If you’re planning a visit to the Washington, D.C., area, or you already live there, chances are when you think of Washington and tourism, you think of the national monuments, parks, and other sites in the area. There is another, often overlooked, aspect of our national capital area; it’s strategically located astride or near key Interstate highways that are only few hours from some other fantastic places to visit. Day trips from D.C. are a great way to add a little change to your vacation. They’re also a nice way thing to do on a weekend if you’re a resident.
There are tons of places that you can go, but here are three of my favorite day trips from Washington, D.C.
Gettysburg – Where History Comes Alive
The Battle of Gettysburg, one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, with some 51,000 casualties on both sides, was a turning point in the war. The Union victory raised the morale of the north and put an end to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s second and most ambitious invasion of the North.
Gettysburg National Military Park is also the site of Abraham Lincoln’s famous “Gettysburg Address,” made to honor the Union soldiers who died in that battle. If you have four hours to spare, it’s possible to get the full experience of Gettysburg, including the museum and a tour of the battlefield.
The best way to get there from D.C. is to take the I-495 Beltway to I-270 north. You stay on I-270 until it becomes U.S. 40W, and then after about 2 miles, turn on U.S. 15 north. It can get a little complicated at this point; you have to merge after few miles onto Maryland Route 26 east and then look for exit 17 toward Maryland Route 194 north. Then, after merging onto MD-194, you just drive until you come to Maryland Route 140, where you turn left, then right onto Harney Road, where you’ll be crossing the state line into Pennsylvania. You next have to merge onto U.S. Highway 15 north for 2 miles and then take the PA-97 exit toward Baltimore Street. Turn, left almost immediately onto Baltimore Pike and drive a mile and a half to 1195 Baltimore Pike. The park’s on the left. It’s actually not as difficult as it sounds. The roads are very well marked, and as you near the park, signs will guide you. A great trip for the kids or history buffs interested in the Civil War period; you can get goose bumps walking the battle fields.
The really nice thing: The drive up takes less than two hours, so if you get an early morning start, you can spend four or five hours enjoying the park and still get back to D.C. in time for dinner.
Baltimore’s Inner Harbor
When I first lived in Baltimore back in the late 1960s, the inner harbor area was dingy and dangerous. I left Baltimore in 1970, just a year after the long-awaited development project had started. The Inner Harbor that greets visitors today is, to what I remember, what a BMW is to a pair of roller skates. There are panoramic skyline views, cruises on the bay, fine dining, hot night clubs, galleries, and so much more. Historic Fort McHenry is just a water-taxi ride away from the harbor. Worth the side trip, for the living history weekends when the Fort McHenry Guard performs reenactments of the Revolutionary War Battle of Baltimore, which served as the inspiration for Francis Scott Key’s “Star Spangled Banner.”
Getting there is a snap. Just take I-95 north to exit 53 toward Baltimore’s Downtown/Inner Harbor. Take the Conway Street exit and get onto West Conway Street, but prepare to turn right onto Light Street. Less than a mile later, take the first left onto Key Highway, then make a sharp right onto Maryland Route 21202. This puts you near the Maryland Science Center, so you need to start looking for parking. Total driving time is roughly one hour. If you want to do the Fort McHenry tour, this is a great day trip, but the harbor really comes alive at night.
Take a Gamble on Charles Town, West Virginia
West Virginia, thought of by many people as a sleepy, relatively backwater place, is, in fact, a real sleeper. A day trip, or, even better, a night trip, to the capital of Charles Town will show you why. Hollywood Casino, formerly known as Charles Town Races and Slots, is the place to go in West Virginia, rivaling Atlantic City for being the Vegas of the East. Hollywood has gambling, great food, and some decent shows. There are also the ponies for the racing fan; Charles Town Races offers horse and dog racing all year long.
At just over an hour’s drive from D.C., it’s an easy day trip. Just take Virginia Route 7 south to Leesburg and follow Route 7 bypass to Route 9, and turn left. Follow Route 9 all the way to Charles Town until you see the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races exit sign.
Just three destinations, three different directions, but I guarantee that once you’ve had a taste of D.C. day trips, you’ll be salivating for more. Whether you’re a history buff, nature lover, photographer, sportsman, or you just want a new dining experience, within an hour or two drive of Washington, D.C., there is something to meet your demand.