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Oct 22, 2023

The 10 best picnic spots in the D.C. area, according to park rangers

There are few life experiences that evoke a feeling of total leisure more than a picnic. The deliberate choice to dine in nature, away from work and chores and worldly responsibilities. The smell of the grass, the sounds of the birds. The possibility of a Frisbee toss before dessert.

To help you find the perfect picnic spot, we asked the experts: rangers from 10 public parks around Washington. They know these oases better than anyone and can point to the best spots to lay down a blanket for two or invite your whole crew to meet up for a barbecue. Some of their picks offer other opportunities for recreation, including hikes, playing fields and even a roller rink. Others feature stunning views and glimpses of history.

So the next time the sun shines and you’re ready to do little beyond eat and relax, pack your basket and head to one of these just-about-perfect picnic spots.

(Quick note: Bring a container to hold water to extinguish your fire if you plan on using a grill, and take care to either dispose of all your trash in a receptacle at the park or take it out with you when you leave.)

D.C.

Washingtonians don't even need to leave the city to explore a national park, since this 1,754-acre sanctuary is right in their backyards. With more than 30 designated picnic areas here (some of which are first-come, first-serve and some of which require reservations), Rock Creek Park has a spot for everyone, says volunteer and youth programs coordinator Kyle Yarusso.

Need plenty of parking options? Try Picnic Grove 13 and 24. Want the prettiest view? His favorite is the busy Picnic Grove 1 near the historic circa-1820s Peirce Mill, with easy access to a multiuse trail. Or try Picnic Groves 6 through 10 along Beach Drive. "That's a great place to take in the sights and sounds of the actual Rock Creek," Yarusso says.

To beat the crowds, Yarusso recommends Picnic Groves 16 through 19 along a quiet area of Glover Road. "That's an area to escape without really going too far," he says. Another peaceful picnic option is right outside his office at Rock Creek Park headquarters in the Klingle Mansion near the National Zoo. "It's a hidden gem," he says. "We’ve got a big grassy field here, a big meadow; there are lots of folks who like to take advantage and lay their blanket out here."

2401 Tilden St. NW. 202-895-6000. nps.gov/rocr.

National Park Service ranger Vincent Vaise is the program manager for visitor services at National Capital Parks East, which means he has multiple parks in his portfolio — and one of them, Anacostia Park, has a feature that's one of a kind. "We have the only owned and operated roller skate pavilion in the Park Service," he says. "How many places can you go picnicking and then go roller skating?" You can even rent skates free from a kiosk in June, July and August — with special entertainment like Late Skate nights with a DJ and theme nights (think ’70s or ’90s night). There are bathrooms in the roller rink, and picnic amenities like grills as well as riverfront views.

If two wheels are more your speed, Vaise recommends packing a picnic onto the back of your bike. "We have the Anacostia River Trail, and picnic areas are interspersed along the trail," he says, whether that's under a tree by the river or in "these little castle-like outcroppings." Start biking at the lower part of Anacostia, right across from Navy Yard, and the trail will take you into Maryland all the way up to Bladensburg.

1500 Anacostia Dr. SE. 202-692-6080. nps.gov/anac.

Maryland

A historic fort, a lighthouse, an incredible view and reliable summer breezes are what move Fort Washington Park to the top of Ranger Vaise's favorite spots to picnic. "If you’ve never been there, you’re missing out," he says. "When you picnic at Fort Washington, you have this panoramic vista of the whole Potomac River." At this spot situated just a 15-minute drive from National Harbor, you’ll see Mount Vernon and Alexandria on the Virginia side and, on a clear day, D.C. There are picnic tables available, but Vaise also recommends setting up your meal on a blanket either on the hillside overlooking the river or under a tree near the lighthouse.

History buffs should make time to tour the fort, complete with underground chambers and a drawbridge at the entrance. In this area, he says, "it's as close to a medieval castle as you are going to get."

13551 Fort Washington Rd., Fort Washington. 301-763-4600. nps.gov/fowa.

As chief of interpretation, education and volunteers at C&O Canal National Historical Park, Christiana Hanson has a lot of ground to cover. "We are a 184.5-mile park, so long and lean," she says. "We stretch from Georgetown all the way up to Cumberland, Maryland." That's a lot of picnicking opportunities, and Hanson divides her recommendations into close-to-the-city options and much more rural spots.

For the former, the Carderock Recreation Area just off the Clara Barton Parkway is one of Hanson's favorite picnic destinations. Not only does this spot offer access to the canal, towpath and the banks of the Potomac River, there's also a big 200-person covered pavilion that's available to reserve online. It's a quintessential recreation spot, offering picnic tables, restrooms, lots of parking and a grassy area for soccer with a volleyball court nearby. "It's just a really nice oasis, super close to the city but also stepping into nature," she says. It's also within easy access of the very popular (and challenging) Billy Goat Trail, which offers rock scrambles and great views of the Potomac's waterfalls and rapids. "Usually, folks either come to the Great Falls area and end their day at Carderock or they set up in Carderock and walk up to the falls," Hanson says.

Another of Hanson's preferred picnic options is Fletcher's Cove, an angler's paradise in the District. "It's literally on the river, so you have really amazing views," she says.

But if you want to really get away from city life, follow C&O Canal's towpath to explore Maryland canal towns like Brunswick, Williamsport and Cumberland, then duck back into the national park for a picnic, in a hiker/biker campsite or elsewhere. "There are a lot of off-the-beaten-trail spots along the towpath where folks can take a pause and have a picnic," she says.

Carderock Recreation Area, 9500 MacArthur Blvd., Bethesda. 301-739-4200. nps.gov/choh.

Fletcher's Cove, 4940 Canal Rd. NW. nps.gov/places/000/fletchers-boathouse.htm.

The Pines picnic area at this Gaithersburg park really exceeds expectations, says Manuel Toscana, a Maryland state park lead ranger who has Seneca Creek State Park under his purview. "It almost feels scenic even though you’re right by the parking lot, which is kind of crazy to say," Toscana jokes. "There are these beautiful old pines that were planted there many years ago. You don't feel like you are in the middle of Montgomery County. You feel like you are out in the woods." There are grills and bathrooms nearby, and if you stand in the right spot among the pines, you can even catch a view of Clopper Lake.

Picnickers in search of wide-open spaces can head to an expansive field near the lake, with shade courtesy of a few big trees. "It's pretty romantic," he says. "There are a lot of people who come in an hour or two before the park closes, and they will enjoy it right up until closing time."

11950 Clopper Rd., Gaithersburg. 888-432-2267. dnr.maryland.gov.

Phillip S. Greenwalt likes to think of the Catoctin Mountain Park's Chestnut Picnic Area as a little snapshot of the entire national park. To get to this collection of ADA-accessible picnic tables and restrooms, you’ll take a scenic drive through this park situated in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Right near the picnic area, there's a trailhead for the Spicebush Nature Trail, a 0.2-mile-long path made with a wheelchair-friendly rubberized material called WoodCarpet.

"We invite people for that first step to get away," says Greenwalt, the chief of interpretation and education at Catoctin. "It is a unique area because it seems like you are on the side of the mountain in the woods, but you’re real close to Park Central Road — you’re real close to getting back to the visitors center." It's also a great hub to explore the trails on the west side of the park and the park's horse trails, so you might see some riders trotting by.

Chestnut Picnic Area is also studded with signs that explain Catoctin Mountain Park's inspiring history: After being clear-cut, the area was reforested during the New Deal. "You get to see a park that is a success story," Greenwalt says, "where nature and humans interacted and created something that returned it to its original beauty."

14707 Park Central Rd., Thurmont. 301-663-9388. nps.gov/cato.

Virginia

When most Washingtonians think of Wolf Trap, they envision a concert under the stars headlined by the likes of Indigo Girls or John Legend. But Jan Lemons, chief ranger at Wolf Trap, is just as familiar with the sounds of birds singing and water trickling through Wolf Trap Run, the stream running through this national park.

"I know we get several hundred thousand [visitors] a year just for the concerts, but we do have three miles of hiking trails," she says. "With our ease of accessibility, along with our beautiful scenery, we also encourage people to come out for a hike and a picnic."

To that end, Wolf Trap just completed three new wooden picnic decks that are fully accessible and look out over the park's meadows below. Bathrooms and parking are within easy reach of the Meadow Picnic Area. If you’re keen to eat on a picnic blanket, Lemons also recommends walking through the meadow and posting up right by the stream for a "peaceful, tranquil setting." There's no grilling allowed at Wolf Trap, but leashed dogs are always welcome for a picnic with pets.

1551 Trap Rd., Vienna. 703-255-1800. nps.gov/wotr.

There are seven established picnic areas in Shenandoah National Park, located 75 miles from D.C. and home to spectacular vistas along its Skyline Drive. Each picnic area is "wooded and very rustic," says Claire Comer, an interpretive specialist at Shenandoah. Picnickers will find grates for grilling (you’re not allowed to start a fire anywhere else), as well as picnic tables, water and comfort stations.

If you’re looking for an official picnic area that's even more secluded, Comer recommends the Elkwallow picnic area, which is located at the top of a little trail. Another option that stands out to her is Pinnacles Picnic Grounds, where an old, four-sided fireplace sits under a shelter for homespun s’mores.

Of course, Shenandoah is known for its views. "There are about 70 overlooks along Skyline Drive; those are all beautifully scenic," Comer says. Leave the coolers and picnic baskets at home and travel light to eat a sandwich by a waterfall — there are 14 waterfall hikes, with varying degrees of difficulty. "Whiteoak [Canyon Trail] is a favorite, but it's very crowded," she says. "Dark Hollow [Falls Trail] is the shortest one, although it's not an easy hike. It's very, very steep, but it's only a mile-and-a-half round trip." Or if you’re not afraid of heights, Comer suggests picnicking at an overlook like Crescent Rock or Hogback. "Those western-facing overlooks are wonderful places to see the sunset," she says.

21073 Skyline Dr., Front Royal. 540-999-3500. nps.gov/shen.

Ikea shoppers in Woodbridge might not guess that a massive national park is located less than 30 minutes from Potomac Mills’ big-box store sprawl. "We are the largest green space in the metro D.C. area," explains Kerri Syrus, park ranger of interpretation at Prince William Forest Park. "We are nearly 16,000 acres of forest, just right outside of the hustle and bustle."

Syrus is about to celebrate a decade working at the park, but there are still areas of the park she has yet to explore. She does have a favorite picnic area, however: Right near Parking Lot E, there are a few picnic tables in a "nice quiet open area." It's a bit more private than the popular Pine Grove Picnic Area, which boasts amenities like restrooms, grills and a playground.

Stretch your legs post-picnic with a walk on the three miles of the park's Scenic Drive that are set aside for bikers, joggers and walkers. "You don't have to dodge the traffic; you get a whole lane dedicated to you," Syrus says.

18170 Park Entrance Rd., Triangle. 703-221-7181. nps.gov/prwi.

If you’re planning a picnic for a big crew and want to be smack dab in the middle of outdoor activities, Lake Fairfax's acting park manager Todd Johnson suggests the "people's favorite" picnic shelters, simply named H, I, J and K. These covered shelters are available for reservation for a fee, with room for up to 100 people. "They have the view of the lake," says Johnson, and they are near the entrance to the Reston park's family water park, the Water Mine, as well as the site for rentals for paddle boats and kayaks on summer weekends. These shelters are also near restrooms and parking.

For smaller groups of picnickers, about 200 yards from those shelters you’ll find first-come, first-served picnic tables with grills. "It's still in a very desirable location in proximity to the core area of the park," Johnson says.

But if you want to get away from it all and spread out a picnic blanket, check out the Multipurpose Fields that are adjacent to the Lake Fairfax Park Cricket Field. "It is a very large and quiet area of the park," Johnson says, "much more quiet then when we hosted Lollapalooza [here] in the early 1990s."

1400 Lake Fairfax Dr., Reston. 703-471-5415. fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/lake-fairfax.

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