5 Ways to Explore Nature in DC Without Owning a Car

Rock Creek Park. Photo by CGIOS

My beloved 1999 Honda Civic is going to be with me forever. It was my first car purchase and I hope my only car purchase in my lifetime. My mechanic, who says he loves the car as much as I do, takes great care of my elderly chariot. Yet I sometimes entertain the idea of not having a car.

While I don’t particularly enjoy driving, it is super convenient for getting my cat around, visiting family and hiking areas outside of the city, dragging my bike to the barrier islands, and tackling larger grocery runs. Walking the groceries home means deciding if the cat litter or the milk is the more urgent purchase. Plus there just really is no safe way to balance egg cartons in a bag. The car is also useful when I’m running late, and I’m usually always running 5 minutes late. Maybe I could do without and maybe not.

Since DC is full of transient residents, many of them don’t have cars. My friend Malaka asked me how to experience nature around the city without a car and no more than $25 in car share rides. Access to some of these destinations by a bike or bikeshare is allowed in her parameters.

I know I have my preferred places, some of them more worn in than others. So I decided to crowd source favorite nature locations from my Facebook friends and they delivered. Here are some of their answers and how to get there without a car. Don’t forget your binoculars and snacks!

Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens

I can’t state enough how magical this park is. If you can’t afford a rocket ride to a new planet, this place is the very next best thing. June and July are great months to visit, though the aquatic gardens are relaxing any time of the year. Read my past post on their otherworldliness.

Their website offers multiple tips to get there. For those without a car, you can pick up a bike share and drop off at 4899 Minnesota Ave, NE, near the Deanwood Metro stop. If on foot, take the Orange line metro towards New Carrollton and exit at the Deanwood stop. Exit via Lower Polk Street, use the pedestrian bridge to cross Kenilworth Ave, turn left on Douglas Street and right on Anacostia Avenue. The entrance will be on your left.

Hours: Daily except some holidays, 8am-4pm
Address: 1550 Anacostia Avenue, NE, Washington, DC 20019

Lake Artemesia

“It’s definitely a hidden gem in PG County” – Elisabeth. This park, highly recommended by a friend, is now on my to-walk list. To get to the lake, take the Green Line towards Greenbelt and exit at College Park station. It is about a half hour walk around the College Park airport to the lake, so wear comfy shoes!

Hours: Sunrise to sunset, daily
Address: Berwyn Rd & 55th Ave, Berwyn Heights, MD

Rock Creek Park

Every time I step into the woods here, I am amazed at how the city disappears. The loop that starts at the Nature Center off of Military Road and Oregon can be accessed by several different points of the city. The trails are beautiful and full of little surprises (rocky dry beds, sparkling clear streams, brief steep hillsides, an abundance of wildflowers from early spring to late fall). Often, it’s quieter on the paths that run off of the main drags. Glimpse deer, chipmunks, woodpeckers, barred owls, peregrine falcons, and fox. Grab your hiking poles and boots, though you may look over prepared compared to the joggers and coffee-carrying city couples who also use these trails.

For a longer hike, bike share to Connecticut and Albemarle and hike in through the trail head to Soap Stone Valley Park. For shorter versions, cab or ride share or bike (no bikeshare available) to The Nature Center off of Military and Oregon.

Hours: Sunrise to sunset, daily
Address: Visitor’s Center Starting Point- 5200 Glover Rd NW, Washington, DC 20015

Dumbarton Oaks Parks Conservancy

While I have only had a picnic on the grounds, this place is highly recommended by several people. In fact, it’s such a special place that my pilates instructor and friend Clare is leading monthly forest therapy walks there. A portion of the suggested proceeds go to Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy. Learn more about the benefits of Forest Bathing in this NPR article.

Hours: Sunrise to sunset, daily
Address: Most used entrance is via a short stroll down Lovers’ Lane, located approximately 200 feet east of R Street and 31st Street NW. (View website for additional ways to enter the park.)

Theodore Roosevelt Island

This park was the clear winner for most recommended. I like this little island, and mostly go there when I want to go for a hike that feels outside of the city, but don’t have much time to travel. This is a great little place to contemplate big decisions.

You can access the island by walking 10-15 minutes from the Rosalyn metro station or by bike (you will have to lock your bike at the racks near the footbridge).

Hours: Open year-round, 6am-10pm
Address: Potomac River near the Key Bridge

There are so many other areas of DC to cover in future posts, but please don’t let that stop you from adding your favorite outdoor spots in DC, ones that you can get to from inside the city without a car, in the comments!

Evening Island Ride

marsh (2)

Photo by CGIOS

I love to ride my bike in the evenings. I love the way the sunlight highlights the architecture of everything, from buildings to trees to birds to stones. Sunday evenings are the best time to ride in DC because there is very little traffic to worry about and the city is quiet as people end their weekends inside, preparing for the new work week.

But my favorite evenings to ride are the ones that happen on Chincoteague Island. It’s the sudden hush hush that falls over the island as people move indoors to eat. The constant whirring motors from the jet skis, fishing boats, and scooters take a break. The wind calms the senses as it lightly rattles the marsh grasses. The lonely windsurfer on the water last night only added to the sense of peace as I headed out to the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.

marsh

Photo by CGIOS

An hour or two before sunset, the marsh grasses begin to glow as the light shines through them at an angle. As I rode my bike to the halfway point,  a stop at the beach to wave at the waves, I saw and heard a handful of red-winged black birds, egrets, and doves.

On the trail out to the beach, I searched the tops of the tall, dead trees for the large bald eagle I spotted two days before. No sign of him this time. But someone got a little cheeky on the beach. Luckily, I saw no sign of what potentially “lay” ahead (see photo below).

nonudity (2)

Photo by CGIOS

After a quick run into the ocean, I rode through the second half of the refuge: more birds but not one of the more exciting nights for spotting animals…until I got to the last quarter mile stretch.

In the middle of the path was a black rat snake, over 3 feet long. I had to make a quick decision which side to pass him on since I couldn’t tell right away where his head was. I chose the wrong side, but he didn’t strike.

A car came up behind me (cars are allowed in the refuge in the evenings) moving fast enough to make me think it wouldn’t see the snake in time. So I positioned my bike across the path in order to force the car to move to the left, away from the snake. Thinking I was a safe enough distance from my charge, I started to snap pictures.

snake

Photo by CGIOS

At first he was tolerant of my presence and I was proud of myself for not being scared. But then he lifted his head, turned it towards me, and opened his mouth in a big scolding hiss.

My heart took off, leaving me and my bike to figure out how to get out of there fast before he could strike. Luckily, they aren’t poisonous but they can still make nasty bites. It was time to go.

Riding home, I was reminded why I enjoy riding over being in cars. I could smell the woody smoke of the camp fires and the coppery perfume of the salt marshes. I could hear bits of life as I passed by briefly: a small dog whimpering to go outside, clinks and clanks of dinner being eaten privately indoors, rustling marsh grasses, the gossipy chatter of seagulls, water gently rushing the roadside as the tide moved in.

Bike riding in the evenings is a way to exercise my senses as much as my legs. It’s experiencing the most naked, candid moments of living. It’s plugging myself into life.