks/lakefront.htm. Open daylight hours; free. The Water Mine Family Swimmin' Hole makes this park an instant hit with preteens. At this Western-themed water park, they can splash in pools, swish through tube slides, explore the tunnels of Pete's Peak and float leisurely along Rattlesnake River on an inner tube. The $10 to $12 admission fee to the Water Mine includes unlimited rides on the park's carousel and the Lake Fairfax tour boat. Pedal boats and fishing are also available on the 18-acre lake, located a short distance from many picnic tables. For a non-water-based activity, pack a kite in the picnic basket. Huge open fields (often used for cricket games) at the far end of the park are a favorite destination among local kite fliers.
7. WHEATON REGIONAL PARK – 2000 Shorefield Rd., Wheaton. 301-680-3803. www.mc-mncppc.org/parks/facilities/regional_ parks/wheaton. Arrive early to get a table here on weekends, and bring a blanket as a backup. The Shorefield Picnic and Playground Area, with a smattering of unreserved tables and grills, always fills quickly with families. (Shelters for up to 40 people may be reserved well ahead of time by calling 301-495-2525 or visiting www.parkpermits.org.) Nearby, the 1915 Hershel-Spillman carousel rotates practically nonstop with giddy kids, just like the looping miniature train with a replica of an 1863 C.P. Huntington engine. And the sprawling "adventure" playground covers everything from monkey bars and tire swings to a treehouse and tube slides. A small fishing lake and Brookside Gardens – a 50-acre area with a live butterfly show all summer – are a quarter-mile walk from the picnic grove.
PICNIC PARKS WITH A VIEW
8. GEORGE WASHINGTON MEMORIAL PARKWAY – 703-289-2500; www.nps.gov/gwmp. Open daylight hours; free. Pull off this tree-lined roadway managed by the National Park Service at any designated area between Memorial Bridge and Mount Vernon to find amazing picnic diversity – all with Potomac River views. Just north of National Airport, Gravelly Point includes the water views with a loud bonus: up-close views of planes taking off and landing (no tables, so bring a blanket). South of Alexandria, Belle Haven Marina sports plenty of tables and an interesting perspective on the Wilson Bridge construction, plus a parade of sailboats moving in and out of the marina. Farther south, solitude-seekers can find quiet picnicking at a handful of tables tucked along the water's edge at Collingwood Picnic Area, where osprey often soar overhead. Just north of Mount Vernon, Riverside Park offers a couple of dozen tables on a small ridge above the Potomac.
9. GREAT FALLS PARK – 9200 Old Dominion Dr., McLean. 703-285-2965. www.nps.gov/grfa. Open daily 7 to dark; entrance fee is $5 per vehicle. The sheer volume of tables – all available on a first-come, first-served basis – makes the Virginia side of Great Falls one of the area's best picnic spots. And then there's the view: the mighty Potomac tumbling through walls of rock, dropping nearly 70 feet into narrow Mather Gorge. Three overlooks offer different perspectives of the unfolding drama, while a handful of trails parallel the river and an old canal that skirted the falls. The nicely spaced picnic tables (many with grills) work equally well for romantic alfresco dining or family outings. Grassy expanses between tables allow for tossing a Frisbee or playing badminton. And don't miss the visitors center (open 10 to 5 weekdays, until 6 weekends) for the area's historical context.
10. PISCATAWAY PARK – 3400 Bryan Point Rd., Accokeek. 301-283-2113 (Accokeek Foundation) or 301-763-4600 (National Park Service). www.nps.gov/pisc. Open daylight hours; free. Managed through a cooperative agreement between the National Park Service and the nonprofit Accokeek Foundation, Piscataway Park ensures that the vista George Washington saw from Mount Vernon will never face modern development. Visitors to this park can enjoy equally wonderful views of the river (and Washington's estate), while learning how typical, middle-class Americans lived during the Revolutionary era. The on-site National Colonial Farm includes period buildings, gardens and a tobacco farm just a short walk from the park's picnic area. A dozen lightly used tables sit on a cliff above the Potomac, and a short path leads directly to the waterfront. The serene picnic spot opens daily from dawn to dusk, while the National Colonial Farm welcomes visitors Tuesday through Sunday 10 to 4.
11. SENECA CREEK STATE PARK – 11950 Clopper Rd., Gaithersburg. 301-924-2127. www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/central/seneca.html. While it's possible to catch a few glimpses of 90-acre Clopper Lake while grilling and dining alfresco at Seneca, one of the most scenic spots to park a basket is under the tall, fragrant trees in the aptly named Pines picnic area. Two other unreserved wooded areas, Oriole and Chickadee, sit within easy walking distance to the lake, where rowboats, paddle boats, kayaks and pontoon boats can be rented by the hour. A recycled-tire playground attracts kids of all ages with obstacle courses and jungle gyms made from car, truck and tractor tires. The park also touts a challenging, 18-hole disc golf course, plus sheltered and open-air picnicking for groups ranging from 50 to 200 people. Some areas have electricity, and prices range from $50 to $200 a day. For group reservations, call 888-432-2267 or visit reservations.dnr.state.md.us.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
(Illustration by Lisa Adams)