Winter in DC: A Guide to Getting Outside
Written by: Leila Farrer
With brisk winds rolling in from the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, colder weather is just around the corner in DC. Washingtonians are retreating into warm museums or cozying up at local cafés (we highly recommend the chai latte at Tryst in Adams Morgan!). The holidays will be here before we know it—the National Christmas Tree on the White House Ellipse was planted way back in October!
There are plenty of places in the District to stay toasty and warm this winter, but if you’re starting to feel the cabin fever, you can get a little fresh air and reconnect with nature right here in the city. According to a 2019 Trust for Public Land survey, DC ranks first in the nation for park accessibility! 98 percent of DC residents live within a 10-minute walk of green space. Whether you’re a local or visiting for a few days, here are a few easy-to-get-to spots to be among the trees this winter.
United States Botanic Garden
At the Botanic Garden, walk through the doors and trade the city for the jungle. Okay, so this one is technically indoors, but it’s this writer’s favorite place to be on a cold DC day (she even held her 9th birthday party here!). The glass-roofed conservatory boasts enormous tropical plants, delicate medicinal specimens, rare orchid species, and primeval varieties—and it’s always a comfortable 75 degrees or so.
The idea for the gardens dates back to founding fathers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, whose dream for the Federal City included a botanic garden on the National Mall. The conservatory was established in 1820 and has since served as an encyclopedic resource for botanical research. The collection includes about 65,000 plants!
This winter, don’t miss the Botanic Garden’s spectacular annual Christmas display. Nestled among poinsettias and Spanish moss, you’ll find miniature trains zooming through one-of-a-kind hand-made botanical sculptures. Each year, the garden creates model buildings out of lacquered plants like acorns, leaves, and fungi. This year’s theme explores other botanic gardens and conservatories from around the country. Previous themes have included national park landforms and fairytale castles. The Garden Court also displays scale botanical models of iconic buildings from around the National Mall. The holiday exhibition runs November 28, 2019-January 5, 2020. Plus, on select Tuesday and Thursday evenings in December, the Conservatory is open until 8 pm with live seasonal music.
10 am-5 pm daily | Free | Metro access: Blue/Orange/Silver at Federal Triangle; some metered parking
Rock Creek Park
Washington DC’s outdoor crown jewel is Rock Creek Park. Created in 1890, this 1754-acre urban green space was the third national park to be designated by the federal government. Between vast swaths of forest, rolling fields, 32 miles of trails, nature centers, historic buildings, and a planetarium, there is certainly something for everyone in Rock Creek.
Take a winter hike through the woods, up steep hills and through peaceful valleys. Paved areas offer great space for bikes and strollers. If you’re looking to soak in some nature but stay indoors, check out a ranger-led program at the nature center or nearby horse stables. History buffs will enjoy visits to Pierce Mill, built in the 1820s, or one of dozens of monuments, memorials, and forts. Speaking of which, we recommend Fort Reno as one of the best sledding spots in the District. Just a few blocks from the Tenleytown-AU Metro and just west of Rock Creek proper, this Civil War fort-turned-park is also operated by the National Park Service.
Dawn to dusk | Free | Accessible by Metro bus; plenty of free parking in designated lots
If you’re looking to find yourself alone in a winter forest, look no further than the US National Arboretum. Established in 1927 and covering 446 acres, the Arboretum is a remote gem, far from city noise, though still within city limits. This winter, explore its evergreen conifer collection, including pine, cedar, spruce, and hemlock species. Enjoy the crisp air and bright green views from a gazebo nestled among the trees.
The National Arboretum is also well known for its National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, featuring a truly amazing collection of those artfully cultivated miniature trees, some of which are hundreds of years old. In the winter months, find serenity and calm among Japanese, Chinese, and American varieties on view in the Chinese Pavilion.
National Arboretum, 8 am-5 pm daily; National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, 10 am-4 pm daily Free | Accessible by Metro bus, Capital Bike Share; plenty of free parking
Theodore Roosevelt Island
For those seeking to explore river ecosystems, Theodore Roosevelt Island on the Potomac River is a great choice. Park your car on the Virginia side of the river and walk across a scenic footbridge to the island, where no motor vehicles or bicycles are allowed. Bundle up to explore a wintery landscape featuring almost three miles of wooded trails and wildlife.
Don’t be fooled, though—Roosevelt Island is actually a constructed landscape. According to the National Park Service, “architects at the Olmsted Brothers Firm [of Central Park fame] and workers from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps cleared, graded, and replanted it to look ‘real.’” Before it was a park, the island had many lives that disrupted the natural landscape. Used originally by the Nacotchtank Indians around 1668, the island was transferred to the hands of colonists by 1724, existing under various ownerships. When the 1st United States Colored Infantry formed during the Civil War, the island became a military training camp. In 1898, chemist Charles Edward Munro used the land as a test site for explosives. Today, the island has been transformed into a memorial for President Theodore Roosevelt, run by the National Park Service.
Constructed landscape or not, Roosevelt Island is beautiful in every season. Added bonus: leashed dogs are welcome!
6 am-10 pm daily | Free | Metro access: Blue/Orange/Silver at Rosslyn; plenty of free parking
Dumbarton Oaks Gardens
Find an ideal cultivated landscape at Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown. When Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss purchased the house in 1920, they also acquired several dozen acres of property, which they transformed into beautiful gardens. Explore terraces with potted plants, boxwood sculptures, hidden staircases, orchards and kitchen gardens, winding forest paths, sweeping vistas, and flowers blooming all year round. Warm up in the orangery greenhouse or on a milder day, bring your favorite book and sit in the walled Star Garden, which features custom stonework, wrought-iron furniture, and a fountain ornamented with various constellations.
If you’re looking for a great introduction to the garden’s design and history, tours are available at 2:10 pm, Wednesday-Saturday, weather permitting. We also highly recommend checking out the Dumbarton Oaks museum while you’re there. Half historic house, half exhibit space, Dumbarton Oaks displays world-class collections of ancient Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art.
Gardens: 2-5 pm daily | Free from November 1-March 14 | Accessible by Metro bus; street parking
Sculpture Garden Ice Rink
Get moving on the ice this winter on the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden’s ice rink! One of the few places to skate in the District, the NGA’s outdoor rink certainly provides the most evocative surroundings. Zoom around the ice while gazing upon sculptures from the likes of Alexander Calder, Roy Lichtenstein, Tony Smith, Louise Bourgeois, and other acclaimed modern and contemporary artists. The greenery and art create such a secret gardenesque oasis that you’ll practically forget you’re in the heart of the nation’s capital. Warm up between skate sessions at the Pavilion Café—we can vouch for their excellent hot chocolate.
Open daily, hours vary | Two 45-minute sessions: $9 adults under 50; $8 adults 50+, kids, students with ID, military | Sculpture Garden without skating: Free | Metro access: Red at Judiciary Square
This winter, Urban Adventures invites you to embrace the cold and enjoy the District’s best outdoor spots without the crowds! Whether you’re in the mood for a hike, a brisk spin around the ice, or more tropical climes, you don’t have to go far to find your peaceful green space fix. Contact us for custom tour options in some of these wonderful places! Where will this season take you?