A great hike can be more than a walk in the woods. These five hikes provide opportunities for clarity or contemplation—as you sit by a waterfall, watch the moon rise over the ocean, bask in the rush of reaching a summit, or walk beneath the canopy of an old-growth forest.
Footprints in the Sand on a Beach Hike
A pair of Assateague Island’s ponies nosed about our campsite at Little Levels, which we’d reached in an easy four-mile afternoon beach hike from the ranger station at Assateague National Seashore. On the west side of the narrow barrier island, we watched the sun set over Chincoteague Bay. Minutes later, on the other side, a full moon crept up the darkening Atlantic sky. Leaving the fly off our tent, we stargazed from our sleeping bags, lullabied by the sound of waves washing away our footprints.
Assateague Island is three hours from Washington, near Ocean City, Maryland. There are drive-in campgrounds in Assateague State Park (410-641-2120) and Assateague National Seashore, which also has primitive, hike-in sites ranging from 2 to 12 miles from the North Beach parking lot and ranger station (410-641-3030; nps.gov/asis/index.htm).
Here’s a tip: Hike with the outgoing tide to take advantage of hard-packed sand.
A Quiet Waterfall Hike in Virginia
Big Devils Stairs waterfall tumbles down Mount Marshall on rock shelves and outcrops worn out of ancient lava flows. An easy 1.6-mile hike downhill from Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive, via the Bluff Trail, brings you to the Big Devils Stairs trailhead. Turn right and for just over a mile enjoy one of the park’s best waterfall secrets.
It gets few visitors, so you can find a quiet spot to take in the sound of the falling water. But be ready to get the adrenaline going: You’ll need to hike back out the way you came for a 5.4-mile round trip.
Start from the Gravel Springs parking area between mileposts 17 and 18 on Skyline Drive, two hours from Washington. For more information, call 540-999-3500 or see nps.gov/shen.
If you want to make a weekend of it, consider staying overnight at the tasteful Inn at Vaucluse Spring in Stephens City ($150 to $305 per room a night; 800-869-0525; vauclusespring.com).
On the Trail of Flowers in Pennsylvania
Late May through June, mountain laurel erupts in snowball-size clusters of white and pink flowers, followed a month later by rhododendron along the 2.2-mile Ramble Trail at Caledonia State Park in Pennsylvania.
For a longer hike, the Appalachian Trail leads north out of the park into Michaux State Forest, named for French botanist Andre Michaux, sent here in 1785 to gather plants for the Royal Gardens. Just about anywhere you look, blooms blanket the shrubs like a freak snowstorm.
Caledonia State Park, on Route 30 east of Fayetteville, is two hours from Washington. It has ten miles of trails, a campground, and cabins (717-352-2161; dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks/parks/caledonia.aspx). Call for peak blooming time. Trail maps are available at the park office.
An Invigorating Path Leads to Great Views
The rocky promontory of Big Schloss, in Shenandoah County, Virginia, befits a place whose German name means “big castle.” The outcrop of boulders offers commanding views of wooded valleys and an undulating ridgeline that pioneers nicknamed Devil’s Backbone. The hike’s first mile ascends 700 feet.
Respite comes atop the ridge, where a woodsy path skips from one small knob to another. A boardwalk passes over the yawning gaps in the rocks to the top. Return via the same route for a 4.4-mile round trip.
The trail begins in campsite 9 at Wolf Gap Recreation Area, six miles west of Columbia Furnace on state route 675 in George Washington National Forest (540-984-4101, fs.fed.us/r8/gwj/lee). It’s two hours from Washington.
Keep the German theme going with a stay at historic Hotel Strasburg ($83 to $180 a night; 800-348-8327; hotelstrasburg.com).
Tranquility and Trout in Western Maryland
It is morning along Monroe Run, in Savage River State Forest. From a streamside rock, we watch cold spring-fed water sluice through a natural maze of rocks. Along this tree-shrouded tributary of Savage River, fishermen speak reverently about brook trout considered genetically pure, unaltered by artificial breeding.
The hike down Monroe Run Trail clocks in at 4.6 miles end to end. There are campsites about 21⁄2 miles from the trailhead on New Germany Road. On the way down, you might scout fishing holes wherever trail crosses stream; there are 20 crossings by the time you’ve finished, more than enough to find your sweet spot.
This trailhead is three hours from Washington. Campers must register at either the headquarters or one of six self-registration sites in the forest; the fee is $5 a night (301-895-5759; dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/western/savageriver.html). Or bed down at Savage River Lodge, offering fly-fishing guides and instruction (cabins start at $350 for a two-night weekend stay; $301-689-3200; savageriverlodge.com). A Maryland fishing license is available at the lodge or online here.