Our nation's capital is a popular destination for both business and pleasure, but the cost of lodging is a concern for many travelers these days. Many visitors aren't aware that the NPS has an attractive campground just 13 miles from the White House in Greenbelt Park.
Located northeast of downtown Washington, near the intersection of the Capital Beltway (I-495 / I-95) and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, is an 1100-acre oasis named Greenbelt Park. The heavily wooded area includes hiking trails, picnic areas, and yes, a 174-site campground that the park says has never filled during the off-season, and rarely during peak travel months.
How can that be? Part of the answer may be the area's rather steamy summer climate, but the park website includes another :
Q: Why haven’t I heard about Greenbelt Park or the Greenbelt Park campground?
A: Since we are a federal government agency, we cannot spend taxpayer dollars on advertisements. We rely on word of mouth, Internet, and campground directories. We are a hidden jewel of the National Park Service.
Greenbelt Park represents one of the earliest NPS ventures into urban sites.
In the 1930s Greenbelt, Md., became the first planned community in the United States built as a federal venture in housing. From the beginning it was designed as a complete city, with businesses, schools, and facilities for recreation. In 1950 the National Park Service established Greenbelt Park and acquired land for the establishment of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. The parkway, which opened in 1954, was created to provide an uninterrupted scenic route for passenger vehicles between the two cities.
The current campground dates to the Mission 66 era, and is open year round. The area
accommodates tents, recreational vehicles, and trailers up to 36 feet long. Restrooms, showers, picnic tables, water, and grills are provided. There are no utility connections, but a disposal station is available. Camping is limited to 14 days per year
Campsites are first-come, first-served, but reservations are available Memorial Day through Labor Day. See the park website for information on fees and reservations and campground regulations. Washington, D.C., is a popular destination for scout groups, and the park eventually concluded that the needs of those groups and other campers were best served by designating one loop in the campground exclusively for scouts. See the park website for details and special requirements for use of the Scout Loop.
In addition to camping, the park has four attractive nature trails:
• Azalea Trail (1.1 miles) This trail connects the three picnic areas and passes through plant communities that grow along streams and on hillsides.
• Perimeter Trail (5.3 miles) This trail is popular for hiking and horseback riding. It circles the park’s western section and leads to some of the most beautiful scenery in the area. Note: Horses are not available for rent in the park.
• Dogwood Trail (1.4 miles) Start at the parking area on Park Central Road. Self-guiding brochures tell about the ecology, early land use, and nature’s recovery found along this trail.
• Blueberry Trail (1 mile) This trail begins just beyond the campground entrance and traverses a section of abandoned farmland, mature forest, marsh, and stream bottom.
There are also three picnic areas in the park. Holly and Laurel may be reserved in advance; Sweetgum is available first-come, first-served. Each picnic area has restrooms, water, picnic tables, and grills (only charcoal fires are permitted).
Unless you're one of the handful of humans who can efficiently decode the mystery of Washington's one-way streets, traffic circles and other navigational black holes, I'd suggest you combine a stay at Greenbelt Park with use of the area's Metro system of trains and buses.
The Greenbelt Metro Station, located less than two miles from the park, has a five-story parking garage which is usually more convenient—and less expensive—than parking options in the center of the city. If you're driving an RV, be sure to note special information on the park's FAQ page concerning large vehicle parking near the metro station. Driving directions to the nearest Metro station are also available at the park office.
Greenbelt Park provides a nice respite from the crowds and urban landscape of the city. Even if you don't use the campground, a brief visit and a stroll on a park trail can help regain your equilibrium during a visit to Washington.
Deer, squirrels, and red foxes make their home at Greenbelt Park, as do blue jays, cardinals, and other birds. In spring displays of flowering dogwood, laurel, and azalea catch the eye. In summer visitors strolling along the park’s trails are surrounded by wildflowers or ferns lining deep-cut streams. The colors of changing leaves in autumn are as vivid as can be found anywhere in the region. In winter a new world opens up. Crisp days and sunlight filtering through bare tree branches provide an invigorating atmosphere for observing nature.
Camping during a visit to Washington, D.C? Perhaps if we made that a requirement for lobbyists, we'd achieve a bit more balance in the government process.