Fall is one of the best times to hit the road. There is always plenty to see from point A to point B when the leaves are mid-change! If you’ve been putting off a get-away for fear your little traveler can’t handle a hotel stay, test the waters with these easy day trips that offer vacation vibes within a short drive of the DC area.
For those who prefer urban amenities, but in a setting that exudes charm, then Maryland’s Capitol City of Annapolis is a winning mini-vacation spot. Annapolis is a quaint bayside town with picturesque, sailboat-studded water views. Luckily, you don’t have to own your own boat to enjoy the Chesapeake Bay. You can join any number of popular boating experiences from guided tours to sunset sailing. In addition to a boating adventure, the perfect weekend getaway to Annapolis would include some time walking down Main Street where you’ll find a great selection of shops selling souvenirs, antiques, art, and nautical-themed gifts, a tour of the U.S. Naval Academy, plus one of many kid-friendly activities the city offers, including a life-like pirate adventure on a majestic ship and several well-equipped parks. Distance: 54 miles/1-hour drive
Jellystone Park Camp and Resort,, Williamsburg, MD
This kid paradise, just 75 miles or so away, offers an exceptional family camping experience where beautiful natural surroundings are paired with so many activities for the kids that you’ll never hear the words: “mommy, I’m bored.” Located at the scenic foothills of western Maryland, Jellystone features swimming pools and a water zone with waterslides, onsite mini-golf, gen mining, an arcade, jumping pillow, laser tag, outdoor sports, and playgrounds. Need we say more? You can park your camper, pitch your tent, or rent a luxury cabin. It’s the perfect kid-centered getaway.
Bayside Break at North Beach, MD
With a quaint boardwalk perfect for the stroller crowd, and a family-friendly focus, North Beach, along with its geographic "twin" Chesapeake Beach, is a great choice for young broods looking for easy alternatives to busier (and farther) destinations along Maryland's coast. Check out the town's events calendar to learn more about alternating live music and "Crafts and Campfire" nights on the beach.
Family Style Amusement at Dutch Wonderland in Lancaster, PA
Just a few more minutes in the mini-van and you and your crew can hit this one of a kind amusement park for the pint-sized, where a color coded system ensures everyone knows which rides are just right for them. Reasonably priced admissions (with discounts for advance purchase), and sufficiently thrilling rides, along with a side of traditional theme park entertainment, make the family-owned Dutch Wonderland a good bet for young families from across the Mid-Atlantic area. Head to the water park area to cool off, included in the admission price, and where you can also rent cabanas for a nice place to relax out of the sun. If the older sibs are ready to graduate to the big time, follow the scent of chocolate and visit nearby Hershey Park, PA. Combination passes to both Dutch Wonderland and Hershey Park are a good bargain, allowing for one all day visit to each of the parks over the summer season.
Skyline Drive in Shenandoah Natl. Park, Luray, VA
It’s nothing short of divine. Some call it the best mountain drive in the United States and it’s right here in your back yard. Skyline Drive runs 105 miles north and south along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park. Words like gorgeous, breathtaking, and magical all fall short of what you’ll see and how you’ll feel after a day cruising the ups and downs, and twists and turns of this stunning landscape. On a clear day you can travel the length of the park in three hours, but allow plenty of time to stop and take it all in. You’ll all love it. We promise. Need to stretch legs? Get out of the car to take advantage of miles of hiking trails.
King Barn Dairy Mooseum, Boyds, MD
A fitting name for a fabulous place where you can help teach your little ones something about where their food comes from. The MOOseum is a dairy heritage museum that explores the history of dairy farms in Montgomery County, Maryland. It features interactive exhibits and educational programs. You can spend the day learning about the importance of the dairy cow in Montgomery County’s rural history, as well as her economic impact on the entire Washington, D.C. area. You can tour the farm for free, so pack a picnic and plan to spend extra time at the children’s playground adjacent to the farm.
Living History at Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, WV
One of several Civil War history hot spots in the region, Harper's Ferry National Park has the most to see and do, not to mention its location along the famed Appalachian Trail. While standing on the fields of Antietam or Gettysburg offers great perspective on the bloodshed of the Great Rebellion, this town instead tells the story of what it was like to live during that time. See the Living History Weekends event calendar here.
Virginia Safari Park, Natural Bridge, VA
For an unforgettable day trip, try Virginia’s only drive-thru zoo, where you can see wild animals from the safety of your own car while they roam freely in a natural environment. This 180-acre park is home to more than 1000 exotic animals from six different continents. Just make sure you’re not in a hurry, because many of the animals are known to chillax in the middle of the road for as long as they feel like it. All you can do is watch and wait.
Lilypons Water Gardens, Adamstown, MD
From the website, you might think Lilypons is simply a store where you can buy Water Lilies and the like, but it’s so much more than that. With 250 acres of picturesque greenery and countless, colorful ponds, it’s a lovely destination for a lazy family picnic. Bring your binoculars for a little bird watching and your wallet if you happen to live on a bog and need to fill it with colorful lotus flowers. Visit in summer when the water lilies are at their peak.
Massanutten Water Park, VA
Prepare the kids for mind-blowing fun, because that’s what you get at the Massanutten Water Park, just a couple hours west of D.C. Here you’ll find a multitude of ways to get wet: waterfalls, sprayers, dumping buckets…you name it. Float down the lazy river, conquer one of eight giant waterslides, surf the waves, and soak in the hot tub. There’s something for everyone, from your littlest guppy to your most fearless shark.
Potomac Point Winery, Stafford, VA
Yes, we put a winery on this list. Why? Because it’s kid-friendly! Potomac Winery in Stafford, V might just be the area’s best-kept secret. The gorgeous, Mediterranean-style building and phenomenal views of rolling vineyards create the perfect backdrop for a family picnic. There’s a quaint and private picnic area you can claim for yourself. Then, mosey up to the tasting room for a glass of wine. There’s a separate room just for kids, so they can play while you do the swish and swirl. It’s a great day for the whole family.
Science Museum of Virginia, Richmond, VA
The Science Museum of Virginia is where science, fun and hands-on learning team up for a day of mind-bending bliss. The lobby features an enormous example of Focoult’s Pendulum where you can witness the earth’s rotation in action as the pendulum knocks over a giant metal peg every 15 minutes. And that’s just the lobby. Throughout the museum you’ll find hands-on-fun with a variety of interactive exhibits. You can stack blocks to form a gravity-defying cantilever; marvel at the mechanics of labor-saving devices such as pulleys and gears; perform experiments of perception through lenses, lights, mirrors and prisms; understand the power of air pressure by launching a rocket; and study an actual moon rock recovered from Apollo 17. It’s a great educational and unforgettable day trip.
Waterfall Adventure at Rocks State Park in Jarrettsville, MD
Kilgore Falls served as backdrop to the film Tuck Everlasting, and is a cool treat at the conclusion of a reasonably easy hike at this State Park in Harford County Maryland. Other highlights include formations of the kind found in the name of the park itself, including King and Queen Seat believed to be a ceremonial site for Native Americans. Also bring your little rock scramblers to the Park's Natural Playspace, one of a handful of designated areas across the State where you'll find miniaturized versions of the local landscape. For a similar experience a little closer to home, try what is described as an even family-friendlier hike to Cascade Falls located in the Orange Grove area of Patapsco State Park.
Join one of the group stereo bus tours of this historic battlefield and get an unforgettable recreation of the famed battle by Hollywood actors. Spend some time strolling the scenic cobblestoned streets and perusing civil war artifacts on display in various shops. If you and the little ones are feeling brave, you can indulge in a nighttime ghost walking tour that leads you to a year-round haunted house.
Art in Nature at Anne Marie Sculpture Garden, Solomons Island, MD
The beautiful grounds of the Anne Marie Sculpture garden alone are worth the trip to this enclave where you will find paved paths through the woods with artistic surprises, and a variety of special events all year long making for some of the most unique family outings anywhere. Tease out your little modern-day Picasso with a visit to ARTlab where artists of all ages repurpose a variety of materials to make new works of art.
Stalactite City at Luray Caverns, VA
Discovered by a small party of men in 1878, amongst them a thirteen year old boy, this famous series of caverns is still believed to be the biggest in the East. The fascinating rock formations with names like Dream Lake and Double Column make for an incredible backdrop to an hour long tour along a 1.25 mile stroller-friendly path. Included in the admission price are two bonus attractions including the Car and Carvan Museum.
Liberty Mountain Snowflex Center in Lynchburg, VA
Get ready for the mind-blowing thrills of skiing and tubing without having to deal with the contentious whimsy of a weather forecast. Snowflex is synthetic snow that offers multiple layers of cushioning to protect you from falls. Kids as young as two years old can enjoy the beginner slopes, as well as the nursery Neveplast tubing run (waterless tubing), which features an 80-foot run with speeds near 10mph. Older kids can take advantage of the bigger, faster runs.
Sandy Point State Park, Annapolis, MD
No, you don’t have to wait in long lines of traffic and cross multiple bridges just to enjoy a little sun and surf. Sandy Point State Park is a 750+ acre park less than 40 miles from downtown D.C. that runs along the Northwestern shore of the Chesapeake Bay. It features beaches, picnic areas, scenic water views, boat rentals, wildlife viewing and more, plus a stunning view of the Bay Bridge that doesn’t involve you being stuck on it!
Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton, MD
Architectural Digest calls it one of the top 10 topiary gardens in the world, and lucky for us it’s just a short drive from D.C. Twenty-two acres of artistically sculptured gardens is the perfect way to unwind from the tensions of city life and remember what the word breathtaking really means. Enjoy more than 100 living sculptures, 15 garden rooms, a swimming pool, a butterfly house, and more. Kids will love the life-sized Hunt Scene of topiary horses, riders, hounds and foxes.
Eastern Shore Charm in Chestertown, MD
The best part about Chestertown on the Eastern Shore of Maryland's Chesapeake Bay, is that there is no specific place where tourists flock, or recommended activity. Chestertown is just a place out of yesteryear to enjoy a stroll with the family along a riverfront walk, or where you might find kiddo (and even yourself) immersed amongst other muggles in the imaginary world of Harry Potter.
—Meghan Yudes Meyers with Carolyn Ross and Ayren Jackson-Cannady
featured photo: istock