Washington DC may not have the kind of fall foliage fireworks of more famous leaf-peeping destinations like Vermont or upstate New York, but the area still some good options for catching those warm autumnal colors. Best lighting for the most atmospheric shots is usually in the early morning or the late afternoon when the sun is low in the sky and casts a nice warm glow.
Here are some ideas. Some are close in to the city and some further afield.
There are lovely areas of fall foliage all around the city, even around the National Mall.
The old C&O Canal starts in Georgetown, but head a bit further along the river to get to the trees. Your best bets are to walk or ride a bike. Open daily during daylight hours.
Rock Creek Park
Can’t get out of Washington? Rock Creek Park offers over 1,700 acres of protected parkland, much of it wooded. While certain areas are highly trafficked by city dwellers getting their daily exercise, a short jaunt deeper into the park can make you feel like you’re the only one around. Open daily during daylight hours.
The National Arboretum is one of Washington’s best kept secrets. It is so quiet and unspoiled that it’s hard to believe you’re in the middle of the nation’s capital. Its varied collections (dogwood, azalea, Asian, boxwood, and more), plus some interesting architecture, make it a great spot for capturing autumn at its best. Best way to get there is by car or taxi. If the weather’s nice, take a picnic. Open daily from 8am to 5pm.
Arlington & Great Falls, VA
Great Falls Park is an 800-acre national park with something for everyone–a river, spectacular scenery, and of course, waterfalls. Take your hiking boots along with your camera and enjoy all that the park has to offer, but go early-when the weather is nice, traffic getting into the park often comes to a virtual standstill. Open daily from 7am until dark.
Four Mile Run/W&OD Trail
This path goes for miles, connecting with the Potomac next to National Airport, but a few miles in from the river there’s a stretch of greenery running through the heart of Arlington. It follows a creek. The most scenic section is the stretch from Columbia Pike to East Falls Church metro station. Biking or walking is ideal, but there are several small parking lots at various points along the trail.
Arlington National Cemetery
Situated along the Potomac River on 25 acres of landscaped lawns and gardens in Alexandria, Virginia, River Farm was once owned by George Washington. It is now the headquarters of the American Horticulture Society and features a wide range of plants and flowers along with superb river views. It’s open to the public Monday-Friday from 9am to 5pm.
George Washington’s Mount Vernon
Mount Vernon was George Washington’s plantation home. Just the drive itself, along the George Washington Memorial Parkway, is a sight to behold in autumn. Take a tour of the house while there, or simply wander the well-maintained grounds and marvel at the beautiful view overlooking the Potomac River. Or go for Fall Harvest Day (October 22 and 23) and enjoy hayrides, corn mazes, half-price boat cruises. Open daily 9am to 5pm. Tickets required.
Harper’s Ferry National Historical Park is situated at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, where West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland meet. The charming town of Harper’s Ferry is worth a visit, too, and is special for being one of the only towns through which the Appalachian Trail passes. Open daily 8am to 5pm.
Shenandoah National Park & Blue Ridge Parkway
Shenandoah National Park is popular in autumn, for good reason- the colors are spectacular and with over 500 miles of hiking trails and 75 scenic overlooks, there are multiple opportunities to see nature at its finest. But go early because traffic can get busy, especially on weekends. Open all the time.
Route 20 Between Fredericksburg & Barboursville
The road between Route 3 near Fredericksburg and Barboursville to the southwest makes for a very pleasant drive through the Virginia countryside. You’ll see a mix of farmland and forest. And if you want to add an overnight stop, stay in Charlottesville and explore the surrounding area, including Blue Ridge Parkway/Shenandoah National Park, the University of Virginia’s historic “Lawn,” and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
Washington DC Visitor Guides
If you're coming in from out of town, here are some of the most popular guidebooks that can help you make the most of your visit.
- Elise Hartman Ford
- Publisher: FrommerMedia
- DK Eyewitness
- Publisher: DK Eyewitness Travel
- Lonely Planet, Karla Zimmerman, Virginia Maxwell, Amy C Balfour
- Publisher: Lonely Planet
- Van Dam Stephan
- Publisher: VanDam, Inc.
And here are some interesting options for less traditional guidesbooks if you'd like an emphasis on exploring DC on foot or diving into some of the region's rich history.
- NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
- Barbara Noe Kennedy