Fall is one of the most beautiful times of the year in the Washington, D.C., area. As the leaves begin to turn red, orange, and yellow, locals and tourists alike flock to the region to hike in local parks or drive in the mountains to see the full spectrum of colors. The display of leaves usually peaks in mid-to-late October in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. The intensity of color each year depends on the amount of rainfall, warm days, and cool nights throughout the season.
Some of the most popular places to enjoy fall foliage in the capital region are destinations that take a few hours to drive to from Washington, D.C., such as Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park, Blue Ridge Parkway, the Appalachian Trail, George Washington & Jefferson National Forests, and Deep Creek Lake. These lovely areas are ideal if you have a whole weekend for a getaway in order to fully enjoy them. However, you don’t have to travel that far to enjoy the gorgeous fall foliage, as some special sites with an abundance of color are right in the backyard of Washington, D.C.
One of the largest parks in Washington, D.C., and the third-oldest in the nation, Rock Creek Park stretches 30 miles from Montgomery County, Maryland, to downtown D.C. Here, you can enjoy some leaf peeping and a picnic, take a hike, go for a bike or horseback ride, or attend a park ranger program.
Throughout the year, you can explore the Rock Creek Park Nature Center and Planetarium, the historic Peirce Mill, or Old Stone House. Popular annual fall events include the Rock Creek Park Day in late September and the Heritage Festival in mid-October. Admission to Rock Creek Park and all attractions within the park is free.
Snaking along the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (C & O Canal) National Historical Park spans over 184 miles to Cumberland, Maryland, and offers guests breathtaking vistas and plenty of opportunities to hike, bike, fish, boat, and horseback ride along the towpath. The trailhead is located in the hip Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., making it one of the most accessible places to see fall foliage if you're staying in the Capital.
Access to the park boasting more than 20,000 acres is free, except for the Great Falls Entrance Station where visitors can get up close to the waterfalls of the Potomac River. It's about a 14-mile hike from Georgetown to the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center, but if you have access to a car you can drive there in just 20 minutes.
Popular events this time of year include the Dulcimer Music at Great Falls series, "A Very Retail Georgetown" historic walking tour, and Scary Stories on the Canal at the Great Falls Tavern.
The United States National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., is a living museum that showcases 446 acres of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants. You can tour the gardens on your own by foot, car, or bicycle or take the 40-minute tram ride and hear an informative taped narrative about the Arboretum, its history, and the display gardens and collections. Admission to the Arboretum is free for all visitors.
The National Arboretum offers a variety of hikes and public education programs throughout the year, but they typically wind down for the winter season. In October, you can catch the annual Under the Arbor: Chile Pepper Celebration in the National Herb Garden or try some full moon forest bathing in the middle of October.
Free parking is available onsite and the nearest metro stop is the Stadium-Armory Station. However, the station is about a two-mile walk from the Arboretum entrance.
The 500-acre estate of George Washington, located along the shores of the Potomac River in Mount Vernon, Virginia, is especially beautiful during the fall foliage season. You can take a tour of the estate while you're there to learn about the history of America's first president, but make sure you spend plenty of time outdoors exploring the gardens and taking in the natural scenery, too.
Parking at Mount Vernon is free, but you can also book a river cruise from Washington, D.C., or Alexandria, Virginia, that brings you right to the estate after a scenic trip along the Potomac. The admission price for adults is $20 and $12 for children (those aged 5 and under enter for free).
Fall Harvest Family Days, Fall Dried Wreath Workshops, and Trick-or-Treating at Mount Vernon are among the most popular annual events on the estate.
Stretching from Great Falls, Virginia, to Potomac, Maryland, Great Falls Park has some of the most spectacular views in the region. At various overlook points spread throughout the 800-acre park, you can witness all of the vibrant fall colors from 50-foot cliffs overlooking the Potomac River. Great Falls also offers hiking and biking trails and several picnic areas.
Due to flooding during the hurricane season (September through November), some trails and locations may be inaccessible. Swimming and entering the river are prohibited at the park due to deadly currents and flood possibilities, though kayaking with safety measures taken is allowed. Admission costs depend on if you are entering by vehicle or on foot, bike, or horseback, and grant access for seven consecutive days.
Located in Gaithersburg, Maryland, Seneca Creek State Park spans over 6,300 acres alongside 14 miles of the Seneca Creek. During the months of October and November, you can spend an entire day hiking through the park snapping pictures of the fall foliage reflected in the water.
The park is also home to the 90-acre Clopper Lake, hiking trails, a disc golf course, playgrounds, picnic areas, and a restored 19th-century cabin. You can witness all the brilliant fall foliage from the lake by renting a boat, canoe, or kayak (or bringing your own), and there are also plenty of opportunities to fish from the shore. In the high season from April to October, weekday visits are free to all but there's a small charge for weekend visits. Outside of these months, the park is free to enter seven days a week.
This small mountain in Dickerson, Maryland, is a National Historic Landmark with an elevation of 1,282 feet and a vertical height of 800 feet above the surrounding farmland. In addition, Strong Mansion on Sugarloaf Mountain is a popular destination that hosts events year-round.
Hikers can enjoy striking views of foliage along the trails, including several well-marked loops ranging in distance from two and a half miles to seven miles. Horseback riding and picnicking are additional recreational possibilities. Those driving can also pull up to the Sugarloaf Mountain lookout point to get equally stunning views. The park requests only a voluntary donation of $5 to help with upkeep and general maintenance.
In the Catoctin Mountains near Thurmont, Maryland, Cunningham Falls State Park has a 78-foot cascading waterfall, a lake, and hiking trails ranging from a half-mile to eight miles long. The park is a great place to enjoy outdoor recreation all year, featuring swimming, fishing, canoeing, special camping, and events throughout the summer and fall.
In the high season of summer, there is a per-person charge to enter the park. However, once Labor Day passes, you only need to pay admission per vehicle with a small discount for Maryland residents. Reservations are highly recommended if you plan to camp out, and you can even rent camping and hiking gear at the park store.
Covering over 2,000 acres in Boyds, Maryland, Black Hill Regional Park offers a wide variety of activities including hiking, picnicking, boating, and guided nature programs. Visitors can enjoy spectacular views over Little Seneca Lake and hikers, bikers, and horseback riders can explore miles of trails in the park. There is also a visitor center that hosts nature programs and offers interpretive tours throughout the year which are child-friendly.
Camping isn't available at Black Hills Regional Park, but the Little Bennett Campground is only five miles away and offers campsites year-round.
Harpers Ferry National Historic Park is located about an hour outside of Washington in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and was the site of an important battle in the American Civil War. The park covers over 2,300 acres and also crosses into Maryland and Virginia. Visitors can enjoy a variety of scenic hiking trails, the historic town, ranger-guided tours, craft shops, museums, and restaurants.
Harpers Ferry National Historic Park is open year-round, but some areas may be inaccessible in the winter months. Admission costs to the park are higher if entering per vehicle than if arriving on foot or bicycle, but you can also purchase an annual pass to save money if you live in the area and plan to visit multiple times.
Burke Lake Park
Burke Lake Park is located in Fairfax Station, Virginia, and offers a wide variety of recreational activities including camping, hiking, fishing, and boating on the 218-acre lake within the park's 888 acres. There is also a miniature train; a carousel; an 18-hole, par-3 golf course; disk golf horseshoe pits; an amphitheater; and a miniature golf course onsite.
Burke Lake Park is open daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day each year, depending on the weather, and then on weekends until late October. There is no entrance fee for Fairfax County residents, but non-residents must pay on weekends and holidays only (weekdays are free).
Special events at Burke Lake Park include a sunset cruise, the annual Fall Family Campout, and the special Halloween campfire in October, as well as several fall foliage boat tours offered throughout the month of November up until the leaves fall.