28 Outdoor Adventures in the Mid-Atlantic
Where to go whitewater rafting, tubing, boating, paddle-boarding, zip-lining, hiking, garden hopping, hot-air ballooning and more.
Brave Some Rapids
West Virginia’s New River Gorge may be the nation’s newest national park—designated in 2020—but it’s familiar territory for the three outfitters who run Adventures on the Gorge. They’ve been navigating its wild and churning waterways for more than 50 years. Whitewater newbies will appreciate gentle runs along the New River’s upper section, while mid-level rafters can ride the lower part, which has Class II to IV rapids.
Experienced thrill-seekers gravitate to the nearby Gauley River, where an 11-mile upper stretch of froth known as the “Beast of the East” features almost nonstop Class III to Class V rapids. The lower 13-mile run has calmer waters with an occasional Class V adrenaline boost. (The optimal time to visit the Gauley is in September and October when scheduled dam releases keep the waters gushing.)
Après-rafting, the outfitters’ 350-acre, park-adjacent resort property offers aerial courses, biking, rock climbing, horseback riding, zip lines and a two-level Canyon Falls pool. Overnight guests can stay in cabins or glamping tents and grab grub at five onsite eateries. Pricing depends on accommodations and activities, but a cool deal lets kids between the ages of 6 and 11 raft for free (with a paying adult) every day but Saturday.
Float Down the River
Tubing anyone? Laze along 3 undeveloped miles of the winding James River south of Charlottesville with inner tubes from James River Runners. Stop along the way to explore several uninhabited islands and enjoy the mild rush of riding novice-level rapids, known as riffles. Chill out on a river sandbar or atop some rocks and bring a picnic lunch. Floats can last one to four hours, depending on conditions and time spent lollygagging.
Three-mile tubing trips are $27 per person—plus an extra $8 if you want an inflatable cooler to carry your beverages—and include a shuttle to the launch point. For those wanting more of a workout, James River Runners also rents canoes, kayaks and rafts, along with fishing gear (fishing licenses required). Half-day, full-day and overnight excursions are available. –Amy Brecount White
Paddle Through History
Poetic accounts of the Battle of Antietam suggest that Antietam Creek flowed red on Sept. 17, 1862, after the bloodiest day in American history left 23,000 soldiers dead, wounded or missing. Today its placid waters and quiet banks in Western Maryland are a refuge for kayakers, canoeists and tubers, as well as Civil War history buffs.
For a leisurely six-hour paddle or float, put in at Devil’s Backbone County Park, glide beneath the 140-foot-high aqueduct (circa 1834) that channels the C&O Canal Towpath overhead, and follow the snaking creek to the point where it spills into the Potomac River. Along the way, you’ll skirt Antietam National Battlefield and pass under the limestone blocks of the historic Burnside Bridge. Antietam Creek has a few minor rapids, but the journey is gentle enough for kids.
Bring your own boats and floats, or rent equipment from an outfitter such as Antietam Creek Canoe or River & Trail Outfitters. Both provide shuttle service to drop-off and pickup points. See websites for pricing.
Angle for Trout
Want to learn the art of fly-fishing? Elk River Inn & Cabins will happily cast you a line—or rather, teach you how. Gil Willis, a native Alexandrian, has owned the 145-acre, pet-friendly property in West Virginia’s Pocahontas County—known as the “birthplace of rivers” because eight rivers start there—for more than four decades. His fishing camp includes eight inn rooms and three cabins.
Beginners can sign up for the Elk River Weekend Fly Fishing School, which includes lunch, flies, a guide, instruction and lodging; or, for a shorter time commitment, the eight-hour introductory Wade & Fish trip. Experienced fish-whisperers may prefer the Elk River Weekend Fly Fishing Package, or the Wild Brook Trout Trip, which promises to “challenge even the hardiest angler.” A West Virginia fishing license with a trout stamp is required for these excursions and can be obtained at wvdnr.gov/fishing. Fishing packages range from $349 to $998. –Stephanie Kanowitz
Set Sail from Annapolis
Spend the day on the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries in one of several unique vessels. Board the vintage Wilma Lee, a refurbished 1940 Chesapeake Bay skipjack, for a two-hour heritage, sunset or watch cruise (the watch cruise offers terrific spectator views of Wednesday sailboat races). Skipjack tours begin at $40 and depart from the Annapolis Maritime Museum.
For a private excursion, hop aboard Capt. Mike Krissoff’s turbo-diesel-powered Markley 46 and chart your own itinerary—be it lighthouse-hopping, a trip to Chester River’s Conquest Beach for kayaking or paddleboarding, or a sail across the bay to St. Michaels and Tilghman Island. Krissoff’s Full Moon Adventures boat tours generally cost around $250 per hour for up to six people with a two-hour minimum. He’s happy to transport bikes, boards and kayaks.
Yet another option: Pack a picnic and captain your own 22-foot electric boat with Annapolis Electric Boats. Cruise along Spa and Back Creeks to see the Naval Academy, downtown Annapolis and beautiful homes and marinas from the water. Each canopied boat runs on batteries (similar to a golf cart), accommodates up to 10 passengers and has a top speed of roughly 5 miles per hour. Rates begin at $200 for a one-hour rental.
–Christine Koubek Flynn
Cruise the Harbor, Hon
Here’s a new and different way to explore Baltimore’s Inner Harbor—by kayak. Departing from the Maryland Science Center, this two- to three-hour guided circuit tour passes historic ships including the sloop-of-war USS Constitution and a Coast Guard lightship (think mobile lighthouse), as well as the USS Torsk, a World War II submarine.
Near the National Aquarium are two noteworthy eco-initiatives: floating wetland prototypes comprised of native plants that naturally remove pollutants from the water; and an oyster colony dedicated to repopulating the bivalves that serve as natural filters for the Chesapeake Bay. Paddlers can take a selfie with Mr. Trash Wheel, a floating device that uses solar and hydro power to collect litter and debris from the water. At Fells Point, spy an old train pier before crossing the harbor for views of the city skyline and Federal Hill, a former military outpost.
Inner Harbor Kayak Tours ($20) are limited to experienced paddlers ages 12 and older. Available Sundays, May through October. –Amy Brecount White
Savor the Chesapeake
Located on Virginia’s lower peninsula near the Plum Tree National Wildlife Refuge, Poquoson (pronounced po-koh-sen), which means “great marsh,” is a boater’s and paddler’s paradise. Punctuated by quiet inlets and coves, the sleepy town’s 87 miles of shoreline provide habitats for bald eagles, herons, egrets and a variety of marine life.
For a guide to Poquoson’s waterways and trails, download a blueway map. The Whitehouse Cove Marina, a launch point for fishing expeditions, is 10 minutes by boat to the open waters of the Chesapeake Bay. From Oct. 14-16, the town’s 40th annual seafood festival will draw some 50,000 visitors to feast on crabs, oysters and other fresh catch. –Jenny Sullivan
Buzz the Treetops
For a bird’s-eye view of forests and fields, hook yourself up with a zip line adventure. Open March to November, the Tree Top Zip Tour at the Salamander Resort in Middleburg, Virginia, has five zip lines and two suspension bridges that collectively span 20 acres of tree canopy at heights of 35 to 65 feet ($149).
Bear Mountain Ziplines in the Shenandoah Valley near Luray, offers the year-round Mama Bear zip line ($75), whose seven runs across 50 acres reach speeds of up to 35 mph.
Daredevils can take it up a notch at Adventures on the Gorge in Lansing, West Virginia, home to the 1.5-mile, 200-foot-high Gravity Zipline, as well as the AdrenaLine, a 3,150-foot run that sends willing parties careening above the forest at speeds up to 65 mph. Here, the year-round Treetops Canopy tour includes 10 zip lines, five swinging sky bridges and a 35-foot rappel. Tickets start at $104 for participants ages 13 and up; $57 for kids 10-12. –Amy Brecount White
Up, Up and Away
On the first weekend in August, a colorful flotilla of several dozen hot-air balloons will ascend from the Triple Creek Winery in Cordova, Maryland, north of Easton, about 20 miles from the Chesapeake Bay. This year’s Chesapeake Bay Balloon Festival includes a dawn event on Aug. 6 and 7, in which the balloons rise in unison as morning breaks.
Weather permitting, visitors will have the option of taking to the skies in one of the balloons. (Those who prefer to stay a little more earthbound can opt for a tethered ride that climbs 50 feet in the air.) The festival also promises entertainment, food trucks, crafts and games, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting local fire departments, municipalities and a cancer charity. Three-day admission (rain or shine; no refunds) is $32 for adults; $5 for children 15 and under. Single-day admission is $20. –Barbara Ruben
Pick Your Own Sunflowers
Ukraine’s national flower holds a special significance this year. Starting in mid- to late-July (the timing fluctuates depending on weather conditions), visitors can immerse themselves in more than 30 acres of sunflowers at Burnside Farms in Virginia’s Prince William County, where the fields will be ablaze with more than 30 types of Helianthus blooming in succession over a period of about six weeks. Cut your own bouquet for $1.50 a stem, choosing from an array of sunflower varietals—short, tall, big or small, with yellow, orange, red and even white petals. Cosmos, zinnias and other summer blooms will also be available for picking.
The farm’s Summer of Sunflowers event includes one of the nation’s only sunflower mazes. Bring a picnic to enjoy the sunset over the evening fields. Open daily, July through Labor Day, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Separate admission for sunflower sunsets from 5 to 8 p.m. See website for ticket prices. –Barbara Ruben
Stroll With Pollinators
Heading to Bethany or Rehoboth this summer? Take a slight detour and wander through 37 acres of lush beauty on a coastal plain that slopes down to a wetland marsh and tidal creek in Dagsboro, Delaware. One especially popular section of the Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek is the 2-acre Piet Oudolf Meadow Garden, named for the acclaimed Dutch garden designer and author whose projects also include New York City’s High Line. It’s a botanical wonderland of native perennials and grasses of all shapes and sizes, buzzing with bees, butterflies and birds in late May through September.
For a shady respite from the summer heat, explore the Woodland Garden’s oaks, pines, ferns and flowering shrubs as you wind your way toward the Pepper Creek shoreline. Open Thursday to Sunday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission is $15; free for kids 15 and younger. Guided garden tours are available for an additional $10. “Butterfly Thursday” pollinator tours of the meadow are offered mid-July to mid-August.
–Christine Koubek Flynn
Hot outside? Descend into cool caverns, where the alchemy of limestone and water has created stalactites, stalagmites and other calcium-carbonate wonders over thousands of years.
In the Crystal Grottoes Caverns about 20 miles northwest of Frederick, Maryland, spelunkers can discover bacon, cauliflower, soda-straw and ribbon formations (to name a few) in a guided tour that includes seven chambers and rimstone pools ($20 for adults; $10 for kids under 12).
Alternately, head to Lost River Caverns near Allentown, Pennsylvania, where, in the late 1800s, locals built a subterranean wooden dance floor in a section of the cave now known as the Crystal Chapel. Bootleggers also stored their wares in these caverns during Prohibition. Admission is $14.50 for adults; $9.50 for kids 3 to 12.
–Amy Brecount White
Tour the Topiaries
From shrubs shaped like horses and hounds to a hedge coaxed to resemble swans gliding on waves, the topiaries at Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton, Maryland, rate among the best in the world. The Garden Club of America has named this Baltimore County destination “the most outstanding topiary garden in America,” with more than 100 verdant sculptures dotting 22 acres.
The nonprofit’s grounds also feature hundreds of black-eyed Susans (the Maryland state flower), climbing roses, foxgloves and other summer blooms in various garden “rooms” and along a 1-mile nature walkway. The butterfly house, open July 5 through late September, showcases native butterflies, caterpillars and plants.
Visitors can take docent-led tours of the property’s manor house, which began as a farmhouse in the late 18th century and was later renovated in the 1920s and ’30s by owner Harvey Ladew. It’s now home to Ladew’s collection of English antiques, equestrian-themed art and a library with more than 2,500 books. Both the house and gardens are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Admission is $15 for adults; $10 for seniors and students; $4 for children ages 2-12; free for kids under 2. House tours are an additional $5. Open April 1-Oct. 31; closed on Wednesdays. –Barbara Ruben
Light the Night
For a nocturnal outing, behold the glowing spectacle of some 18,000 illuminated lakeside orbs at Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens. A series of eight, large-scale light installations by British artist Bruce Munro is on display through Oct. 30.
Visitors can arrive starting at 5 p.m. (4 p.m. in September and October), Thursday through Sunday evenings, to wander the gardens and watch the installations come to life at dusk. A 30-minute illuminated fountain show begins at 9:15 p.m. in July and August (8:15 pm in September and October). On the second Friday of each month, Longwood hosts themed Light Nights with talks, live music, family activities and concessions.
The property’s 1,100 acres of gardens also include 37 stainless-steel lilies that shimmer with light, and 1,000 plastic flamingos awash in ever-changing colors with the help of projection technology. Admission is $35 for adults; $32 for college students and seniors; $19 for youth ages 5-18; free for kids 4 and under. Timed ticket purchases are recommended. –Barbara Ruben
See for Miles
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park has 22 miles of hiking trails spread across 3,500 acres and three states: West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia. The moderately strenuous 7.5-mile Loudoun Heights Trail—which includes a scant section of the Appalachian Trail—rewards hikers with spectacular views of Harpers Ferry and the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, as well as interesting phyllite and quartzite rock formations. (The 4.5- to 6.5-mile Maryland Heights Trail offers equally superb views, but portions of it are closed through July to protect nesting peregrine falcons.)
For a more easygoing walkabout, the 1- to 3-mile Murphy-Chambers Farm hike passes through fields and wooded ravines to arrive at views of the Shenandoah River, the surrounding mountains and Civil War cannons. Leashed dogs are allowed on all trails.
Pick up a trail map at the park’s visitor center or find one online to plan your route. If time allows, Harpers Ferry’s museums, ghost tours, shops and cafés are worth a stop, too. –Christine Koubek Flynn
Retrace Black History
At the start of the 20th century, Richmond’s Jackson Ward was one of the wealthiest Black neighborhoods in the nation. Known as the “Harlem of the South” and “Black Wall Street,” it’s where where tap-dancing legend Bill “Bojangles” Robinson rose to fame, and Maggie L. Walker, the nation’s first African American bank president, founded the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, giving Black entrepreneurs access to capital.
For a self-guided walking tour of Jackson Ward, a National Historic Landmark District, consult this helpful map. Download the National Park Service app for a narrated walking tour podcast and transcript.
Learn from the Past
Perched above the banks of the Potomac River about an hour east of Fredericksburg, Stratford Hall was once home to four generations of the Lee family—including the only two brothers who signed the Declaration of Independence, and later, Robert E. Lee. Today, the nearly 2,000-acre estate is open to the public for learning and exploring.
Grab a self-guided audio tour (available Wednesday to Sunday) to hear about the Lee family and the enslaved people who worked the former plantation, which dates to the early 1700s. Get a grounds pass to wander the restored gardens and the 3 miles of paths leading to Mill Pond, a 150-foot-high cliff overlook and the river’s sandy beach.
Keen-eyed scavengers may find fossils and ancient sharks teeth near the cliff formation, which was part of the ocean floor some 10 million years ago. Stratford Hall’s grounds are open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults; $5 for children ages 6-13; free for kids 5 and under. Admission to the main house is separate. –Amy Brecount White
Connect the Dots
The 51-mile Virginia Capital Trail opened in 2015 and has been attracting cyclists ever since. Informally known as the Cap2Cap—it connects the current and former Virginia capitals of Richmond and Williamsburg—the paved, multi-use trail follows Virginia State Route 5, transporting travelers past inns, campsites, barbecue joints, museums, farms, waterways and more. Though the trail has no major climbs, there are some hills, particularly on the trail segments near Richmond.
Cross That Bridge
Pennsylvania has more covered bridges than any other state, with 200-plus preserved structures dotting its bucolic creeks and rivers. If you’ve got the stamina, cycling is an ideal way to experience the bridges and the winding roads between them.
For an organized ride, the Lancaster Bicycle Club’s annual Covered Bridge Classic allows riders to choose among three route distances (35, 65 or 100 miles), enjoying rest stops stocked with food to refuel during the tour of Lancaster County’s prettiest covered-bridge crossings. The full 100-mile route features 14 of the county’s 29 bridges.
Explore Gettysburg National Military Park and learn about the Civil War the old-fashioned way—on horseback. Confederate Trails of Gettysburg and the Victorian Carriage Company, together known as Horse Tours of Gettysburg, provide equine tours ($99.50 for riders 8 and older) with licensed battlefield guides for a unique view of history. Riders receive headsets with single earbuds so as not to miss a word of the two-hour tour.
Reserve your saddle in advance by booking online. Carriage tours are also available, as are group discounts.
–Christine Koubek Flynn
Plan a Glamping Jamboree
For those who love the great outdoors but don’t want to sleep on the ground or pee in the woods, there’s glamping. The event-planning outfit Wild Tribe Co. recently unveiled two luxury camping sites in Maryland with al fresco lodging that’s hardly primitive. For $650 and up, groups can rent Wild Tribe’s 13-acre Potomac House property in Charles County, a patch of riverfront bliss that includes a cottage with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a family room, plus two 225-square-foot, all-weather, raised-platform tents outfitted with beds (one king or two doubles), heating, bed linens and cellphone charging stations. Need more places for folks to crash? The site can accommodate an additional 15 tents for large parties.
Glamping at the Ghost Barn, the company’s other location, is situated on 30 acres of farmland next to Lone Oak Farm Brewing Co. in Olney. The pastoral setup includes three glamping tents, plus a renovated barn structure with two full bathrooms, a kitchenette and an outdoor grilling station ($250 per tent, per night; $600 per night for all three tents). –Stephanie Kanowitz
Travel Back in Time
Perhaps you’ve already run, walked or biked parts of the 184.5-mile-long C&O Canal Towpath from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland. But have you ever spent the night in one of the masonry houses that provided shelter to the “keepers of the lock” some 100 years ago?
The C&O Canal Trust maintains seven restored lockhouses along the canal where travelers can experience the history and solitude of an overnight stay next to the old locks. Each house is distinct, with a different layout and amenities.
Higher rates apply to the three that have been updated with air conditioning, heating, water and electricity—but for a true step back in time, choose a more rustic dwelling and experience life as the lockkeepers once did, without modern amenities. Browse the houses and book a night ($100-$180) at canal
trust.org. –Jeffrey Yeates