By Meghan Meier
It’s springtime, and that means nature has awakened from a long winter’s slumber. It’s time for the family to dust off those walking shoes and explore what nature has in store this season. Whether the aim is to visit a zoo or to simply get outside, here are some places that should win a spot on your day trip bucket list. The question remains, how far do you want to drive?
(Travel time measured from Fairfax City.)
Of course this zoo has all the conventional attractions from the petting barn to the reptile house. But what makes this venue stand apart from its neighbors is its family of fantastic beasts that stretch from Africa to Australia and includes zebras, camels and even kangaroos. Apart from walking tours, visitors can also get up close with the resident animals on the zoo’s Zoofari Wagon Ride. // 1228 Hunter Mill Road, Vienna; 703-757-6222; $10-$15.
An amalgam of grasslands and marshes, this 642-acre stretch of land is a wildlife oasis and refuge that attracts a diverse range of migratory bird species. For those who make bird-watching an annual hobby, this is a perfect location between April and June to spot songbirds, raptors like the common osprey and other aquatic birds. However, if the family is looking for something more down to earth, head toward the wetlands where you can spot otters frolic in their natural habitat. // Woodbridge; 703-491-6869; prices vary.
Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck
This peninsula is home to more than 200 species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. But there is one animal that stands above the crowd—the bald eagle. Here, the nation’s symbol can be seen nesting around the greater regions of the Potomac waters. // High Point Road, Lorton; 703-490-4979; $4-$7.
It is a full house at this park where visitors can explore the variety of mammal, reptile and amphibian species at the daily animal exhibit. This animal park is not just about educating through exhibition; it’s all about interaction. The little ones who like to be more hands-on have the opportunity to interact with goats, sheep and other favorite barnyard animals and to learn how to make calling sounds made by the laughing kookaburra. The spring season also brings the birth of new life, so kids also have the chance to meet the park’s newest additions of spring babies, including ducks, chicks, lambs and donkeys. // 19270 James Monroe Highway, Leesburg; 703-433-0002; $9.95-$14.95.
2 hours, 40 minutes
It will take a good pair of walking shoes and a full day to meet all the animals housed at this zoo. But there is one unlikely dynamic duo that is a must-see—Kumbali and Kago. Born at the zoo, cheetah Kumbali was hand-raised when staff noticed he was losing weight. Although his health improved, Kumbali was never able to rejoin his family and needed a playmate. Kago, a yellow Labrador mix, was introduced to the cheetah cub, and the two have been inseparable ever since. If the goal is to find something a little more unconventional at the zoo, then meeting these two four-legged friends would most certainly meet that criterion. //8300 Beaver Bridge Road, Moseley; 804-739-5666; $10.75-$16.75.
Assateague’s Wild Horses
At this beach, it is all about living on the wild side. On both the Virginia and Maryland portions of the island, wild horses can be seen roaming the beaches and marshes. And on July 27, see the ponies in action during the annual Chincoteague Wild Pony Swim and Auction as the herd takes a 3-minute swim across the Assateague Channel. A carnival is held at Chincoteague after the swim. // Barrier island of both Maryland and Virginia; 410-641-1441; free.
3 hours 30 minutes
Great Dismal Swamp
Located in southeast Virginia and the northeastern part of North Carolina, this forest wetland is a bird-spotter’s paradise that gives a front-row view of spring migrations that bring an influx of a diverse range of bird species, especially warblers that can be seen making an appearance between April and June. Although the purpose of this trip is for the birds, take note that you might have the chance to use your binoculars to spot a bobcat or black bear roaming the wooded wetland terrain. // 3100 Desert Road, Suffolk; 757-986-3705; free.