Watkins Regional Park
Follow the yellow brick road somewhere under the rainbow. You’re off to see the Wizard … of Oz-themed playground, where your munchkins can pop into Auntie Em’s house, crawl into Toto’s doghouse, scale the Emerald Palace, or head down the ruby slipper-shaped slides. Nearby, hand-carved wooden statues of the Scarecrow and the Witch of Watkins stand ready for photo ops. If it’s too crowded or your child is equestrian-obsessed, check out the lesser-known horse racing playground down the road. Situated in a shady picnic area, Watkins Downs boasts swings, slides and easy-rider ponies.
The Prince George’s County park aims to offer something for everyone. Across the road from Oz is a multi-attraction complex that includes bathrooms and vending machines. A fantastical 18-hole mini golf course features lollipops and toadstools. Next to that is the Chesapeake Carousel, where one can ride classic horses or wilder creatures, such as a leopard, kangaroo or ostrich.
After a round and a few spins, board the miniature C.P. Huntington train that wends its way through the forest and past the Old Maryland Farm, an agricultural education site packed with animals — from cows and horses to llamas and rabbits. There’s one last stop for your itinerary: the nature center featuring lots of interactive educational displays and the opportunity for little ones to get up close and personal with frogs, snakes, lizards and more.
301 Watkins Park Dr., Upper Marlboro, Md. mncppc.org. Park is open daily. Mini-golf ($5-$6.50), carousel ($2-$2.50) and train ($2-$2.50) are open Tuesday-Sunday through Aug. 29, and on weekends in September. Nature center (free) and farm (free) are open Tuesday-Sunday year-round.
Huntley Meadows Park
Forget the zoo, and check out this wild wonderland instead. On a summer day, a stroll along the boardwalk snaking its way over the park’s sprawling wetlands will often yield nonstop creature sightings. Look into the water to spot snapping turtles swimming with ponderous grace. Beavers trace squiggles on the surface, with just their eyes and glistening black noses protruding above the waterline. Logs provide a perfect sun deck for spotted turtles seeking warmth. Everywhere you look there are birds — herons, wood ducks, hawks, crows and so many more (a list maintained by Friends of Huntley Meadows Park documents more than 200 species seen in the park). Bring a DSLR camera with serious telephoto lens if you want to take photographs of this beastly bounty; the digital zoom on your phone won’t suffice.
Open year-round from dawn till dusk, the 1,400-acre park founded in 1975 also features a pair of woodland trails, Cedar and Deer, each roughly a half-mile long. In the shade of the forest, there is more birdwatching to be done. Or you may catch sight of foxes, skunks, raccoons and other Mid-Atlantic mammals. Biking and pets are allowed on some trails, but not on the boardwalk over the wetland (running is also prohibited there). Bathrooms are available in the visitor center on weekends from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., otherwise there is a portable toilet in parking lot off Lockheed Boulevard.
Even if you can’t make it to the park this summer, there are plenty of wildlife viewing opportunities any time of year, so keep it in mind for a later excursion.
3701 Lockheed Blvd., Alexandria, Va. fairfaxcounty.gov. Open daily. Free.
Lee District Family Recreation Area
As record breaking heat waves become a fact of life in the summertime, the mini water park here may become your kid’s favorite hangout when temperatures spike. The Chesapeake Bay-themed Our Special Harbor spray ground is packed with a colorful variety of attractions, including misting sunflowers, a spraying osprey nest and sea serpent, and a computerized water maze. Don’t forget to say hi to the statue of Chessie, the Bay’s own Loch Ness Monster. There are strict rules about water shoes, so be sure to check the website before heading over.
Not in the mood to get wet? There’s a nice-sized playground with slides, swings and adventuring opportunities, and a Chesapeake Bay-themed carousel, offering the chance to ride a sea horse, hummingbird, eagle and other creatures.
After the splashing and playing are over, retire to the shaded picnic area adjacent to the spray ground to have a bite. Take a moment to walk out onto the “treehouse,” a raised platform in the woods giving visitors a different perspective on the environment. Once recharged, the easy Chessie’s Trail beckons. The short loop through the woods is punctuated by animal statues and sensory stations where children are encouraged to engage, providing ample photo opportunities for their parents.
6601 Telegraph Rd., Alexandria, Va. fairfaxcounty.gov. Park is open daily. Our Special Harbor (free) and the carousel ($3-$4) are open daily through Aug. 22, and on weekends and holidays Aug. 22-Sept. 6.
Cabin John Regional Park
If you have a youngster with a lot of energy, this is the park for you. And because it’s situated in a mostly shaded wooded area, it’s a nice spot for parents to lounge while watching their little ones.
Roll up to the extensive playground rendered in primary colors; it has ample opportunities for swinging, sliding, climbing and clambering. After working up a sweat, cool down at the ice rink, which offers public skating sessions (participants must sign a waiver and submit it before arrival, and only one parent can accompany their child inside the rink).
If your child is still raring to go, hit the trails: Just under six miles of paths snake their way around the 530-acre park, including a couple of miles of bike- and scooter-friendly paved pathways. For a mellower tour, a miniature train offers a 15-minute ride meandering its way through two miles of the woodland property.
The area around the station features vending machines stocked with ice cream and drinks, picnic spots, bathrooms and a water fountain in the shape of a hippo’s head. Got trash? Feed Porky the Litter Eater, a talking, vacuum-powered trash receptacle housed in a tiny brick house. Just don’t give the hog any glass, because, as Porky says in his eerily cheery electronic voice, “Glass gives me a stomachache.”
7400 Tuckerman Ln., Bethesda, Md. montgomeryparks.org. Park is open daily. The train ($2.50) is open Tuesday-Sunday through the end of August, and on weekends in September and October.
Patuxent Research Refuge
Budding naturalists and scientists will fall hard for this lush, 12,800-acre refuge in Laurel. As you turn off Powder Mill Road into the south tract, the emphasis on wildlife preservation is clear: Turtle and frog crossing signs dot the side of the road, which is named Scarlet Tanager Loop for the brilliantly red and black songbirds that make their home here during warm-weather months. (You may need binoculars to see them, because they stick to the upper reaches of the tree canopy.)
In fact, more than 270 species of birds have been spotted in the refuge, alongside a rich assortment of mammals, amphibians, reptiles and insects, including at least 155 bee species. Keep a lookout while walking around Cash Lake for beavers, who are often gnawing down trees, working on maintaining their lodges, or simply frolicking in the water.
Patuxent, which was established in 1936 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, is the sole National Wildlife Refuge created to focus on wildlife research. Spread across forests, meadows, and wetlands, it’s divided into the north, central and south tracts. The latter is the best for family visits, since it includes the visitor center, which offers plenty of interactive educational displays, a small bookshop and bathrooms (open Tuesday through Saturday). On Saturdays at midday and in the early afternoon, a half-hour tram tour leaves from the center, offering a leisurely overview of the park’s various environs and some of its inhabitants. You can bring your pet to the park, but it must be leashed at all times and never go in the water.
Given the park’s immense size, diverse environments and six trails in the south tract alone, it’s easy to make multiple trips to Patuxent while experiencing new areas and spotting new wildlife each time.
10901 Scarlet Tanager Loop, Laurel, Md. fws.gov/refuge/patuxent/. Open daily. Free.
More ideas for family fun: