ummer 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.
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.
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 http://reservations.dnr.state.md.us.
12. U.S. NATIONAL ARBORETUM -- 3501 New York Ave. NE. 202-245-7276. www.usna.usda.gov. Open daily (except Christmas) 8 to 5, and until 7 Saturdays through July, except July 3. Any part of the 446-acre National Arboretum would be a scenic place to spread a blanket, but picnicking is only allowed at tables within the National Grove of State Trees. This quiet, 30-acre area nestled between the Azalea Collection and Fern Valley includes arbors representing every state and the District of Columbia. Planted in 1990, these labeled trees are smaller than many of the grand old trees that shade a few handfuls of picnic tables, some of which are wheelchair accessible. Many tables have a view of the National Capitol columns, 22 Corinthian pillars that once stood at the Capitol's East Portico and now grace one of the arboretum's many hillsides.
GOOD FOR GROUPS
13. BLACK HILL REGIONAL PARK -- 20926 Lake Ridge Dr., Boyds. 301-916-0220. www.mc-mncppc.org/parks/facilities/regional_ parks/blackhill. Open daily 6 to sunset. Family reunions and church groups flock to this upper Montgomery County park with 10 reservations-required covered picnic shelters. Half of the shelters contain 10 tables and two grills to accommodate up to 100 people. The remaining five shelters hold up to 40 people and include six tables and a single grill. The larger areas cost $150 per day and the smaller facilities cost $110 per day, and two-thirds of all guests must reside in Montgomery or Prince George's counties. Most picnic pavilions sit a short distance from a children's play area, and some have horseshoe pits or a volleyball court. Many picnickers make a short trek to the 505-acre Little Seneca Lake to fish or rent a canoe, kayak or rowboat, or tour the lake on a pontoon boat called Osprey. To reserve a shelter, call the park permits office at 301-495-2525 or visit www.parkpermits.org to view availability and make reservation requests with a credit card.
14. BULL RUN REGIONAL PARK -- 7700 Bull Run Dr., Centreville. 703-631-0550. www.nvrpa.org/bullrunpark.html. Open daylight hours; $7 per car on weekends for those who live outside of Arlington, Fairfax or Loudoun counties. This flat park on the western edge of Fairfax County offers plenty of grassy play areas and a range of activities for groups of all ages. The park's sizable outdoor swimming pool promises to be more popular than ever with two new water slides. Other diversions include playgrounds, miniature golf, an 18-hole disc golf course and the 17.5-mile Bull Run-Occoquan Trail. A dozen group picnic areas (11 covered and one open-air space) are spread throughout the park. Covered pavilions, some with electricity and all outfitted with grills, hold 50 to 200 people. The rental fees range from $60 for a half-day to $275 for a full day. The uncovered picnic area accommodates 75 people and costs $55 to $65, depending on the day of the week. The park also rents a corporate shelter, for companies hosting up to 600 people, for $500 to $800 per day. For reservations, call 703-352-5900.
15. FORT HUNT PARK -- Fort Hunt Road/Fort Hunt Park exit off George Washington Memorial Parkway, Alexandria. 703-289-2550. www.nps.gov/gwmp/fohu. The park is free and open daylight hours; group picnicking is from 10 to 6. Just off George Washington Memorial Parkway, Fort Hunt houses one of the area's largest public picnic pavilions, holding up to 600 people. A handful of other pavilions hold anywhere from 100 to 300 people. Fort Hunt is also one of the few area parks that allows the consumption of alcohol (beer and wine only) within its reserved picnicking areas. Unfortunately, no grills are provided, so groups planning a cookout must bring their own supplies. Reservations are required daily from May 1 through Oct. 31. To make picnic reservations, call 800-365-2267. Cost for picnic pavilions range from $25 to $410, depending on group size and day of use.
16. ROCK CREEK PARK -- Northwest Washington. 202-895-6000. www.nps.gov/rocr. Open daylight hours; free. More than 30 different places to picnic are spread throughout Rock Creek Park's nearly 1,800 acres. A dozen areas can be reserved in advance for groups of up to 75 people and 20 other areas are first-come, first-served for up to 12. Many picnic spaces are wooded and hemmed along the rippling creek. Most have grills or fireplaces for cooking and some have running water. Reservations for group picnic areas can be made only in person between 8:30 and 5:30 Monday through Friday at the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation (3149 16th St. NW, 202-673-7646). Cost is $7 per group picnic area from 7:30 to 3:30 or 4 to dark. Each person can reserve only one area for a single time slot. Families and groups can also enjoy the summer concerts at Carter Barron Amphitheatre within the park; the concert line is 202-426-0486.
17. ROCK CREEK REGIONAL PARK -- 6700 Needwood Rd., Rockville. 301-948-5053. www.mc-mncppc.org/parks/facilities/regional_parks/rockcreek/index.shtm. Open daylight hours; free. With 18 shelters, this park offers some of the most extensive group picnicking in Montgomery County, especially for smaller groups. Each covered shelter holds up to 40 people and sports a grill; shelters C and O have electricity. Most have views of Lake Needwood -- or at least easy access. Anyone 16 and older can rent a rowboat, paddle boat or canoe for use on the lake, a popular fishing spot. A hiking trail skirts the lake, while the 13.6-mile paved hiker-biker trail extends all the way to Washington. To reserve a shelter, call the park permits office at 301-495-2525 or visit www.parkpermits.org to view availability and make reservation requests with a credit card.
18. WATKINS REGIONAL PARK -- 301 Watkins Park Dr., Upper Marlboro. 301-218-6700. www.pgparks.com/places/parks/watkins.html. Open daylight hours; free. Located in the heart of Prince George's County, this park is one of the area's best group picnicking spots, especially from a kid's perspective. The park offers 14 reservable areas for 50 to 150 people. Five covered picnic shelters for up to 50 people ring the "adventure" playground area. Each pavilion has a handful of tables and two grills, while the bustling playground includes age-separated areas with swings, tube slides, seesaws, bridges, mini play tractors and plenty of climbing areas. Just a short walk away, families flock to an antique carousel (located in Chesapeake Beach, Md., for much of the 1900s), the Largo-Lottsford miniature train, an 18-hole mini-golf course and the Old Maryland Farm with roosters, cows, rabbits, ponies and more. Picnic areas for larger groups sit about a quarter-mile away from the amusements in a more woodsy setting, often paired with a basketball hoop or swings. Two-thirds of the guests picnicking in reserved areas must be residents of Prince George's or Montgomery counties. The cost is $100 to $400; for reservations, call 301-918-8111.
19. FORT DUPONT PARK -- Fort Dupont Circle Drive SE at Randle Circle. 202-426-5961. www.nps.gov/fodu. Park is open daylight hours; free. For more than 30 years, the National Park Service has sponsored free concerts at Fort Dupont's amphitheater, including world-class jazz musicians like Wynton Marsalis and Dizzy Gillespie. The tradition continues this year with a series of free Saturday night concerts, held rain or shine. Shows begin at 8, and free parking and a concession stand are available.
July 10: Cuba Gooding Sr., formerly of the Main Ingredient; Phil Flowers opens.
July 17: Roy Ayers, with Indigo opening.
July 24: John Lucien, with Image Band opening.
July 31: Con Funk Shun, featuring Michael Cooper and Felton Pilate.
Aug. 7: Will Hart, formerly of the Delfonics; Roger Chapman and Unity Project open.
Aug. 14: Ray, Goodman & Brown, with the Impressarios opening.
20. FORT WARD MUSEUM AND HISTORIC SITE -- 4301 W. Braddock Rd., Alexandria. 703-838-4848. www.fortward.org. Open 8:30 a.m. to dark. History buffs always find this park entertaining because it harbors the area's best preserved Civil War fort (nearly 70 forts and 100 batteries once protected the nation's capital). Take a self-guided walk around the fort any time of year, then spread out picnic fixin's at one of the many tables scattered throughout the park. During the summer, the city of Alexandria sponsors free "Music at Twilight at Fort Ward Amphitheater," featuring local musicians. All shows start at 7, unless noted otherwise.
July 15: Alexandria Citizens Band
July 22: Alexandria Harmonizers
July 29: Jazz artist Liz Briones
Aug. 5: Fan-Fan performing reggae and jazz
Aug. 12, 7:30 p.m.: "All Scottish Night," with the Northern Virginia Branch of the Royal Scottish Country Dancers and the City of Alexandria Pipes and Drums
21. THE MALL -- Between Fourth and Seventh streets near Constitution Avenue. www.digitalcity.com/washington/screenonthegreen. The broad swath of grass between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol lures picnickers nearly year-round, but the crowds come out in force for the annual series of free classic movies on the Mall. It's like the drive-in but without the car. A sizable movie screen projects a timeless cartoon at dusk, followed by the main feature. Showtimes vary based on sunset.
July 19: "All the President's Men" (1976)
July 26: "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1941)
Aug. 2: "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" (1962)
Aug. 9: "The Thin Man" (1934)
Aug. 16: "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939)
22. NATIONAL ZOO -- 3001 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-357-2700. www.natzoo.si.edu. Open 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.; free. The zoo grounds stay open every summer evening, but on several Thursday nights, local musicians perform for free at the base of Lion and Tiger hill. All shows begin at 6:30.
July 1: Army Blues
July 8: 257th Army Band
July 15: The Orioles
July 22: Mary Ann Redmond Band
July 29: The Johnny Artis Band
Aug. 5: The Merchants of Cool
23. STRATHMORE HALL ARTS CENTER -- 10701 Rockville Pike, North Bethesda. 301-530-0540. www.strathmore.org. Open daylight hours; free. Montgomery County's expanding performing arts center has an expansive summer lineup, with two free concerts each week and the mid-August Comcast Filmfest. The musical performances on Wednesdays are tied to a music timeline developed by the Washington Area Music Association and cover Washington music and local musicians. The Thursday night "Summer Serenades" are classically based performances. Both start at 7:30. During the filmfest, movies begin at 8:30, with extensive food concessions (sales benefit NIH Children's Charities) opening at 6:30.
June 16: Grace Griffith & Pam Bricker
June 23: Phil Mathieu & Tom Principato
June 30: Choral Arts Society of Washington and Singers for All Seasons
July 1: World War II USO Review, featuring members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
July 7: The Slickee Boys
July 8: Monumental Brass
July 14: The Chuck Brown Band
July 15: National Philharmonic Brass Quintet
July 21: Patty Reese
July 22: American Balalaika Symphony
July 28: Cephas & Wiggins
July 29: World premiere of composer David Kane's "Emergence: A Cicada Serenade"
Aug. 4: Sally Love & Mary Battiata
Aug. 11: Rare Essence
Aug. 18: The Skylighters, celebrating the reopening of the Birchmere
Aug. 25: The Rockin' Side
Aug. 13: "Star Wars"
Aug. 14: "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"
Aug. 15: "Jaws"
Aug. 16: "Casablanca"
Aug. 17: "The Princess Bride"
Aug. 18: "North by Northwest"
Aug. 19: "Seabiscuit"
Aug. 20: "Chicago"
Aug. 21: "Back to the Future"
Aug. 22: "The Wizard of Oz"
Karen-Lee Ryan is a Washington-based freelance writer who loves to share the fun of the nation's capital.