Day trip: Adventuring with kids in our nation’s capital

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The layout of the National Zoo (admission is free!) with a main walkway and themed side loops like the Asia Trail allows visitors to hit all the high points  without consulting a map. Photos courtesy Smithsonian’s National Zoo The layout of the National Zoo (admission is free!) with a main walkway and themed side loops like the Asia Trail allows visitors to hit all the high points  without consulting a map. Photos courtesy Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Before I tell you all about taking your kids on a day trip to Washington, D.C.—one of the best destinations there is—I’ll admit right upfront that such a trip is exhausting. But here’s my secret for making it exhilarating too: Leave your car outside the city and ride the Metro in. It’ll break up the trip, hugely simplify parking and let the kids escape their car seats. In other words, it makes travel time part of the adventure.

Obviously, an early start is recommended. I do not pretend to fully grok the scope of D.C. rush hour, but I can say this: Leave home early enough to arrive at Franconia-Springfield Metro Station (off I-95, south of the city) around 10:30am, and you should miss the traffic. Or just go on a weekend.

Why Franconia? Well, the drive there—through Gordonsville and Orange—is ultra-scenic, and the parking garage is enormous and cheap ($9 for the day). True, the last 40 miles on I-95 feel tedious; perhaps a surprise audiobook, or just some cookies, would help everybody’s attitude.

On my last trip with my two daughters, as usual, the Metro ride was half the attraction. My country girls, ages 5 and 7, get excited just to ride escalators to the train platform, and the older one enjoyed following the signage in Metro stations and being responsible for her own Metro card. We saw a plane taking off from Reagan National and spotted Canada geese on the Potomac.

While planning the day, we’d decided to skip the multitude of destinations on the National Mall and check out the National Zoo. But we had to stop off first at our favorite place in Chinatown, New Big Wong—a no-frills Chinese joint with tanks of eels and lobsters in the back. My girls love those, and I love that we can all lunch for under 20 bucks.

Another short train ride, and we found ourselves walking to the zoo entrance. I was reminded that for kids, the journey is everything. They got interested in Russian nesting dolls in a store window, the view of Rock Creek Park from the Taft Bridge, the fountain outside the Art-Deco Kennedy-Warren apartment building. …In short, we weren’t in a rush and that was all to the good.

Finally, we walked through the gates. As part of the Smithsonian, the zoo is free and you can stroll right in (as, it seems, many local residents often do). The zoo is laid out along one main walkway, with themed side loops like Asia Trail and America Trail, and there’s no need to consult much with a map; if you go with the flow, you’ll hit all the high points. On the way in we looked at an extensive schedule of daily programs—zookeeper chats and feeding demos and the like—but decided just to keep it simple and look at animals.

At first, that seemed difficult; the sloth bear, clouded leopard and small-clawed otter all proved elusive and the dreaded word “boring” arose once or twice. But then we found the panda exhibit and were entranced to see a panda climbing trees and then rolling over on its back, drawing awwws from a large crowd of humans. Immediately afterward, we spotted elephants, and the zoo began to feel more than worthwhile.

We ended up staying nearly five hours. Highlights included the indoor portion of the elephant exhibit (where workers tossed treats to animals standing not 15 feet away from us), a friendly spoonbill bird in the Amazonia exhibit, underwater views of swimming sea lions and—let’s not forget—a short break for Dippin’ Dots, a snack the girls found both tasty and hilarious.

Every time I suspected we were coming down with zoo fatigue, something rescued us. The zoo path would deliver us to a carousel, or we’d discover an exhibit about elephant dung, and the kids would be revived. Honestly, you’d think the place had been designed for families.

After eating a picnic dinner I’d been hoofing all day in my backpack, it was time to make our exit. There was still more to see (we never even set foot in the Reptile House!), but at some point a parent has to get out in front of the looming energy crash—her kids’ and her own. The reptiles will be there another day.

And so, undoubtedly, will the megachain coffeeshop right across the street from the zoo exit. I slipped in there for a cuppa just before closing, and that’s how we all made it safely home that night.


If You Go

• The Metro rides in this trip cost a total of $11.95 for each rider age 5 and up. Fares vary with time of day. See wmata.com.

• The National Zoo is accessed by the Cleveland Park and Woodley Park-Zoo Metro stops. It’s open daily, 8am to 7pm in summer. Happily, you can bring in your own food and drinks. See national zoo.si.edu.

• New Big Wong is at 610 H St. NW, just a few steps from the Friendship Arch (aka the Chinatown Gate). (202) 628-0491.

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