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Nature and the Outdoors

By John Kelly and Craig Stoltz
From the book "Kid-O-Rama"
Copyright 1998


Parks | Nature Centers | Really Great Falls | Catoctin Mountain and Cunningham Falls Parks | "Hiking" Trails for Strollers  | Gardens | Cave People

Ah, wilderness! (Or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.) Some times you've just got to get outside. So here we explore family-friendly outdoor attractions, most close to the metropolitan area. Many are nature centers, fiendishly inviting places for kids. They're filled with neat stuff: animal skins, turtles in fish tanks, plaster casts of animal footprints and the like. Most of the area's larger parks have some sort of nature center, and we've provided thumbnail sketches of what they offer. The centers all have special programs for kids. Call for specific information or to get on mailing lists.

We go into more detail on a few notable places that operate outside the traditional nature center universe. Some have visitors centers, others don't. We've also included a few outdoor trails, paved or level, that are perfect destinations for kids in strollers or people with mobility problems. Finally, you'll find sections here on beautiful gardens and nearby commercial caverns. The caverns technically aren't "outside," but they're natural, which was good enough for us. Though we've included several places outside this book's general 40-mile radius, we've had to leave out a lot of other popular spots beyond that range, lest this chapter became a book unto itself. For information on more distant attractions, including those in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, see The Washington Post's Weekend and Travel sections, its Escapes page, or check the Outdoors and Recreation section of

Parks | Nature Centers | Really Great Falls | Catoctin Mountain and Cunningham Falls Parks | "Hiking" Trails for Strollers  | Gardens | Cave People

Parks and Preserves

Maryland Virginia
Discovery Creek Children's Museum Huntley Meadows Park
Audubon Naturalist Society Mason Neck State Park
National Wildlife Visitors Center Theodore Roosevelt Island
Battle Creek Cypress Swamp Sanctuary  
Patuxent River Park/Jug Bay Natural Area  
Calvert Cliffs State Park  
Sugarloaf Mountain  

Nature Centers

It's safe to assume that nearly all nature centers in this section have "touch tables," "discovery rooms" and a contingent of formerly wild animals. You also can assume that they are staffed with rangers and volunteers who are knowledgeable about their particular area's ecosystem. Call for information on special kid-specific programs or to add your name to the mailing list of centers near your home.

The District Maryland Virginia
Rock Creek Nature Center Black Hill Regional Park Buddie Ford Nature Center
  Brookside Nature Center Ellanor C. Lawrence Park
  Clearwater Nature Center Gulf Branch Nature Center
  Locust Grove Nature Center Hidden Oaks Nature Center
  Meadowside Nature Center Hidden Pond Nature Center
  Mount Ranier Nature and Recreation Center Huntley Meadows Visitors Center
  Watkins Nature Center Long Branch Nature Center
    Potomac Overlook Nature Center
    Prince William Forest Park Visitors Center
    Riverbend Park

Two Really Great Falls

Natural scenic wonder, hiking and biking trail, gentle canoeing route, picnic area, birding zone, presidential history site, nature center, serious outdoor sports observation area, living history exhibit — the Great Falls of the Potomac River offers all of this, making it one of the most potent family day-trip magnets in the area. At this spot in the river, the Potomac cuts through a rocky gorge and descends 70 feet from the piedmont plateau to sea level, creating a spectacular display of natural power and beauty. Kayakers tool around at the base of the falls, and rock climbers work the nearly vertical walls of the gorge. But such sport is not for amateurs: An average of seven people die each year by challenging or falling into the waters near Great Falls. It's wise to remind kids of the peril whenever you visit.

The facilities available on the two riverbanks, on the Virginia and Maryland shores, are very different. Each can sustain dozens of visits and different activities over the years. We used to love the Maryland side for its smooth path when the kids were in strollers and the Virginia side for the visceral power of the falls, to which even our babies seemed to respond. As the children have grown older, we've taken to more ambitious hikes on the Maryland side, and the kids are intrigued by the history and drama on the Virginia side.

Maryland Virginia
The Maryland side The Virginia side

Catoctin Mountain/Cunningham Falls Parks

Both the U.S. and Maryland governments manage chunks of this 10,000-acre mountain wilderness and recreation area, but we'll consider them a single destination. About 60 miles from Washington, the parks are the closest substantial chunk of wild mountain land to the metropolitan area. If you're headed this way, you can visit either or both and feel confident that you'll have a refreshing outdoor getaway.

For Food, Cunningham's concession area is very modest, and it operates only in-season, so bring snacks and water or be prepared to buy them in Thurmont, which has a couple of country-style family restaurants.

Nearby: The private Catoctin Mountain Zoo. To make a two- or three-day visit of it, both areas have camping (cabins in Catoctin, camp sites in Cunningham Falls), and Thurmont has a couple of inexpensive family-style hotels.

Directions: Take I-495 to I-270 North to Frederick. Pick up Route 15 north to Route 77 west and follow signs to either park. Catoctin Mountain Park lies to the north of Route 77, Cunningham Falls to the south.

Catoctin Mountain Park Cunningham Falls State Park

"Hiking" Trails for Strollers

Pushing a stroller along a hiking trail usually is an exercise in futility. The wheels get stuck in ruts, and the tiny passenger gets shaken up a lot. Paved bike paths are better — as long as you don't mind the constant chorus of "Passing on your left," "Passing on your right" and "Look out! I'm about to hit you!" Luckily, there's a handful of modest paved or planked trails perfect for pushing the Graco or Aprica. They're also ideal for children or grown-ups in wheelchairs or others with mobility problems. The following are in addition to those noted in the entries for the National Wildlife Visitors Center in Laurel, the Huntley Meadows Visitors Center in Alexandria and the Spicebush Nature Trail in Catoctin Mountain Park in Thurmont.

Maryland Virginia
Clearwater Nature Center Mountain Laurel Trail
Lake Artemesia Prince William Forest Park
Nature and Sensory Trail Riverbend Nature Center


The District Maryland Virginia
Dumbarton Oaks Brookside Gardens Green Spring Gardens Park
Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens   Meadowlark Gardens Regional Park
National Arboretum    

The Cave People

The region's handful of show (i.e., tourist) caves make great places to take the family — spooky, fascinating, beautiful chambers where the kids can learn some earth science from the inside out and gather experiences they'll long remember. Our kids love it when, during nearly every cave tour, the guide — offering plenty of opportunity for everybody to grab someone's hand — kills the lights and pitches the place into blackness. For older kids, cave visits can provide entry into the world of spelunking — more serious and ambitious cave exploration that ought not to be undertaken by an unguided, unequipped family of day-trippers (though guides at all sites here have information about area spelunking opportunities). Show caves are good bad-weather activities (the temperature hovers in the high 50s in most caves), and they make excellent day-end "rewards" for countryside day trips that the kids may find less thrilling (we speak, of course, of such things as antiquing).

Note the prices, however: A family of four may wind up paying more than $30 to tour any of the caverns listed below. All are open daily all year, but call before you go, as hours and frequency of tours fluctuate seasonally. To include caves in this book, we've again had to reach beyond our 40-miles-outside-the-Beltway range. But caves, we think, are kid-friendly enough to merit the 1.5-hour to 2.5-hour rides required. Most Marylanders will be able to get to Crystal Grottoes within an hour, and any of the three Virginia caverns can easily be worked into a fall auto tour of Skyline Drive.

Maryland Virginia
Crystal Grottoes Caverns Endless Caverns
  Luray Caverns
  Shenandoah Caverns
  Skyline Caverns

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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