Getting Out in DC - Top 10 Trails
Find more than museums and monuments in D.C. Explore the city's surroundings with our trail guide...
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While it's known as a center for politics, national monuments, and city life, Washington, D.C. is rarely associated with hiking. However, the nation’s capital still has plenty of top notch trails to offer its urban adventurers. From smooth family-friendly options, to hikes covering rolling hills and steeper terrain, the hiking trails surrounding D.C. shouldn't be missed.
Pick up a pair of our performance-tested hiking boots, like the FC 4.1 GTX, and trade in the sidewalk for singletrack. Here are 10 of the best trails in the area to get you started.
Stretching from Georgia to Maine, the Appalachian Trail crosses 15 states over 2,200 miles. One quarter, or 544 miles of this iconic trail can be found in Virginia, and in under an hour's drive from D.C., hikers gain access to a 100-mile section of the AT that offers ample opportunities for hikers of all experience levels. While the trails in this section are well-maintained and a bit gentler than other sections of the AT, the views are no less stunning—with the scenic Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park being one of the most hailed. Venturing further south in Virgina offers more route options but know the terrain becomes more rugged.
Cross County Trail
This 40-mile Cross County Trail cuts a north-south line between the Potomac and Occoquan rivers and intersects Fairfax County, a bustling area in the Virginia suburbs of Washington. Much of the trail meanders alongside streams and through the county’s greenspaces, exaggerating the feeling of distance from city life. The trail is easily accessible with many spots to jump on and off, and is open to hikers, runners, cyclists, and horseback riders.
Patuxent River State Park
Sitting 34 miles outside of D.C., the 6,700-acre Patuxent River State Park has several miles of remote, unmarked trails for runners, hikers, and horseback riders. The park straddles Howard and Montgomery counties in the Maryland suburbs north of the capital. The mild terrain and remote setting are a draw for hikers but can also be a challenge. Unmarked trails means it’s important to come prepared with extra food, water, and a hiking partner.
Burke Lake Park
Burke Lake Park in Fairfax Station, VA, almost became an international airport before Dulles Airport was built in nearby Chantilly. Luckily, its fate was different, and today it is a family-friendly park with a reservoir—Burke Lake, golf course, playing fields, volleyball courts, and a carousel. The flat 4.5-mile trail is a mix of paved and natural surfaces that circumnavigates the lake making it well suited for runners or those looking for an evening stroll.
Catoctin Mountain Park
Nestled in the Appalachian Mountains of Maryland, Catoctin Mountain Park, home to the presidential retreat, Camp David, has 18 miles of trails with that offer worthy views. Most of the trails start at the park’s visitor center and range from 2.5 miles to 8.5 miles. One of the park’s most popular hikes is to Cunningham Falls—reach the falls from the Catoctin National Recreation Trail on the west side of the park.
Seneca Creek Park
Just outside of downtown D.C. lays the 6,000-acre Seneca Creek Park which is composed of two distinct sections—the developed area in Gaithersburg, MD and the 16.5-mile Seneca Creek Greenway Trail. In Gaithersberg ,11 miles of trail meander in and around Clopper Lake. The Seneca Creek Greenway Trail is a winding sliver of land that follows Seneca Creek down to the Potomac River at Riley’s Lock on the C&O Canal. Blazed with blue trail markers, the trail cuts an aesthetic path through the forest as it makes its way downstream.
Bears Den Park
Sitting just off the Appalachian Trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Bluemont, VA is the 66-acre Bears Den Park. While it is most known for its sunset views, a visit here should always include a stop at Bears Den Rocks, which sits 1,350 feet above sea level and overlooks the valley below. In addition, there are four trails ranging from a half mile to a few miles in the park, and they can all be looped together to make a longer hike. The park also has a European-style stone castle onsite that was built in 1933—it can be rented out overnight.
Potomac Heritage Trail
Follow in the footsteps of George Washington as you hike, bike, and run along the Potomac Heritage Trail, designated a National Scenic Trail in 1983. This 800 plus-mile trail network through Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and D.C. has 11 trails all steeped in history, from the 18-mile Mount Vernon Trail to the 184.5-mile C&O Canal Towpath. Each has it’s own personality as well, and depending on which trail you decide to explore, you may find yourself in lush dense forest, along city sidewalks, or meandering alongside a waterway. Regardless of which trail you choose, you will find beautiful hikes full of history on any of them.
Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath
The towpath that meanders alongside the C&O Canal was originally built for mules to pull boats up and down the waterway. The 184.5-mile towpath that stretches from Georgetown to Cumberland, MD is mostly flat —with only 600 feet of elevation gain starting from the Georgtown side— and has a mix of gravel, dirt, and grass surface making it comfortable terrain for hiking or logging longer miles while running without much vert.
Harpers Ferry trails
Historic Harpers Ferry, WV, played a role in the Civil War, largely due to its strategic location at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. Today, roughly 20 miles of trails exist in and around this little town. Harpers Ferry National Historical Park sprawls across 4,000 acres of West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland, and contains the midpoint and headquarters of the 2,178-mile Appalachian National Scenic Trail. The hiking options along riverbanks, across old battlefields, and up mountains have something for all who visit.
Originally written for La Sportiva by RootsRated.
Photos provided by La Sportiva and RootsRated.
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