Many a national park has a storied beginning; celebrated preservationist John Muir was instrumental in creating Yosemite National Park, for example. Seldom, however, is a national park created explicitly to combine the majesty of wilderness with performative art. That’s why Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts just outside of Washington, D.C. is so iconic — and definitely worth a visit.
Let us explain why…
The Park’s history
Born in 1896, avid philanthropist Catherine Filene Shouse was the passionate originator of Wolf Trap. Her family, the Filenes, built a sizeable wealth from their eponymous department store, which gave Catherine the money she needed to pursue her love of nature, the arts, and equal rights for women. Once married, she moved into an opulent home in Georgetown where she devoted herself to public service. She found, however, that she needed a refuge away from city life; this took the form of Wolf Trap Farm, which the Shouses acquired around 1930.
Over the years, Wolf Trap became more than just a getaway for Catherine; it also served as the setting for social parties and small gatherings of friends and dignitaries. These gatherings grew over the years, encompassing dinners, musical performances, games, and long walks in peaceful farmland. While these events grew, so, too, did Catherine’s involvement in the arts scene in the Washington, D.C. area; she served as a volunteer fundraiser for the American Symphony League, sponsored Candlelight Concerts by the National Symphony Orchestra, and became a pivotal figure on several arts committees.
Perhaps it was little surprise, then, that Catherine donated 100 acres of Wolf Trap Farm to the Department of the Interior in 1966. Her wish was simple: To preserve the natural beauty of the area — which was being threatened by urban expansion — and create a space where nature and performance art could complement each other. To aid in this mission, she also donated funds for the building of an outdoor amphitheater, later called the Filene Center. The rest, as they say, is history.
Wolf Trap today
Despite a devastating fire in the 1980s, Wolf Trap has enjoyed loving care and, as needed, restoration to remain a capital of the arts and nature in northern Virginia. Uniquely, the Park is run jointly by a private entity — The Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts — and the National Park Service. The former organizes performance-related events and programming, while the Park Service cares for the natural surroundings.
Sadly, Catherine Filene Shouse passed away in 1994, but interest in Wolf Trap has nonetheless grown by leaps and bounds. The Park has several very active facilities, including The Barns at Wolf Trap, an intimate setting which hosts musicians specializing in genres from jazz to opera; the Filene Center, which was rebuilt following the 1980s fire and has hosted major performers, including the likes of Victor Borge and Paul Simon; and the Children’s Theatre-in-the-Woods, which hosts acting camps and classes for youth.
What to experience at Wolf Trap
Any performance or nature walk is worth experiencing at Wolf Trap; indeed, the unique blend of natural surroundings and performative talent sets the venue apart from almost any other in the world. That said, we recommend enjoying a few specific things at The Wolf Trap Park for the Performing Arts:
- Second City comedy performances at the Filene Center, featuring hilarious improv talent from across the country
- Wolf Trap opera at the Barns during the summer, this year showcasing “La Bohème” and “Elegy for Lovers”
- A Sunday hike with Wolf Trap devotees and volunteers, winding two-and-a-half miles through woodland gardens, cozy groves, and wildlife habitats
- A picnic in the park, cozied up to the meandering stream nearby or right outside The Filene Center (where you can nosh and watch a show, if you’d like)
- A songwriting, dance, or acting class, courtesy of top talent like Kofi Dennis, Ari Hest, and many others
- Volunteer activities, including park cleanup, event management and support, office work, and ad hoc needs
The event calendar is always full at Wolf Trap. Learn more about the myriad activities, fests, and performances of this East Coast gem by visiting the Wolf Trap Park website and the Wolf Trap Foundation website.