Five Spots for a Weekend in the Great Outdoors -- Car Optional

Sunday, June 29, 2008; N04

Looking for campsites accessible by public transportation or a bike ride? Here are five places worth visiting:

C&O Canal National Park

Swains Lock (Lock 21), Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, Potomac

Why should I go? The lovely views of the Potomac River are hard to beat. T he Swains Lock camping area is just north of Great Falls in Maryland but far enough away that you won't see too many tourists. Park Service spokeswoman Kathy Kupper, who used to work along the canal, says Swains Lock is one of the most popular of the small sites that dot the canal.

Kupper estimates that 90 percent of the people who visit the canal usually stick to the area between Georgetown and Great Falls, so getting just beyond the popular trail means better opportunities to have it to yourself. Also, the towpath is one of the best (okay, easiest) places to go for a bike ride in the Washington area.

Rob Warren, a volunteer who helps maintain the towpath, says he enjoys riding along the trail because it helps him manage stress and because "I am an older guy now. I can't run like I used to, [and] it's one way I can stay in shape."

How far is it from Washington? About 17 miles from Georgetown, where the canal begins, and two miles north of the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center (11710 MacArthur Blvd., Potomac).

How do I get there? Begin in Georgetown along the C&O Canal and head north. The bike ride should take a novice a couple of hours.

Cost? Free; first come, first served.

What else do I need to know? Bring water, and don't take a bath in the Potomac River. The park has no trash cans, so plan to carry out what you carry in. Call 301-739-4200 or visit

Greenbelt Park

6565 Greenbelt Rd., Greenbelt

Why should I go? Greenbelt Park is special because it was specifically designed for Washingtonians as a place to camp near the city. In 1937, Greenbelt became the first city planned by the federal government. The planners wanted to keep some of the land wild, so they set aside more than 1,000 acres. Years later the National Park Service acquired it as part of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, and it became Greenbelt Park.

"It is like a green oasis," says Fred Cunningham, the Park Service manager for Greenbelt and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. "You don't have all the hustle and bustle."

A native Washingtonian, Cunningham says part of the fun of Greenbelt Park is when kids from the city visit and realize how close they live to campgrounds. He also says the park attracts foreign tourists who are surprised to discover its proximity to the Metro.

"It's so close it is unbelievable," Cunningham says. "They can't believe [it] once they look at their little books."

How far is it from Washington? About 12 miles from downtown.

How do I get there? Ride Metro's Green Line to Greenbelt, then hop on the C2 Metrobus. The bus will stop at the park entrance.

Cost?$16 per night.

What else do I need to know? The campground includes showers and bathrooms. Reservations recommended during the summer. Call 301-344-3944 or visit

Lake Fairfax Park

1400 Lake Fairfax Dr., Reston

Why should I go? Lake Fairfax is one of the best-suited campsites for visitors who have children and don't want to travel too far. "Nobody is going to be bored at Lake Fairfax," says Judy Pedersen, public information officer for the Fairfax County Park Authority.

She might have a slight bias, but she's probably right. In addition to all the fun one can have on a lake, there is a water park and an antique carousel. "If you have young children, that is such a perfect combination," Pedersen says.

Not enough for you? The park's stage hosts free concerts and other performances throughout the summer, and the Reston Zoo is nearby. This coming weekend features Fourth of July fireworks starting at 9:15 p.m.

How far is it from Washington? About 20 miles.

How do I get there? Take Metro's Blue or Orange line to Rosslyn, then transfer to the 5A Metrobus toward Dulles Airport. At Tysons Westpark Transit Station, transfer to Fairfax Connector Bus 574 toward Reston Town Center. Get off at Baron Cameron Avenue and Lake Fairfax Drive, about three blocks from the park entrance.

Cost?$25 to $42 per site per night.

What else do I need to know? The campground is about a mile from the entrance, so if you are coming by bus, the first thing you will see is the water park. The sites fill up early, so try to register two to three weeks in advance. Call 703-471-5415 (general information) or 703-757-9242 (campsite reservations), or visit http://www.fairfaxcounty.g ov/parks/lakefairfax.

Little Bennett Regional Park

23701 Frederick Rd., Clarksburg

Why should I go? With 20 miles of trails on 3,700 acres, Little Bennett is t he largest park in Montgomery County. For the urbanite who always has to be doing something, its activity center and camp store loan out soccer balls, Frisbees and more. Plus there are orienteering courses and plenty of historic sites.

For beginning campers, the park offers something extra: You can rent a tent, lantern, stove and two camp chairs ($25 a night for a minimum of two nights). The best part? The park sets everything up for you.

"We have had anything from new, young families who have young children who don't have equipment" to campers who just don't want to pull out their gear, campground manager Rosemary Nichols says.

Another reason to visit: the $2 root beer floats for those staying at the camp on Saturday nights.

How far is it from Washington? About 30 miles.

How do I get there? Take Metro's Red Line to Medical Center, and transfer to Ride On Bus 70 toward Milestone Center. At the Milestone Center Park and Ride, take Ride On Bus 75 toward the Urbana Park and Ride. Get off at Frederick and Camping Ridge roads, about a third of a mile from the park entrance.

Cost?$21 per night for tent sites. $25 for gear rental.

What else do I need to know? Call 301-972-9222 or visit

Watkins Regional Park

301 Watkins Park Dr., Upper Marlboro

Why should I go?"We get a lot of first-time campers," says Anita Pesses, the public affairs officer for the Prince George's County Department of Parks and Recreation. "This is a great place to start." She says the facilities (hot showers! real bathrooms!) are appealing to those who don't want a primitive camping experience.

For the novice who needs entertainment, there is plenty to take in, including an antique carousel, a miniature train, a nature center, a petting zoo and a perk unavailable at most other parks: mini-golf.

How far is it from Washington? About 15 miles.

How do I get there? Take Metro's Blue Line to Largo Town Center, then transfer to the C26 Metrobus toward East Kettering. The bus stops at Keverton and Watkins Park drives near the park entrance.

Cost?$15, residents of Montgomery or Prince George's counties $12.

What else do I need to know? Reservations a few weeks in advance are recommended. Call 301-218-6700 (for general information) or 301-218-6870 (campground permits), or visit

-- Amy Orndorff

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