Washington is at its most dramatic each fall—leaves blush, waterfalls tumble, and humidity is swept away by autumn’s breeze. There’s no better way to take in the season than by putting down the remote, lacing up your hiking boots, and heading for the hills. Whether you’re looking for a leisurely stroll or a lively scramble, we’ve scoured the region and compiled a list of the best hikes within a short drive from DC.
The Billy Goat Trail (Great Falls)
You’re much more likely to spot camera-toting tourists here than billy goats, but the popularity of this trail is certainly justified. The main vein of the Billy Goat (Section A) rims the Potomac River’s northern border along the C&O Canal for four miles before splitting into Section B and Section C trails. Nimble climbers should stick to Section A, where hikers tiptoe through the narrow rock-face path by Mather Gorge before scrambling around boulders by the riverbank. On the way, high-flying views of the Great Falls rapids often reveal world-class kayakers.
Like Section A, Section B is best accessed from Old Angler’s Inn but is a less strenuous route at only 2½ miles. For a leisurely stroll, choose Section C, which is accessed from Carderock, Maryland, and continues 2¾ miles through flat terrain.
Cabin John Park Trail (Bethesda)
You’ll soon forget you’re steps away from Democracy Boulevard in this wooded oasis. The trail—hint: the main path is marked in blue—stretches slightly more than six miles through Cabin John Park but is largely flat and ideal for youngsters. There’s even a tourist railroad car that passes through the park on weekends through October 18.
The Seneca Creek Greenway Trail (Gaithersburg)
Spanning nearly 17 miles and 6,000 acres from Gaithersburg to the Potomac River, this trail opened in 1997 and was conceived entirely by area volunteers. The flat paths are well marked and sprinkled with plenty of picnic spots. The panoramic views by Lake Clopper are a highlight.
Theodore Roosevelt Island (Arlington)
Native Americans used this island as a makeshift fishing village, but today the only full-time residents on the 88.5-acre park are deer, turkeys, foxes, eagles, and a statue of our 26th President. A wooded boardwalk carries walkers and joggers over what can become boggy muck after rain.
Potomac Heritage Trail (Arlington)
Walked around Roosevelt Island and still haven’t broken a sweat? Continue five miles along the Potomac Heritage Trail to Chain Bridge. Along the way, admire waterfalls, cast your lure in great fishing spots, and watch for ducks, cormorants, and herons in the Potomac.
Rock Creek Park (DC)
Whether for a weekend day trip or a long lunch, it’s tough to beat the location (and scenery) of Washington’s backyard playground: Rock Creek Park. For a walk in the woods, try the 4.3-mile Western Ridge Trail, a popular haunt for deer.
Into the Wild
Maryland Heights (Harper’s Ferry, WV)
This five-mile round-trip hike starts with a bang, but you have to work for it. First you’ll climb the steep main trail before veering onto a marked side trail, which takes you a wonderful scenic overlook of Harpers Ferry, where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers meet. History buffs should keep an eye out for the remains of a Union fort dating to 1862, complete with visible ammunition pits and powder magazines.
White Oak Canyon (Shenandoah National Park)
Tucked into the wooded folds of the Shenandoah, White Oak Canyon is one of the best places in the area to spot surging waterfalls—especially in the spring and fall. When the temperature’s right, take a dip by the falls in the stream pools. The 4.8-mile trail is steep in places but not terribly difficult for moderate hikers.
Catoctin Mountain Park (Thurmont, Maryland)
Found at the edge of the Appalachian Mountains, Catoctin Mountain Park’s eight square miles are lined with streams, mature forests, and breathtaking views of the Monocacy Valley. While you can’t go wrong on any of the park’s trails, the highlight is undoubtedly Cunningham Falls, a waterfall tumbling 78 feet into the manmade lake of the same name. There, you can boat, camp, and fish.
Great North Mountain (Edinburg, Virginia)
Set in George Washington National Forest, this rollercoaster starts with a steep descent into a forest before climbing up the face of the Great North Mountain. Once you’ve scrambled up a ways, the sweeping views of autumn foliage pan out like a palette.
Buck Ridge (Shenandoah National Park)
This trek is commonly included with the nine-mile Buck Hollow loop, but the Ridge trail is our favorite part of the trek. A steep scramble gets your heart rate pumping as you start, but it quickly peters out as sweeping views of the park emerge over the rocks. Hikers will soon come to “Hazel Country,” where remnants of a 19th-century mountaineering village were left by the area’s original inhabitants before they were displaced.
Old Rag Mountain (Shenandoah National Park)
For those seeking a bit of a scramble, this eight-mile loop is one of the most popular hiking excursions in the Mid-Atlantic (try to get there by 7 AM to avoid the crowds). After nine switchbacks, a hearty two-mile climb takes visitors to the first of two scenic overlooks. Those making the final one-mile trek to the Rag’s scramble will have to climb hand-over-hand, thread needle-tight crevices, and slalom around boulders. But believe us, the view is worth it!
Helpful Hiker Resources
The American Hiking Society, located in Silver Spring, is a great resource for those looking to learn about proper hiking clothing and safety precautions. Reach their helpful staff by calling 301-565-6704.
For those not keen on heading into the wilderness by themselves, there are plenty of Washington-area hiking clubs that lead regular group excursions:
• The Wanderbirds
• Potomac Applachian Trail Club
• Capital Hiking Club
• Mountain Club of Maryland
• Washington Women Outdoors