For DC area parents, when they think of natural history the first stop they’re likely to consider is the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. That’s for good reason; most kids can’t resist checking out the huge dinosaur skeletons on display. However, Maryland and Northern Virginia offer some fun and factual museums as alternatives within a short drive from the capital city downtown.
• The National Museum of Natural History offers free access every day of the year excepting Christmas. Collections run the gamut from birds to botany in one of the nation’s most comprehensive exhibits of its kind.
1400 Constitution Ave NW Washington, District of Columbia 20227
• The Smithsonian Institution Naturalist Center in Leesburg is a satellite center providing tours of 30,000 objects. Groups or individuals can access these natural history items. Open Tuesday – Saturday from 10:30 – 4 PM for walk in or reservation. School groups can make reservations for structured programs.
741 Miller Drive SE Suite G-2, Leesburg, VA 20175
• The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission maintains four nature centers with natural history programs & exhibits in Boyds, Wheaton, Bethesda, and Rockville. For park hours and event prices, visit each park’s homepage.
• The Locust Grove Nature Center in Cabin John Regional Park, Bethesda offers trails and a forest exhibit. There’s a nearby shady playground that’s one of the coolest in the area on hot Maryland summer days.
• The Brookside Nature Center has walks, animal tours, and fishing in Wheaton Regional Park. Many of the events require reservations in advance.
• The Black Hill Visitor Center in Boyds recently had to cut visiting hours due to budgetary constraints. Pontoon cruises and boat rentals are available, and Monarch Conservation Day, a free family event, is running September 4, 2010.
• The Meadowside Nature Center in Rock Creek Regional Park, Rockville offers free self-guided tours from September through mid-June. If you’re visiting in the summer, it’s a $1 per child fee, and reservations are required. Meadowside’s Raptor Aviary features the American bald eagle, hawks, and owls.
• Solomons Island, Maryland may be better known for its iconic Drum Point Lighthouse, but unless you’ve visited you may not know that the Lighthouse is on the grounds of the Calvert Marine Museum. Focused on the natural history of Southern Maryland, fossils, river life, skates, rays, and a children’s discovery room make the visit a worthwhile experience. Watching the otters play may be more fun for the little ones than making them climb the stairs of the Lighthouse.
14200 Solomons Island Road, Solomons, MD 20688
Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Office Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
• Lastly, if campy fun is more your thing, consider Dinosaur Land in White Post, Virginia. The 30 ft. models may be a bit dated, but one of the more recent models of a T-Rex devouring a plant eating dinosaur may be just graphic enough to give your children pause. The area is described as an “outdoor prehistoric forest.”
3848 Stonewall Jackson Highway, White Post, VA 22663
Hours of admission are seasonal; closed January through February.
National Museum of Natural History
Smithsonian Institution Naturalist Center
Black Hill Visitor Center
Brookside Nature Center
Locust Grove Nature Center
Meadowside Nature Center
Calvert Marine Museum