In these difficult economic times, sometimes the vacation budget is the first to get slashed. However, Northern Virginia families can enjoy a fun and relaxing getaway by making the most of one of the state’s nearby parks. Virginia state parks make great, inexpensive day trips that allow your children to run, play, explore, and get in touch with nature.
For all parks, daily parking fees are $5 or less per car on weekends and $4 or less per car on weekdays. Boat launch fees range from $2-$8, and fishing fees are typically $3 or less. Keep in mind that a valid Virginia fishing license is required for fishing in any of the state parks. Parks are typically open dawn to dusk, unless otherwise noted, although amenities such as boat rentals and visitor’s centers open later, around 10 or 11 in the morning.
Mason Neck State Park
7301 High Point Road ~ Lorton, VA
Nestled in a peninsula created by three bodies of water (Pohick Bay, Belmont Bay, and the Potomac River), Mason Neck State Park is home to an active population of heron. You might also see tundra swans, duck, bald eagles, beavers, and deer. The 1,814-acre park offers trails for hiking and biking, fishing, and boating. You can rent a kayak or canoe for an hour or a day. There is no swimming.
Visit the Elizabeth Hartwell Environmental Education Center to view rotating exhibits on the area’s history and local wildlife. The center also has research material and microscopes, as well as bathrooms and a gift shop.
The park offers a day-long junior rangers program for 7 to 10 year olds and a two-hour Wee Rangers program for 4 to 6 year olds. Contact the park at (703) 339-2385 for more information.
Westmoreland State Park
1650 State Park Road ~ Montross, VA
About 90 minutes from the Beltway, Westmoreland State Park spans 1.5 miles along the Potomac River. Get an amazing view of the river from the Horsehead Cliffs. Enjoy hiking, camping, fishing, boating, and swimming in the park’s Olympic-sized pool. Swimming at the pool is also available for less than $6 per person. You can walk along the beach of the Potomac River and the woodland trails while keeping an eye open for osprey, heron, and owls. Stop by the Visitor’s Center on weekends from 12 to 5 PM for nature exhibits and wildlife displays. Kids will especially enjoy the collection of shark teeth. Visit on a weekday instead of a weekend and save $1 on parking as well as $1 per person on swimming.
While you’re in the area, you may want to stop by Stratford Hall Plantation, the home of Robert E. Lee, which is just 15 minutes beyond Westmoreland.
Lake Ana State Park
6800 Lawyers Road ~ Spotsylvania, VA
Lake Ana offers trails for biking, hiking, and horseback riding. Enjoy a lake front picnic. Relax on the guarded beach or swim in the man-made lake. There’s a children’s play area, a concession stand, and a bathhouse. You can rent motorboats, johnboats, canoes, and kayaks. Enjoy freshwater fishing as well.
Swimming fees are less than $5 per person on weekends and even cheaper on weekday. Children 2 and under are free. On weekdays, the beach is open from 10 AM to 4 PM, but on weekends and holidays it stays open until 7 PM. The Visitor’s Center and gift shop is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 AM to 5 PM and features wildlife and historical exhibits.
Be aware that in the summer on weekends and holidays, day use parking spaces fill up quickly. When this happens, the park is closed to entry. So come early or come on a weekday.
Leesylvania State Park
2001 Daniel K. Ludwig Dr. ~ Woodbridge, VA
Leesylvania offers boating, hiking, fishing, picnicking, a playground, and a snack shop. Swimming is prohibited, but you can take a lovely stroll along the beach front. The park spans 542 acres on a peninsula bordered by the Potomac River and two creeks (Neabsco and Powells). Be sure to stop by the large visitor’s center to look at the displays.
Sky Meadows State Park
11012 Edmonds Lane ~ Delaplane, VA
About an hour from Washington, D.C., Sky Meadows sports rolling pastures and woodlands on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The park offers hiking and picnicking and fishing in a pond from the shore. The visitor’s center boasts nature and history exhibits and is open in the summer from 11 AM to 5 PM daily, with extended hours of 10-6 on weekends. In the summer, on weekends, you can also receive a guided tour of the Historic Mount Bleak House, which was built in 1843.
All of the parks mentioned in this article are within a two hour’s drive of Washington, D.C., but if you’re looking for more than a day trip, there are other state parks to consider. Visit the State Parks website for more information. You can also download park maps and learn about educational programs on the individual park’s websites.