Just outside of Washington DC, in Greenbelt, Maryland is a small national park that many people have never heard of. We hadn’t until recently. Greenbelt National Park doesn’t boast thousands of acres, dramatic vistas, or unique natural phenomena like some of the better known parks. This pretty wooded area, just 12 miles from the White House, is little more than its campground. And its stated mission is to help people access and enjoy our nation’s capital.
The campground is open year-round, though only a small portion of it is open in the off-season. The sites are basic concrete slabs separated from each other by trees. There are no sewage hook ups available, no water connections and no electricity. In the cold January weather, when we needed to run our heater, we weren’t able to run off of our batteries for more than two nights. This gave us an afternoon arrival, a day to spend in Washington DC and then we checked out the next morning.
There is so much to do in Washington DC and we plan to return in warmer weather so we can stay longer. On a cold, damp, windy January day, the Smithsonian museums were a perfect choice, and even without electricity, the campground at Greenbelt was a great home base for our visit.
The DC Metro
There is a metro station in Greenbelt and it could be considered walking distance depending on how far you’re willing to walk. The C and D loop of the campground are the closest, but since only the B loop is open in the winter, it was a little over 2 miles for us. In the end, we decided that walking was possible, but wondered about the walk home, after we’d all been on our feet in the museums all day. We chose to drive, and took the Metro from College Park since the rangers advised us that parking was limited in Greenbelt and may be full of commuters by the time we got there.
We’re fans of public transit and have navigated buses and trains in major cities around the world. We were disappointed with the DC Metro system both in terms of policies and how those policies are posted and explained. A city that draws so many visitors and tourists from around the world can and should do better.
If you’re unfamiliar with the DC Metro, here’s what we wish we had known. A SmarTrip card is a rechargeable payment card that can easily be used to pay. Most cities have a version of this (like an Oyster card in London). What we hadn’t understood was that in DC, this card is the ONLY accepted method of payment. There are no single use tickets, cash payment methods, or family day passes like the one Philadelphia (SEPTA) offers. Ok, so we bought a SmarTrip card (they cost $2 for the card itself), load it with enough for the four of us to ride (no reduced fares for children either – only Micah was young enough to ride free) and attempt to enter through the turnstiles. No. Each individual is required to have his or her own SmarTrip card, including children. This added $8 to what we’d expected to pay for transportation. None of this was posted anywhere in the station, nor had we found it on the website as we planned our trip the night before. We needed to find a station manager to explain it to us, who was neither friendly nor patient about the problems we were having. In the end, it probably would have been cheaper for us to drive into the city and pay for parking. We feel that one function of public transportation should be as an attractive alternative to driving, which benefits the environment, alleviates traffic congestion in cities, etc. This is not the case in Washington DC, at least for tourists and visitors. But we kept our cards and we’ll be prepared when we go back. Sorry if this turned into a rant. Rant over now.
I can’t say enough good things about the junior ranger programs we’ve encountered so far in the national park system. Typically they have to complete a specific number of activities depending on their age, and the difficulty level varies so that kids of all ages are able to complete tasks at a reasonable level. Our kids get so excited about completing the different activities that are always both educational and specifically geared to the park we’re visiting. The junior ranger program is a road-schooler’s dream!
The rangers at Greenbelt offered the kids junior ranger packs, and even though we only stayed a short time and spent most of the day in the city, they worked hard to complete their tasks and earn their badges. It was a good way to use the time on the train and other wait time. They take their pledges very seriously and have even requested to go on litter hunting walks to help protect and improve the environment. Honestly, we love the junior ranger program and most national parks have one so we encourage other families with kids to check out one near you or plan it into your next vacation.
National Air and Space Museum
This was the day we decided once and for all that we can’t trust other people’s advice about kids and museums. They mean well and want to be helpful, but they just don’t know our kids.
The last time we were in Washington DC, we visited the National Museum of Natural History. Looking for something different this time, we asked the ranger at Greenbelt for advice in choosing another of the Smithsonian museums. We were primarily choosing between Air and Space and American History. He suggested we plan to do both, since there wasn’t that much to do at the Air and Space museum, and he didn’t think it would take us long to walk through and look at all the space ships and airplanes. I believe what he said was, “It’s a great museum, but it’s not like you would want to spend 4 or 5 hours there.” We should have known better.
When we came up from the subway station, we were greeted by an unexpected downpour of rain for which we were unprepared. The Air and Space Museum was the closest so we went there first, to get out of the rain. At about 3:00 – about 4-5 hours later – we had to practically drag them out of there. Our general practice for museums is to leave while they’re still having a great time and wanting more, rather than waiting until they start to get too tired or bored, so that the lasting impression is that museums are really fun and they want to go back.
They had prepared for the day – through their own inspiration and choice – by bringing notebooks so they could write down interesting facts or draw pictures of things they liked. The experiences of astronauts through the years captured their imaginations, whether it was being confined in small spaces or using the bathroom in zero gravity, and they wanted to read and discuss nearly every display. They were fascinated by the time-line of the space race and took detailed notes about the Hubble telescope.
If you’re visiting with kids who don’t have freakishly long attention spans in museums, we highly recommend the exhibit about the shuttle program, which includes a Buzz Lightyear doll that has actually been to space on one of the shuttle missions. There are also videos of Buzz returning from his voyage and explaining various aspects of space travel for his other Toy Story friends.
A note about food in the museum: it’s not allowed. We had a packed lunch with us that we had put under the stroller and thankfully they didn’t check the stroller very carefully in security. There is a McDonald’s actually in the museum building, where the only tables and chairs are located, and it’s clearly marked that outside food is prohibited. There was nowhere else to sit and eat, so we sat in a corner at the McDonald’s and ate our packed lunch. It wasn’t crowded so we weren’t taking tables away from paying customers, and in principle we object to “forcing” this food on a captive audience. You could leave to have lunch, but the weather wasn’t conducive to eating outside, there’s nothing else nearby, and then you have to go through security again to get back in. Emelie was very aware that we were breaking the rules and she was so uncomfortable with it (to her credit) that she could barely eat. Most museums that we’ve been to have had a cafeteria or other area where you can eat packed lunches, so we were surprised and disappointed by this arrangement. If you’re planning a visit, be aware.
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
When we finally dragged them away from the Air and Space museum, our plan was to walk down the Mall toward the monuments before heading back to the Metro. It had stopped raining but when we got outside, the air was cold and it was so windy that our stuff was blowing out of the stroller. We didn’t walk too far before the kids were begging to go inside again. As much as they’d loved the Air and Space museum, they were still a little disappointed not to have seen dinosaur bones, so we decided to pop into the nearby National Museum of Natural History just for a quick look at dinosaur bones while we warmed up a little. Over 2 hours later we were forced to leave because the museum was closing. The grown-ups were exhausted but the kids were still running from exhibit to exhibit shouting, “Look at this!” even after 7 hours in museums.
I lost track of how long they spent drawing and labeling the coral reef exhibit, and Emelie specifically asked me to write in the blog about how much she loved all the sparkling gems and minerals. Ironically, the dinosaur exhibit -the reason we went in the first place – was closed for renovation, but it was quickly forgotten as they ran from insects to mummies with no time to lose before the museum closed.
The Smithsonian museums are truly a national treasure and the incredible educational experiences they provide are completely free of charge. If you choose to camp at Greenbelt National Park for just $20 per night, a visit to our nation’s capital can be really inexpensive. The most expensive part is riding the Metro! (But really, I’m over it.)
What are your favorite sights to see in Washington DC? Where should we take our museum-loving kiddos when we pass through the area again this spring?
Posted in Campground Reviews, Explore, National Parks and tagged DC metro, family friendly Washington DC, Greenbelt national park, junior rangers, National Air and Space Museum, Natural History museum, Smithsonian, Smithsonian with kids, Washington DC by Christine with no comments yet.