best hiking paths

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“Of all the paths you take in life,
make sure a few of them are dirt.”
– John Muir

Warm, sunny weather is an open invitation from Mother Nature to get out and enjoy all of her amazing creations.  There are a million ways to enjoy nature from cycling to paddleboarding to camping. One way that I enjoy spending time on a warm, summer day is hiking.

Whether you’re a novice who’s just getting started, a human mountain goat who can traverse the most difficult trails, or something in between, the DC Metro area (DC/MD/VA) has a hiking trail for you. 

Below are some of my favorite trails as well as those my family and friends recommend. 



= TRAILS FOR BEGINNERS =



BURKE LAKE TRAIL AT LAKE BURKE
Burke, VA

Lake Burke
A shot of Lake Burke from the trail  | © Photo by A Traveling Broad


Trail Length: 
4.8-mile loop

Surface Type: Varies between concrete, gravel & dirt

Trail Map

The walk around the lake is beautiful and shaded by trees in most places, making for a pleasant and relaxing place to hike.  Although the type of terrain varies, the trail itself is pretty flat.

The trail is popular with cyclists and can get busy  For the most peaceful visit, go early, during the week, or when the weather is rainy.  It’s especially beautiful in the Fall when the leaves change. 


CAPITAL CRESCENT TRAIL
Bethesda, MD – Georgetown (DC)

Capital Crescent Trail
Trestle bridge along the Capital Crescent Trail | Photo by Milo Bateman


Trail Length: 
11 miles

Surface Type: 
Paved & crushed stone; relatively flat

Trail Map 

The Capital Crescent Trail gets its name from its arc connecting northern and western borders of Washington, DC.  A portion of the trail was the Georgetown section of the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad.  

If you go from Bethesda to Roslyn, the trail is downhill but the return trip has an incline; the incline is negligible for walkers but slightly more challenging for cyclists who frequent the trail. 

There are some benches along the trail and a water fountain or two so you can rest and rehydrate.  If you need a restroom, Fletcher’s Cove has them available.


CHESAPEAKE & OHIO (C&O) CANAL TOWPATH
Georgetown (Washington, DC) to Cumberland, MD

C&O Canal Toepath
C&O Canal Towpath | Photo courtesy of the National Park Service


Trail Length: 
184.5 miles 
(Can be broken down into shorter hikes)

Surface Type: Natural

Trail Map

It’s quiet, peaceful, and beautiful. The section of the C&O Canal Towpath that runs parallel to M Street in Georgetown (part of NW Washington, DC) is a great walking alternative (no stop lights, no cars, and fewer tourists to maneuver around.) 

Since it’s 184.5 miles long from Georgetown to Cumberland, MD, there are a lot of paths to explore, great places to stop and enjoy a picnic, and spots ideal for camping


MOUNT VERNON TRAIL
Mount Vernon, VA to Washington, DC

Mount Vernon Trail
The path along a portion of the lake | © Photo courtesy of FunInFairfax.com


Trail Length: 
18.9 miles out and back

Surface Type: Paved

Trail Map

This multi-purpose trail originates in Mount Vernon and runs north, extending all the way to Theodore Roosevelt Island near Roslyn.   You’ll enjoy a lot of beautiful scenery on portions of this trail including the Potomac River and national monuments. There are also footbridges along the trail which breaks up the 18.9-mile trail into smaller sections.  
 
It IS used a lot by bicyclists, so be aware and stay to the side.  Restrooms are available in Belle Haven Park.  
 
If you want to stop for a bite, Old Town Alexandria is ideal.  It offers a variety of dining options, some of which are near the waterfront (such as The Charthouse, which isn’t cheap but there are affordable options).

SCOTT’S RUN NATURE PRESERVE
McLean, VA

Scott's Run Nature Preserve
Getting back to nature at Scott’s Run | © Photo by A Traveling Broad


Trail Length: 
2.5-mile loop

Surface Type: 
Natural

Trail Map

Scott’s Run is just a mile from the beltway and a few miles from Tyson’s Corner.  Portions of the trail offer views of the river or the beautiful waterfall.  You’ll also enjoy the wide variety of wildflowers and plants. 
 
The portion of the trail that leads down to the waterfall and river is kinda steep so getting back up the hill can be tiring for beginners or those who are out-of-shape.

SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK
Luray, VA

Shenandoah National Park
A view from a scenic overlook in Shenandoah National Park | © Photo by A Traveling Broad


Trail Length: 
500 miles of trails | 5 trails featuring waterfalls

Surface Type: Natural

Trails Map

This beautiful national park is one of my favorite places to drive through and explore on foot, especially in the Fall when the leaves are changing colors. 
 
One of my favorite trails is 1.5 mile Dark Hollow Falls trail. (It’s all downhill at the beginning, with a total uphill hike on the way back.  A stop at the Falls is recommended, both to enjoy the beauty of the Falls and to rest up for the return trip.)  

U.S. NATIONAL ARBORETUM
Washington, DC (Northeast)

National Arboretum
National Herb Garden overlooking the Capitol Columns | Photo courtesy of FONA

 

Trail Length: 3.5 miles

Surface Type:
Paved


Trail Map 

The Arboretum is a public garden, research facility, and urban green space covering 446 acres.  You can explore the grounds on your own or sign up for a Full Moon Hike sponsored by the Friends of the National Arboretum. 



= MORE ADVANCED TRAILS =



CRABTREE FALLS
Montebello, VA

Crabtree Falls
Crabtree Falls


Trail Length: 
3.1-mile loop

Surface Type: Dirt, wooden stairs/boardwalk

Trail Map

Crabtree Falls is the highest vertical-drop cascading waterfall east of the Mississippi River.  This trail is really popular despite its difficulty and elevation. 

The first half of the hike is pretty much uphill, but the waterfalls and amazing views of the Tye River Gorge from the top are well worth the effort!  The return trip is all downhill which is truly a treat.

Other plusses: there’s lots of shade, the trail is very well-maintained and clearly marked (about every 1/10th of a mile), and there’s plenty of parking (Cost: $3 per car).


SUGARLOAF MOUNTAIN
Dickerson, MD

Sugarloaf Mountain
The views from atop Sugarloaf Mountain are breathtaking | © Photo by A Traveling Broad


Trail Length: 
1.5 miles – 7 miles

Surface Type: 
Natural

Trail Map

Sugarloaf Mountain is a great place to hike.  When you reach the summit, your efforts will be rewarded with breathtaking views like the one pictured above.  It’s definitely one of my favorite hiking spots.  

There are several different trails along the mountain, each with its own color.  Be sure to make a mental note of which trail you’re on and follow the corresponding color trail markings so you don’t get lost. (Yes, I know this from personal experience. LOL)


WASHINGTON & OLD DOMINION (W&OD) TRAIL
Shirlington, VA to Purcellville, VA

W&OD Path
A portion of the W&OD Trail at twilight | © Photo by A Traveling Broad


Trail Length:
 45 miles total

Surface Type: Paved

Trail Map

The W&OD Trail is a popular trail in Virginia.  Some portions of the trail are more scenic than others. 

I’ve been on 3 stretches of the W&OD Trail:  (1) from Vienna to Dulles, (2) from Dulles to Leesburg, and (3) from Old Town Leesburg to Purcellville.  My favorite section is the 3rd one – from Old Town Leesburg to Purcellville – because it is more rural, offering prettier scenery than the other 2 portions of the trail.  You’re likely to see some wildlife such as rabbits and deer.  Before and/or after hiking this section of the trail, you can explore the variety of shops and restaurants in Leesburg and Purcellville.

All along the trail, there are benches (some covered), water fountains, and even a few port-a-potties.  It is popular with bicyclists and can get busy during nice weather.  When walking on the trail, stay on the right side to allow room for bicyclists to pass you.

 



= DIFFICULT TRAILS =



BULL RUN – OCCOQUAN TRAIL
Manassas, VA to Fairfax, VA

A photo taken from the trail behind Paradise Springs Winery | © Photo by A Traveling Broad


Trail Length:
 19.6 miles

Surface Type: 
Natural

Trail Map

Although the trail spans nearly 20 miles, the Hemlock Overlook Park section is probably the prettiest and most popular part of the trail. 
 
Near the Hemlock Overlook Park is the quaint town of Clifton, which offers cute little shops and a variety of restaurants.  Paradise Springs Winery is located just past the entrance to the trail.  In addition to the wine, they offer live music on most Sunday afternoons. 

OLD RAG
Sperryville, VA

Old Rag Mountain
The view from the top of Old Rag Mountain | Photo courtesy of Pinterest


Trail Length:
9-mile circuit or 5.4 miles out-and-back

Trail Map 

If you’re an expert hiker, check out Old Rag.  This hike isn’t for the faint-hearted, though. 

The mountain is 3,284 feet high at the summit.  Be prepared for a challenge!

When you finish your hike, reward yourself with a trip to Sharp Rock Winery at the bottom.



= ONE AREA, ALL FITNESS LEVELS =



GREAT FALLS
Montgomery County, MD & Fairfax County, VA

Billy Goat Trail
The Billy Goat Trail, one of the most popular trails in Great Falls | Photo courtesy of Wikipedia


Trail Length: 
15 miles with varying levels of difficulty 

Surface Type: Packed Dirt & Gravel

Trails Map

There are 2 national parks in the Great Falls area – Great Falls Park on the Virginia side and the C&O Canal National Historic Park on the Maryland side.  Both national parks offers trails suitable for any fitness level from easy to difficult and everything in between.  The trails are also scenic. 
  • EASY TRAILS:
    • Patowmack Canal Trail (VA) – 1.25 miles one-way
    • Mine Run Trail (VA) – 1/2 mile one-way
    • Riverbend Road Trail (VA) – 0.4 miles one-way
    • North Riverbend Trail to Riverbend County Park (VA) – Easy with 1 moderate section; 1.5 miles one-way
  • EASY TO MODERATE TRAILS:
    • Billy Goat Trail C (MD) 
    • Matildaville Trail (VA) – 1.1 miles one-way
    • Old Carriage Road Trail (VA) – 1.5 miles one-way
    • Ridge Trail (VA) – 1.5 miles one-way
    • Swamp Trail & Swamp Trail Connector (VA) – 0.9 miles one-way for both trails
  • MODERATE TRAILS:
    • Billy Goat Trail B (MD)
    • Difficult Run (VA) – 0.7 miles one-way
  • MODERATE TO DIFFICULT TRAILS:
    • The River Trail (VA) – 1.5 miles one-way
  • DIFFICULT TRAILS:
    • Billy Goat Trail A (MD)

 


LIVE OUTSIDE THE DC METRO AREA? 
Check out the resources below for information about trails near you: 

All Trails

American Hiking Society

National Park Service

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