Best Places to See Fall Colors in Washington, D.C

Fall is one of the most beautiful times of year in Washington, D.C. 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 colorful 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, such as Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park, Blue Ridge Parkway, the Appalachian Trail, George Washington & Jefferson National Forests and Deep Creek Lake. These beautiful areas are great if you have a whole weekend for a getaway.

However, you don’t have to travel that far to enjoy beautiful fall foliage! Here are some recommendations of special places to see an abundance of color within a short distance from Washington, D.C.

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    Washington, DC, Rock Creek Park.

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    Washington, D.C.’s largest park (and the third-oldest in the nation) stretches 30 miles from Montgomery County, Maryland, to downtown D.C. Here, you can enjoy some leaf peeping and a picnic, take a hike, bike, or horseback ride, or attend a park ranger program.

    Admission to Rock Creek Park and all attractions within the park is free. Throughout the year, you can explore the Rock Creek Park Nature Center, the historic Pierce Mill, or Old Stone House (temporarily closed). 

    Popular annual events each fall include the Rock Creek Park Day in late September and the Fall Heritage Festival in early-to-mid October.

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    Starting in Georgetown in Washington, D.C., the C & O Canal National Historical Park stretches 184 and a half miles to Cumberland, Maryland, and offers guests breathtaking vistas and plenty of opportunities to hike, bike, fish, boat, and horseback ride along the towpath.

    Access to the park is free, but you can purchase National Parks passes at the Great Falls Entrance Station. Popular events this time of year include the Dulcimer Music at Great Falls series, "A Very Retail Georgetown" walking tour, and Scary Stories on the Canal at the Great Falls Tavern.

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    Japanese maple trees in park, autumn

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    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 35-minute tram ride and hear an informative narrative about the Arboretum, its history, and the display gardens and collections.

    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 at the first of the month in the National Herb Garden or stick around later for a new program series about herb-based lifestyles.

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    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, but make sure you spend plenty of time outdoors exploring the gardens and taking in the natural scenery, too. 

    General admission costs $20 at the door ($18 online) for adults and children aged 12 to 61; youth admission is $12 ($11 online) for children aged 6 to 11, and free for children 5 and under. 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. 

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    Stretching from Great Falls, Virginia, to Potomac, Maryland, Great Falls National Park has some of the most spectacular views in the region. At various overlook points spread throughout the 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, picnic areas, and overnight camping. 

    Due to flooding during the hurricane season (September through November), some trails and locations may be inaccessible. Swimming is prohibited at the park due to deadly currents and flood possibilities. Admission to the park is $10 per vehicle or $5 per person entering on foot, bike or horseback and grants access for three consecutive days.

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    Located in Gaithersburg Maryland, Seneca Creek State Park spans over 6,300 acres alongside 14 miles of 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 a 90-acre lake, hiking trails, picnic areas, playgrounds, a disc golf course, 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's also plenty of opportunities to fish from the shore.

    There is a $3 service charge for Maryland residents and a $5 service charge for out-of-state guests to enter the park.

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    Sugarloaf Mountain

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    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, Stronghold 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 to seven miles. Those driving can also pull up to the Sugarloaf Mountain lookout point get equally stunning views. Access to both is free year-round.

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    In the Catoctin Mountains near Thurmont, Maryland, Cunningham Falls State Park has a 78-foot cascading waterfall, a lake, campgrounds, and hiking trails ranging from half a mile to eight miles long. The park is a great place to enjoy outdoor recreation all year, featuring special camping and recreation events throughout the summer and fall.

    Access to Cunningham Falls State Park is free of charge, but you can rent camping and hiking gear from the store, and there are a few other services on-site that come with a fee.

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    Covering over 2,000 acres in Boyds, Maryland, Black Hill Regional Park offers a wide variety of activities including hiking, boating, picnicking, 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.

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    Harpers Ferry National Historic Park

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    Harpers Ferry National Historic Park is located about an hour outside of D.C. in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and was the site of an important battle in the American Civil War. Visitors can enjoy a variety of scenic hiking trails and exploring the historic town, which offers ranger-guided tours, museums, restaurants, and craft shops.

    Harpers Ferry National Historic Park is open year-round, but some areas may be inaccessible in the winter months. Admission to the park is $10 per vehicle or $5 per individual arriving on foot or bicycle, and you can also purchase an annual pass for $30.

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    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. 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 on-site.

    Burke Lake Park is open daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day each year, then on weekends until November 13, 2018. There is no entrance fee for Fairfax County residents, but non-residents must pay $10 for cars, $5 for motorcycles, $10 for large-capacity vans, and $40 for buses 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 (until the leaves fall).