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.