Whether you’re looking to peep leaves while on foot or you just want to stretch your legs while social-distancing, these kid-friendly hikes offer flat, easy trails that keep kids under 5 engaged and entertained. Grab your nature journal and your binoculars and get ready to share the great outdoors with your little city slicker on these scenic walks that feature water, wildlife, and even a waterfall or two. Scroll down for the best paths and trails for kids under 5 near Washington, DC.
photo: Smithsonian National Zoological Park
Smithsonian National Zoological Park
The National Zoo ticks off all the fall hike boxes: changing leaves, guaranteed animal sightings and well-paved, easy to walk trails. Due to COVID, you do need to reserve your free pedestrian pass prior to a visit (car reservations are now $30 and include entry for up to 4 visitors), but with well-controlled crowds you can rest assured that your walk in these woods will be socially-distanced. The Olmsted Walk, a .8 mile trail that winds from the front to the back of the zoo, is currently open. Some exhibits and paths off the main trail are currently closed.
3001 Connecticut Ave NW
photo: Andrew H. via Yelp
Rock Creek Park
There are over 32 miles of paths and trails winding through Rock Creek Park, but we think a great place to start when hiking with littles is at the Peirce Mill where you can park and use restrooms. You can tour the mills Fri.-Sun. in Oct. and on Sat.-Sun. in Nov. After a short history lesson, pick up a free trail map at the mill and then head out on Valley Trail, which runs parallel to the creek.
2401 Tilden St NW
Rock Creek Park
photo: Danny V. via Yelp
Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens
Little eyes (and hands) will love the lilies and lotuses that abound at this D.C. landmark. The park’s two and a half-mile trail takes walkers and strollers through 75 acres of marshes and 45 ponds filled with plants and wildlife. This urban oasis is also known for its free kids programs, including scavenger hunts and bi-monthly story and craft time that are perfect for preschoolers. Got an early riser? You’re in luck. The park recommends early morning visits for the great views and low humidity.
1550 Anacostia Ave. NE
photo: Meghan Yudes Meyers
Elizabeth Mills Riverfront Park
Tucked behind The Golf Club at Lansdowne is one of NOVA’s best kept secrets, Elizabeth Mills Regional Park. These flat, easy paths are perfect for young hikers and smooth enough to push a wheelchair through. The trail mostly follows the Potomac River, providing stunning views for most of the walk. There is also a narrow path on the water’s edge. There is a large, open field immediately before the trails; it’s the perfect spot for a picnic or a game of catch.
43513 Squirrel Ridge Pl.
photo: Nellie B. via Yelp
Turkey Run Park
You don’t have to drive far to be completely immersed in nature. Just 8 miles from the Roosevelt Bridge, Turkey Run Park offers family-friendly hiking on terrains that range from mostly flat to extremely rocky. Be sure to bring the binoculars and try to identify one of the 140 species of birds that call this park home. There are a number of trails, but the short loop off the C-1 parking lot is most favored by families. It’s a steep incline to and from the parking lot but is otherwise smooth and flat near the river (and offers some pretty amazing views!). More wooded paths provide the opportunity to jump across streams and hop on rocks, but these trails are best suited for sure-footed preschoolers. If you wander away from the river’s edge, be sure to track your whereabouts by GPS; trail markers are faded or missing on many of the paths.
Turkey Run Loop Rd.
Bull Run-Occoquan Trail
If you want to get lost in the woods without actually getting, well, lost, head to this Virginia trail that is often noted as being one of the best marked in the DMV area. Follow the blue posts for an easy to moderate walk that offers views of a lake. If you find yourself climbing onto stepping stones or wading into water, you’ve missed a blue marker! Park at Hemlock Overlook Regional Park for a loop that is easy on short legs.
12619 Old Yates Ford Rd.
photo: Jodie C. via Yelp
Mason Neck State Park
Start your adventure at the Visitor’s Center where you can watch an introductory video and check out some preserved representations of the fish, reptiles and insects you may encounter in the park—don’t forget to pick up a map. There are a number of trails to choose from, but the entry-level, one mile Bay View Loop is the most recommended for those with small children. Kids will love stomping across the boardwalks that crisscross over the wetlands while they spot frogs, turtles and, most famously, bald eagles.
7301 High Point Rd
photo: Leslie V. via Yelp
Huntley Meadows Park
Little beach bums and nature lovers alike will enjoy a trek at Alexandria’s Huntley Meadows Park. With paved, dirt, and boardwalk trails, there’s lots of ways for tiny legs to explore this woods and wetlands. The one-mile trail includes several benches and overlooks where your crew can stop to rest or spot turtles, frogs, cardinals, and even a heron or two. Bring along some sunscreen, hats, and water, as there’s no shade in the park’s wetlands section.
3701 Lockheed Blvd.
photo: Creative Journeys Preschool via Yelp
Affectionately known as Great Falls’ “tamer neighbor,” Riverbend Park offers wee hikers the chance to explore the famous landscape on their own terms. Older kiddos may be up for a jaunt on the park’s two and half-mile portion of the Potomac Heritage Trail, while tiny adventure seekers and their parents should check out the paved (a.k.a. stroller-friendly) Duff ‘n’ Stuff trail. Does hiking make your crew hungry? Pack lunch and enjoy a riverside picnic right next to the park’s free nature center.
8700 Potomac Hills St.
Great Falls, VA
photo: Erina G. via Yelp
Cunningham Falls State Park
The Lower Falls Trail is a flat, easy-to-navigate one mile hike to the falls (that’s two miles round trip). This is a popular family trail where you will see toddlers and preschoolers easily making the trek on their own two feet. The payoff: a 78-foot waterfall that is sure to make little eyes go big. When the weather is nice, this is a hot spot for swimmers. In cooler months, it’s still tempting to at least dip your toe in. For more wildlife viewing, follow your hike with a visit to Catoctin Wildlife Preserve & Zoo.
14039 Catoctin Hollow Rd.
Photo: Paul via Flickr
Northwest Branch Stream Valley Park Trail
This Montgomery County park features both hard and natural surface trails, which makes it perfect for the stroller set. Located just south of the Beltway, your kiddos can stomp by streams and explore the same flora and fauna that were favorites of Theodore Roosevelt and Rachel Carson. In fact, the trail is part of Rachel Carson Greenway Trail Corridor, a 25-mile trail which will one day connect Prince George’s County to Patuxent River State Park. Don’t forget to keep your eyes peeled for the many beavers that call this trail home.
Off New Hampshire Ave. between Hyattsville and Adelphi
Sandy Spring, MD
Louise F. Cosca Regional Park
Sometimes, the journey is really about the destination. That’s the case at Louise F. Cosca Regional Park. Just steps off their kid-friendly, 1.4-mile hiking trail is the Clearwater Nature Center, which is known for its hands-on exhibits, including live animal displays and a butterfly garden. Tack on a paddleboat rental onto your itinerary to make a day out of your outdoor adventure.
11000 Thrift Rd.
—Meghan Yudes Meyers and Sarah Vogel
featured photo: Pexels