Go North: A great hike and a cool swim
Catoctin Mountain Park
Why go: Home to the presidential retreat at Camp David, Catoctin Mountain Park features easy strolls and rugged climbs along 26 miles of trails. You can work up a sweat climbing to dramatic valley views at Blue Ridge Summit, then descend to the beach in adjacent Cunningham Falls State Park for a refreshing dip in Hunting Creek Lake.
Trail length: We like the eight-mile loop to Wolf Rock, Thurmont Vista, Hog Rock, Cunningham Falls, Hunting Creek Lake, and back along Falls Nature Trail, but shorter options are possible.
Start: At the Catoctin visitor center off Route 77, which divides the national and state parks.
Difficulty: Moderate, with several steep climbs.
Refuel: Cozy Restaurant (103 Frederick Rd., Thurmont; 301-271-7373) plays the nostalgia card to the hilt, but the buffet and the pie selection are hard to beat.
More information: nps.gov/cato.
Distance from DC: About 90 minutes.
Head South: As the Eagle Flies
Mason Neck State Park
Why go: Because of the park’s diversity—freshwater tidal marshes drain the upland forests—you move from colonies of cattails soaking in wetlands to dry forest trails lined with mountain laurel. Trails here are easy, with paved options for bikers, wheelchairs, and the stroller set. Sightings of bald eagles and great blue herons are common.
Trail length: You can take a short hike of a mile or less, or do a 5.9-mile loop by connecting the Bay View, Wilson Spring, Dogue, Kane’s Creek, and Eagle Spur trails.
Start: At the park’s visitor center.
Difficulty: Easy, with little elevation.
Refuel: Traditional curries and masalas, a good vegetarian menu, and personal service make My Karma Indian Bistro (9429 Lorton Market St., Lorton; 703-372-1888) a local favorite.
More information: dcr.virginia.gov; click on “state parks.”
Distance from DC: About an hour.
Go West: Gorges and Waterfalls
Shenandoah National Park
Why go: An old family cemetery and stone walls hidden amid thick forest along Hull School Trail lend clues to settlements that existed before Shenandoah National Park was created. Continue onto Piney Branch Trail, which follows alongside Piney River. As you climb, the river drops away in a ravine. Views span the gorge, and a sense of remote beauty surrounds you. The Pole Bridge Link Trail connects you with Little Devil Stairs and an invigorating cliffside hike.
Trail length: Connecting the Hull School and Piney Branch trails with Little Devil Stairs makes it a 7.7-mile loop.
Start: The parking area is outside the park, on Keyser Run Road/Route 614, five miles west of Rediviva via routes 622 and 614.
Difficulty: Moderate, with a more difficult portion on Little Devil Stairs.
Refuel: Thornton River Grille (3710 Sperryville Pike, Sperryville; 540-987-8790) offers elegant food in a down-home setting. An adjacent country store has been serving customers for more than 150 years.
More information: nps.gov/shen or potomacappalachian.org.
Distance from DC: About 90 minutes.
Head East: Birds and Butterflies
Rosaryville State Park
Upper Marlboro, Maryland
Why go: Colossal yellow poplars dot Rosaryville’s coastal-plain forest; when their plate-size leaves turn vibrant yellow in fall, it’s a good time to hit the park’s Perimeter Trail. Pack binoculars and spend the first two miles of this circuit spying warblers and vireos in the forest. Where the route breaks into open field, monarch butterflies alight on field plants and raptors circle overhead.
Trail length: The Perimeter Trail is a nine-mile loop. There are options for shorter hikes.
Start: The trailhead parking area is a half mile inside the park entrance, off Route 301, four miles south of Upper Marlboro.
Refuel: Country cooking and reasonable prices make Rip’s Country Inn (3809 N. Crain Hwy., Bowie; 301-805-5901) a perfect post-hike spot.
More information: dnr.state.md.us; click on “parks.”
Distance from DC: About 40 minutes.