One of the most daunting things about changing journalism jobs is learning a new place quickly. One week I was reporting from Iowa cornfields; the next week from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. I quickly discovered the magic of a city that is home to America’s first cathedral, the national anthem, and a place to see 20,000 animals, most of them under the sea.
Yet, when you tear yourself away from this city for a day, you get to explore history and nature that takes you from mountain to ocean, all within a three-hour drive. Here is a week’s worth of day trips to make the most of this remarkable area.
1. Reach For The Skyline
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
If you’re in the mood for a real road trip, Shenandoah National Park offers a road with an unbeatable view. You can drive 108 miles to the Front Royal Entrance and then keep on driving through historic Skyline Drive for as many of the 105 miles through the park as you would like to see. The average speed is 35 miles per hour, giving you plenty of time to stop at one of more than 70 overlooks and look for glimpses of bears and deer.
Park your car and hike some of the more than 500 miles of trails through forests, to waterfalls, and — if you’re up for a long day — tackle the park’s most popular destination, Old Rag. This is a very strenuous, often crowded 9.4-mile hike, yet hikers say you haven’t seen Shenandoah National Park until you’ve scrambled up the summit.
For something more easily accomplished, try the Limberlost trail through the forest at Mile 43. Its 1.3 miles are fully accessible to everyone but pets.
Pro Tip: There is food available approximately every 25 miles along Skyline Drive. Build in extra time to enjoy a meal at one of the two park restaurants where the views are amazing but tables are first come, first served.
2. Go See The Other Washington Monument
Baltimore claims the first major Washington monument, but the 555-foot obelisk that came later just 46 miles down the road in Washington, D.C., is worth a trip. You can see the National Mall monument by foot, bike, scooter, or even tour boat. Book a 90-minute trip that takes you down the Potomac from Georgetown to Alexandria and back for around $30.
Had enough Washington? Check out Abraham Lincoln lore at the Lincoln book tower at the Ford’s Theater Center for Education and Leadership. It has more books about Honest Abe than even the biggest bibliophile has on their nightstand.
The National Cathedral is perfect for a visual scavenger hunt, where you can look for the window featuring a moon rock Apollo 11 astronauts personally brought from the moon to the Cathedral. Star Wars fans can spot the Darth Vader Gargoyle. (If you can’t get there in person, try this virtual tour.)
Pro Tip: Plan ahead, and you can get Washington’s best views from the National Cathedral Tower climb, which takes you up 333 steeply winding steps. These ticketed tours for height-lovers stopped during the pandemic; keep an eye on the webpage for when things resume.
3. Tour The Town That Was This Close To Being Washington, D.C.
Havre De Grace, Maryland
Local legend says this community at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay missed being named the capital of the United States by one vote. So, there is no Congress but still plenty to see 41 miles from Baltimore. Let the Concord Point Lighthouse guide your way as it guided ship traffic for nearly 150 years. Maryland’s second-oldest lighthouse is open for weekend tours from April to October.
Explore the area by kayak or see it from a duck’s point of view at the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum. This private, non-profit institution aims to preserve the legacy of birds and decoy-making in the region.
Wrap up your day with crab cakes at Tidewater Grille, where the view of the Chesapeake helps you get away from it all, less than an hour from Baltimore.
4. Speaking Of Capital Cities…
It’s 32 miles from Baltimore to Maryland’s capital, which is home to the US Naval Academy. Graduates include President Jimmy Carter, 54 astronauts, and 26 members of Congress. You can walk the grounds like they did; public tours are open during non-pandemic times, and you will need to bring government-issued ID for access.
Pro Tip: Each May, the Navy’s Blue Angel jets fly above Annapolis for USNA Commissioning week. Plan to visit the area for rehearsal day (the date is always publicly available), and you will get a great show with smaller crowds.
Order like a local at Chick & Ruth’s, where you can get sandwiches named for politicians and leaders, like Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court Thurgood Marshall (Grilled cheese with swiss, tomato, and bacon on rye for $9.99). Come early for the Pledge of Allegiance recited weekdays at 8:30 a.m., weekends at 9:30 a.m.
A schooner tour proves why Annapolis is known as America’s Sailing Capital. If the wind cooperates, you may get to sail under the 4.3-mile-long Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which connects Annapolis to Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
5. See More On The Eastern Shore
Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland
Bay Bridge traffic gets heavy when the weather warms up. Many people head to beach communities like Ocean City, St. Michaels, and Rehoboth, where extended stays are often required at rentals and hotels. For a beach on a budget, head 112 miles from Baltimore to Assateague Island National Seashore. Here, you will find 37 miles of seashore perfect for swimming, fishing, camping, and watching Assateague’s wild horses.
Pro Tip: Check out the schedule for Ranger-guided programs. I learned how to catch crabs (and throw them back) thanks to a park program, and it gave me much more appreciation for my seafood dinner that afternoon!
Want to get even further away? Buy an Over-Sand Vehicle (OSV) permit to drive on otherwise inaccessible beaches. Make sure you’re sand-ready; National Park Service staff cannot pull you out if you get stuck.
6. Take An (Almost) Presidential Getaway
Catoctin Mountain Park, NPS/Cunningham Falls State Park, Maryland
Every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has had a chance to relax at Camp David in Catoctin Mountain Park. Even without a White House invite, you can get a sense of the atmosphere at the public part of the NPS Park and nearby Cunningham Falls State Park.
These parks offer hikes just 68 miles from Baltimore, with one of the best taking you to Maryland’s highest cascading waterfall. The easiest hike to see Cunningham Falls is the half-mile William Houck Area lower trail. There are longer, more strenuous options as well.
Pro Tip: This is worth an early morning wake-up call as parking lots fill up quickly.
History lovers can explore the Catoctin Iron Furnace, which is said to have made cannonballs for George Washington’s army, or plan a sweet visit to the Maple Syrup Festival held every March.
7. Get A Lock (House) On Adventure
C&O Canal National Historical Park
When 2020 canceled international trips, I took a closer look at travel close to home, and the C&O Canal National Historical Park kept me coming back for more. A 184.5-mile trail stretches from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland. Even though more than five million people visit the park each year, there is plenty of space to escape crowds, and at its most distant point, the trail is just 139 miles from Baltimore.
Bike or stroll the wide, flat towpath along the canal, which was once a major commercial waterway — there are access points all along the trail with nearby parking.
One point of the trail is significantly different: The Great Falls Overlook 15 miles outside Washington, D.C., feels like Colorado as the Potomac River transforms into a roaring series of falls. There is a wheelchair-accessible, paved footpath that takes you over part of the river to the main channel. You can look across the water to see the Virginia side of the falls at Great Falls Park. (It really does look different if you have time to go to both parks!)
Hikers can enjoy three sections of the Billy Goat Trail. Section A is the most strenuous and can be the most crowded, yet it is always a favorite with friends I take to the park.
Pro Tip: The trail is close to the Potomac River, so weather changes often cause parts of the trail to close. Check out conditions before you start your hike.
One potential exception to the day trip rule: Consider staying in a Canal Quarters Lockhouse. There are seven lockhouses along the C&O Canal available for overnight rentals. Each is decorated in the style of a historic era ranging from the 1830s to the 1950s, and the amenities match — meaning some have electricity and showers, while others have lanterns and water pumps. Pick your level of adventure and enjoy a night back in time before making the trip back to Baltimore.
Editor’s Note: References for the information Emily shares in the first paragraph of this article can be found on baltimore.org, The Baltimore Basilica website, the Fort McHenry NPS page, and the National Aquarium website.