Travel

Explore These Beaches For a Day Trip Near DC

These beaches are your best bet for a socially distanced summer.

Rehoboth Beach
Dolle's Salt Water Taffy at Rehoboth Beach | Susan Smith/Flickr
Dolle's Salt Water Taffy at Rehoboth Beach | Susan Smith/Flickr

A relaxing day trip or weekend beach getaway looks a little different these days due to the coronavirus pandemic. But if you don your face masks and stay at least six feet from other tourists, a vacation at the beach and nearby nature reserves is among your best bets for a socially distanced summer. We’ve rounded up beaches in Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware with the latest COVID-19 intel on what’s open and what visitors can still enjoy.

Sandy Point State Park

The 786-acre park has long been a summer day-trip destination for DMV residents seeking to beat the heat with a dip in the calm waters of the Chesapeake Bay. It’s proximity is even more alluring now for sunseekers who don’t want to travel beyond the Bay Bridge in the age of COVID-19.The entrance fee is $4 per person during the week and $5 on holidays and weekends. The food and drink concessions and picnic areas are open, but no lifeguards are on duty.

On the way there, make a stop in Annapolis to grab a bite to go or dine outdoors. Get fresh and jumbo lump crabs from the longstanding Cantler’s Riverside Inn. Seafood lovers can also head to the ever-popular restaurant Carrol’s Creek Cafe, which is currently taking reservations inside and on its waterfront deck. Popular with politicos, the old-school Chick & Ruth’s Delly now offers sidewalk seating (along with carryout) where you can enjoy the hearty breakfasts and thick corned beef sandwiches. Fill up on baked goods on the way to the beach from Bakers & Co. or a decadent dessert combo that combines pudding, cupcakes, and ice cream at Smallcakes.

Virginia Beach

Visitors to Virginia Beach might find that the seaside town looks a little different than they remember thanks to new hotels, breweries, and a creative arts district. Just make sure you follow the latest COVID-19 guidelines that require masks for anyone 10 and older in restaurants, shops, and other indoor public places and that you maintain at least six feet of distance from other guests on the beach. The town has implemented a few other beach restrictions, including no group sports, alcohol, or groups of more than 50. 

The 350-room Marriott Virginia Beach Oceanfront debuted last month with two restaurants and a pool. It’s an extension of the swanky Historic Hotel & Beach Club, a storied property that once hosted presidents and celebrities that reopened two years ago and has since implemented new sanitation guidelines.

Beyond the boardwalk, Virginia Beach offers an arts area, known as the ViBe Creative District, where visitors can take a one-mile walking tour past colorful murals and visit the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, reopening July 11. Stop at the city’s newest craft brewery, Vibrant Shore Brewing, which opened its tasting room, rooftop, and patio last month. Complete your brewery tour by visiting one of the other breweries that have cropped up in recent years. Diners hunting for restaurants with outdoor seating can head to Hearth, which serves wood-fired pizza, and craft beer and seafood shack Chix on the Beach, which serves 15 types of crushes.

For an outdoor adventure, spend some time at the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which offers nearly 5,000 acres of wetlands and thousands of migratory water birds, and First Landing State Park, with miles of walking and biking paths and hammocks by the water.

Cape Henlopen State Park
Cape Henlopen State Park | Bruce Goerlitz Photo/Shutterstock

Rehoboth Beach

With a recent uptick in coronavirus cases in the area, Delaware’s governor ordered the closure of beach bars before the July 4 holiday and indefinitely postponed the move into Phase 3 of its reopening plans. But it’s still possible to enjoy this quaint, family-friendly beach town. While outdoor summer concerts have been canceled, Funland rides reopen July 10. Guests need to book a time slot and can expect to wear masks and have their temperatures checked before entering. Just wear a mask before entering and leaving the beach and while taking a stroll on the boardwalk. You don't need to wear it while relaxing on the beach or in the water.

The best spot for a socially distanced weekend is located just north of Rehoboth, at the 5,000-acre Cape Henlopen State Park, where the beaches, trails, and campsites remain open, though state officials have reduced parking capacity. Or you can stay overnight at one of the area’s fancy hotels that have implemented new hygiene and sanitation measures, which include requiring that employees and guests wear face masks. The Bellmoor Inn & Spa reopened last month and offers two pools and beach access to guests while the Victorian-style Boardwalk Plaza Hotel features a waterfront restaurant and a heated soaking pool. Hop on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, located near the park, to enjoy an 85-minute cruise along the Delaware Bay. The ferry, which resumed foot passenger service July 8, requires masks worn at all times except while eating.

Take in the full beach eats experience with a stop at the area’s most celebrated pizza joint, Grotto Pizza, or get a giant bucket of vinegar-topped fried spuds at Thrasher’s (please don’t ask them for ketchup). Dolle’s salt water taffy or a custard cone from Kohr Bros should satisfy your sweet tooth. Known for its exceptional restaurants, Rehoboth and its neighboring beach towns have reopened for outdoor and indoor dining at 60 percent capacity. Henlopen City Oyster House serves an array of bivalves and fresh fish dishes. Enjoy halibut, scallops and fish and chips al fresco at Fish On’s new patio in Lewes. The area’s famous brewery restaurant, Dogfish Head Brewing & Eats, and its locally sourced seafood restaurant Chesapeake & Maine, however, are only offering curbside pickup. Head to Confucius Chinese Cuisine for excellent Hunan-style dishes and Bangkok Thai Cuisine for noodles and red curry in Lewes.
 

Assateague Island National Seashore

The National Park Service oversees the 37-mile island in Virginia and Maryland, where wild ponies roam the beaches and salt marsh. The annual pony swim on neighboring Chincoteague Island was canceled this year due to COVID-19, but visitors can still gaze at the beauties along with shorebirds and other animals. Guests can enjoy swimming, hiking, biking, and kayaking on the beaches and trails while maintaining proper social distancing. Note that lifeguards are on duty Thursday through Monday and the visitor centers in both states are closed. Start your day early as Assateague State Park and others will turn away visitors once they are filled to capacity.

The NPS has reopened campgrounds on the Maryland side only and it is the best way to experience Assateague is really to camp. But if you’re not one for roughing it, try the Refuge Inn, which feels woodsy and rustic, with modern amenities like a pool, wi-fi, and free breakfast delivered to your door. Other attractions include the 142-foot high Assateague Lighthouse and the Assateague Explorer, which offers boat and kayak tours. If you’re lucky, you’ll be staying at Assateague during a rocket launch at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility, just 15 miles from the beach and there’s one scheduled for July 15. On the flat beach, visitors can view the complete trajectory of a rocket launch, which heads to the International Space Station or into lunar orbit.

Head to West Ocean City, just six miles down the road, for plenty of dining options. Watch the sunset and listen to live music with an Orange Crush in hand outside at the waterfront Harborside, which also offers carryout. Or have dinner just across the water at Shark on the Harbor, which offers a selection of local craft brews and fresh catches available for carryout, outdoor seating, and limited indoor dining.

Colonial Beach

Located within a 90-minute drive of DC, Colonial Beach boasts Virginia’s second-largest beachfront. Visitors can enjoy swimming and fishing at the beaches or break out the boat and kayak. Explore the area’s many historical attractions by golf cart, which can be rented and legally driven around the town.

Visit the area’s food and retail establishments, keeping in mind that Virginia requires that patrons wear face masks inside. Start your day with a cappuccino and cinnamon roll at the woman-owned Colonial Buzz Espresso Bar, which features a take-out window and outdoor seating at its new location. Grab lunch at the unassuming Denson’s Grocery, a mom-and-pop deli known for its oysters, ice cream, and sandwiches that is offering carryout only on weekends. Then spend the day sampling one of Virginia’s largest wineries, Ingleside Vineyards, open daily with courtyard seating available on a first-come, first-serve basis.

While many restaurants offer carryout only, two options for outdoor waterfront dining include Dockside Restaurant and Tiki Bar and High Tides on the Potomac & the Black Pearl Tiki Bar.

Gunpowder Falls State Park

Located a little over an hour from DC, Gunpowder Falls State Park features 120 miles of trails for hiking and biking, kayaking, fishing and a marina. Divided into six areas, the Hammerman Area offers a low-key, well-maintained beach that is the perfect escape from the city. Maryland residents pay $5 per person and non-residents $7, during weekends and holidays from Memorial Day through Labor Day and $3 during the week ($5 for non-residents). 

Bathrooms and picnic tables are available, but the Riverside Grill concession is closed. If you don’t bring your own cooler, head to one of the cafes and restaurants just outside the park. Pick up pancakes, breakfast burritos, subs, and sandwiches to go from Kelly’s Kitchen & Bakery in Middle River. Across the street, you’ll find Hunan chicken and other Chinese specialties available to go from Asian Wok. About 20 minutes away in Kingsville, The Gunpowder Lodge serves fried green tomatoes topped with lump crab, soft shell crabs and burgers that you can savor under an umbrella at one of the outdoor picnic tables or to go.

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Julekha Dash is a Maryland writer who covers food, travel, and design with bylines in USA Today, American Way, Architectural Digest, Eater, Fodor’s, and others. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram and check out her Contently portfolio.