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Before the coronavirus crisis made social distancing a priority, local hiking trails were already go-to spots for respite from city crowds. Conveniently, Washingtonian has previously explored the area’s peaks and panoramas. We can’t guarantee these spots will be empty, so be prepared to adapt if trails begin to fill. Here are some hiking options in Virginia.
This is the Mid-Atlantic’s premier hike—and not to be undertaken lightly. Round-trip, the Old Rag hike is more than nine miles, with an elevation gain of 2,400 feet. After some initial switchbacks through the woods, the path climbs above the tree line. At several points, you have to use your hands and feet to scramble over rocks. The reward at the summit? A breathtaking panorama of the peaks along Skyline Drive and the forested foothills of the Virginia Piedmont. You can relax at the top—the return trip is easier, mostly along an old fire road. Be sure to have plenty of water and snacks for the hike, which can last more than seven hours.
Atop the mountains of Shenandoah National Park and about a mile off Skyline Drive, Big Meadows Campground is the hopping-off point for several trails and scenic views. The best trail descends deep into a thicket clad in fall colors to Dark Hollow Falls. The short, 1.4-mile out-and-back trip is often busy, but worth risking the possibility of a crowd. The beautiful waterfall cascades 70 feet over a series of moss-covered boulders. In the early morning, it’s often shrouded in a foggy mist.
White Oak Canyon
The four-mile, out-and-back, moderate hike features six waterfalls, most with a catchpool at the bottom. (The tallest waterfall is 86 feet.) The trail has a few steep sections that can be slippery, so take your time on the two-mile journey down into the canyon. The trailhead is at mile 42.6 of Skyline Drive.
Fear of heights holding you back? Test your acrophobia with a hike to Buzzard Rock, a craggy ridge with an impressive rock face. The ridge, a 1.5-hour drive from DC, lies west of Front Royal and Shenandoah National Park. Two good trails, east and west, lead to overlooks with major drop-offs a few feet from the path, so keep kids and pets on a close leash. Expect light scrambling at the crest (hiking boots recommended) but no real difficulties for experienced hikers.
Mason Neck State Park
Walk along the mile-long Bay View loop trail late in the day to catch a stunning sunset and listen for barred owls. While exploring the wildlife refuge, between Occoquan and Belmont bays, you might also see sparrows, great blue herons, kingfishers, and, if you’re lucky, a bald eagle.
If you’re lucky, you’ll spot a bear on this well-named trail (remember to keep your distance and don’t do anything to antagonize them). You can simply walk this 1.2-mile loop. However, it’s worth it to detour to do the short rock scramble at the halfway point, which takes you up a summit boasting a 360-degree view of the entire park.