Looking for a safe way to entertain the little set? These well-paved paths and easy-to-navigate trails are perfected for tiny adventure seekers (a few can even accommodate strollers!). You don’t have to go far to enjoy some time in the outdoors, but we have some worth-the-drive destinations, too, for those hoping to fill a fall day with apple picking, pumpkin patches and fall hikes. Scroll down for the best paths and trails for kids under 5 in and near Washington, DC.
IN THE CITY
Theodore Roosevelt Island
This island is a 91-acre wilderness preserve that serves as a memorial to President Roosevelt, honoring his contributions to conservation of nature. The island has over two miles of foot trails where you can observe a variety of flora and fauna. Need a little history? In the center of the island, is a bronze statue of Roosevelt along with fountains and granite tablets inscribed with the former president’s conservation values. A variety of trails are available for walking, jogging or running. The Swamp Trail (1½ miles) is mostly flat with a boardwalk section while the Woods (2/3 mile) and Upland (¾ mile ) Trails are surfaced with pea-sized gravel.
George Washington Memorial Pkwy
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.
Editor's Note: All guests 2 & up must wear a mask while indoors, regardless of their vaccination status.
3001 Connecticut Ave NW
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.
Editor's Note: Masks are required inside the mill for all visitors 2 & up.
2401 Tilden St NW
Rock Creek Park
Washington and Old Dominion Trail (W&OD Trail)
Built on the roadbed of the former Washington & Old Dominion Railroad, the W&OD Trail runs 45 miles from Shirlington to Purcellville in Northern Virginia. There are numerous access points with parking, or users can simply walk on or off at a point of their choosing. You can catch it at different points throughout NOVA including Vienna, Reston, Leesburg and Ashburn. It’s fun because you make your way through cities and towns, over creeks and waterways.
I-395 to the Shirlington exit and turn left on South Four Mile Run Dr.
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. Need to burn off some extra energy after the hike? There is a large, open field at the trail openings; it's the perfect spot for a family game.
43513 Squirrel Ridge Pl.
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 VA 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.
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
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.
Cool Spring at Shenandoah University River Campus
If you prefer more than a six feet of buffer space, take a quick 45-minute drive to Loudoun County where wide open (paved) paths are ready for a stroller-stroll or a pint-sized hike. Cool Springs is the site of a former golf course transformed into an outdoor classroom by Shenandoah University. The public is invited to explore the paths that wind along 195 acres of land. Bikes, scooters and four-legged friends are all welcome.
1400 Parker Ln. Bluemont, VA
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
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.
Northwest Branch Stream Valley Park Trail
This Montgomery County park features both hard and natural surface trails, which makes it perfect for unsure feet and 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
Cosca Regional Park
Sometimes, the journey is really about the destination. That’s the case at 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.
Glen Echo Park
Glen Echo Park is a great place to take a leisurely walk. There’s lots of land to cover and a few bridges to cross. In the 1890s, it began as a Chautauqua retreat and soon became the premier DC area amusement park, until 1968. Today, you can still write the carousel housed in its original Art Deco building; the perfect way to kick off (or end) a stroll with tots!
7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo, MD
—Meghan Yudes Meyers and Sarah Vogel
featured photo: iStock