Taking an afternoon-long break from your voluntary home isolation is a privilege, not an invitation to act like a spring breaker, reveling in your nonchalance about personal space. Whenever you leave the house — for a grocery store or a state park — practicing social distancing remains imperative. Don’t invite a bunch of friends to come along. Leave plenty of room when passing others on a path. Keep kids off playground equipment. Bring hand sanitizer. And always trust your judgment: If you show up to find a full parking lot that makes you feel worried or uneasy, go somewhere else. You can always come back at another time.
Also, please check park websites before getting in the car, because circumstances can change quickly. Some locations we wanted to include in this story closed their gates between our visits and publication.
Theodore Roosevelt Island
On warm days, joggers and dog-walkers are drawn to Theodore Roosevelt Island, an 88-acre retreat in the Potomac River, just downstream from Key Bridge. In the 1930s, the island — then overgrown and neglected — was transformed into a living memorial to Roosevelt, the nation’s 26th president and a lifelong naturalist.
Today, multiple trails snake through the densely wooded island, which is accessible via a footbridge from Arlington. (There’s a small parking lot along George Washington Memorial Parkway, and the entryway is on Mount Vernon Trail, so many visitors arrive via bike.)
Swamp Trail, a 1.5-mile, mostly flat loop through shallow-water swamps and a tidal marsh, is particularly picturesque: It’s not unusual to spot herons, turtles and beavers. The trail, which is part boardwalk, juts into the swampy forest at multiple spots, and there are plenty of benches along the way to pause and listen to the singing redwings.
Halfway around the island, you’ll reach a clearing directly across from Washington Harbour. It’s a quiet, secluded spot to take in the best views of Georgetown — minus the crowds.
700 George Washington Pkwy., McLean, Va. Open daily from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. nps.gov/this. Free. — A.H.
The Tregaron Conservancy is located between Woodley Park and Cleveland Park, but it remains something of a secret, overshadowed by the nearby Rock Creek Park, and, as far as urban hikes go, the larger Melvin C. Hazen Park and the adjacent Klingle Valley Trail. The fences and gates at the entrance along Klingle Road NW give Tregaron the air of a private oasis, but you’ll quickly be enchanted by the 13-acre escape.
Flagstone steps and wooden benches surround a pond with a burbling fountain. Freshly mulched paths lined with newly planted daffodils wind through the woods, under a stone bridge and up terraced slopes. Couples sit reading on a grassy lawn. Parents and children toss lacrosse balls in a meadow, while dogs strain at their leashes to play, too. Gleeful kids run and roll down an amphitheater-size hill, while adults chat at a safe distance.
This parkland was originally part of a larger estate, once known as “The Causeway.” In the 1910s, landscape architect Ellen Biddle Shipman embellished the gardens with a natural setting including ponds, woodlands and natural plants. (The estate’s mansion is home to the Washington International School.) The house and grounds are included on the National Register of Historic Places, but by the mid-2000s, they were an overgrown mess. Enter the nonprofit Friends of Tregaron (now the Tregaron Conservancy), which secured the land for public access after decades of legal battles, and began restoring it to Shipman’s design. Today, the land is sustained by donations and maintained by volunteers, who keep the beautiful park open to all, free of charge.
Intersection of Woodley and Klingle roads NW. Open daily from dawn to dusk. tregaron.org. Free. — F.H.
Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary
For three-and-a-half decades, the freshwater tidal wetlands, marshes and forests of the Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary have been a haven for migrant birds and native reptiles and amphibians. These days, the 1,700-acre park is offering some much- needed sanctuary for humans, too. In normal times, this vibrant ecosystem is a living, breathing lesson for school groups and environmental researchers, who come to study the diversity of animal life and monitor the health of Jug Bay and the Patuxent River. But today, with the visitors center closed, it’s a quiet place to let yourself be enveloped in nature.
First-time visitors should start with the relatively flat Railroad Bed Trail, which follows the traces of the Chesapeake Beach Railway, which once ferried pleasure-seekers from the District to the resort town of Chesapeake Beach before going bankrupt in the midst of the Great Depression. The path, on a peninsula leading to the Patuxent, leads through a tunnel of tall trees, with marshes full of wild rice and cattails on either side. Listen for birdcalls and rushing winds over head, and mysterious “bloops” coming from the shallow waters, and take note of benches, where you can look out over the water. The Scrub-Shrub Boardwalk leads off into the wetlands itself, a walkway suspended over the water offering an up-close look at an unfamiliar environment.
Blinds are scattered throughout the park, but the wooden shelters are used for observation, not hunting: More than 200 species of birds are seen annually at Jug Bay, according to various counts, and the National Audubon Society has named it an Important Bird Area.
Numerous trails run through the sanctuary — 17 miles in all — broken into chunks ranging from just over a mile to jaunts that take several hours, depending on how much time you have to enjoy the space. No matter how long that is, you’ll wish you could spend just a little longer gazing out over the plants gently waving in the water or watching for signs of beavers and birds.
1361 Wrighton Rd., Lothian, Md. Open Wednesday and Friday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. jugbay.org. Free. — F.H.
Twenty miles south of the District, there’s a rural retreat where red Devon cattle graze in idyllic pastures, and lambs and piglets hungrily greet passersby.
Piscataway Park, a sprawling sanctuary in Accokeek, Md., is remarkably tranquil. Even on warm days, crowds remain sparse, and it’s sufficiently removed to attract wildlife, such as bald eagles and ospreys. The birdwatching is top notch; Piscataway is located along the Atlantic Flyway, a well-trafficked migration route, and common birds at the park include herons, hawks, falcons and wood-warblers.
Multiple hiking trails carve through Piscataway’s scenic woodlands, wetlands and meadows. The Blackberry Trail, for example, is lined with pokeweed and pawpaw trees, and the Riverview Trail is, naturally, the place to go for striking river views.
Pisacataway’s trails and pathways remain open, but the park’s visitor’s center is closed, and volunteer events and other scheduled activities are on pause. National Colonial Farm, a living “museum” that demonstrates 18th century agriculture, is open, but its farmhouse is closed to discourage people from congregating in enclosed areas. You can still say hello to the tenants: rare breeds of livestock, including Hog Island sheep and Ossabaw Island hogs.
Piscataway is a popular destination for water activities, with a fishing pier, boat ramps and kayak launches along the shoreline. No watercraft is necessary to revel in the pier’s stunning, private views of the Potomac — including a new perspective on Mount Vernon, which is directly across the river.
3400 Bryan Point Rd., Accokeek, Md. Open daily from dawn to dusk. nps.gov/pisc. Free. — A.H.
Sky Meadows State Park
In a state known for its numerous historic sites and stunning natural beauty, Sky Meadows State Park has always managed to strike a balance between the two. Set in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Sky Meadows includes a two-and-a-half-mile segment of the Appalachian Trail, challenging hikes up steep inclines and easy walks through rolling meadows. But the land can be traced back to James Ball, a settler who purchased the land from Lord Fairfax in 1731, and it includes several farms and living-history areas, where weekend visitors can watch blacksmiths forge iron into tools, learn about cooking in the 19th century or quiz Civil War reenactors.
As at other parks, however, the visitors center has closed and interactive lessons have paused, leaving the park, which stretches almost 1,900 acres, the domain of hikers, cyclists and horseback riders. (Ten of the park’s 19 trails are approved for equestrians as well as hikers, reminding you that you’re solidly in the heart of Virginia’s horse country.)
Casual visitors should head for the “historic area” section of the park, where the parking lots are close to farmland and meadows, where children can stretch their legs and adults can sit under a tree. The trails in this section of the park, known as Blue Ridge Backcountry, are shown on the park map in short segments of a mile or so and well-blazed, so they can be strung together to make longer hikes. Easy or moderate dirt and gravel trails lead to the ruins of Snowden Manor, which burned a century ago, and awe- inspiring overlooks with views of the hills and fields of the region, though be warned: Even trails marked “easy” can have surprising grades to climb, and after a little over an hour of exploring on a recent visit, an iPhone health app had logged the equivalent of climbing 43 flights of stairs. (Those up for more exercise can look at virginiatrailguide.com and hikingupwards.com, which offer detailed guides for longer excursions.)
The sheer size of Sky Meadows makes it perfect for people who need space. Even when the parking lot is full on a weekday afternoon, visitors on the trails are alone more often than they’re within sight of other hikers. For some, that’s the perfect kind of social distancing.
11012 Edmonds Lane, Delaplane, Va. Open daily from 8 a.m. to dusk. $7 per car; $10 weekends April through October. dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/sky-meadows. — F.H.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said that outdoor restrooms and extra handwashing stations were available at Piscataway Park. The National Park Service decided to remove them. This version has been updated.