9 Waterfall Hikes an Easy Drive From DC

Cool off this summer on scenic waterfall adventures.

Blackwater Falls State Park in West Virginia. Photograph courtesy of West Virginia Department of Tourism.

Scott’s Run

location_on McLean

language Website

There’s no need to go far to find waterfalls. Just outside DC, Scott’s Run Nature Preserve features a small yet scenic falls and intersecting hiking trails. You can access the waterfall starting from two (often packed) parking lots off Georgetown Pike, moving from the connector trail to the Potomac Heritage Trail, marked with blue blazes. The moderate hike goes through the leafy forest with some uphill sections and stepping­stones to cross streams. Once you complete the mile stretch to the main attraction, double back or continue along the trail and the shoreline to other connecting pathways.

Distance from DC: 11 miles.

Après hike: A complex of shipping containers makes up Shipgarten (7581 Col­shire Dr., McLean), a family-friendly beer garden with moon bounces for kids on weekends, two dog parks for pets, and local brews for adults. Park in the designated lot and take the shuttle, or walk ten minutes up a hill to the beer garden.


Great Falls

location_on McLean

language Website

Photograph by Robert Hedenschoug/Getty Images.

The rushing falls drop into Mather Gorge and can be viewed from three different lookouts less than ten minutes from the visitor’s center. The moderate-to-hard River Trail is a 1.5-mile route that moves across the cliff tops; rock scrambles are rewarded with a great view of the falls. For a walk that saves you the $20 parking fee, drop your car at Riverbend Park in Fairfax ($2 recommended donation) and hike a flat path to an overlook, three miles out and back.

Distance from DC: 17 miles.

Après hike: Jacques’ Brasserie (332 Springvale Rd., Great Falls), the casual sibling to French restaurant L’Auberge Chez François, offers traditional Alsatian fare on a pretty patio.


Cascade Falls

location_on Ellicott City, Maryland

language Website

Sure, this small waterfall doesn’t have the booming drama of some other locations. But it’s a pleasant walk through Patapsco Valley State Park outside Baltimore, passing by verdant trees and through bucolic creeks. Start at the parking lot in the Orange Grove Area, moving on to the 2.2-mile Cascade Falls Loop Trail. The easy-to-moderate circle crosses through streams—great for cooling down with creek-hopping kids. Consider snapping a photo of the park map or downloading a trail app in advance: The park has more than 200 miles of trails, sometimes overlapping without clear markers.

Distance from DC: 38 miles.

Après hike: Does anything say summer quite like a swirl of soft-serve or a sno-ball topped with marshmallow? Stop by Cindy’s Soft Serve (6330 Washington Blvd., Elkridge) for a cool treat from a nostalgic ice-cream stand.


Stay the Night: Blackwater Falls State Park

location_on Davis, West Virginia

language Website

The retro Billy Motel. Photograph by Lisa Sheirer.

Turn chasing waterfalls into a weekend escape at this park dotted with gorgeous cascades. All 21 trails are less than two miles inside the park, meaning you can splice together different adventures. The main draw is Blackwater Falls, the tallest water­fall in the state, careening 57 feet over a dark canyon. Reach an observation point via the paved quarter-mile Gentle Trail, ending with a viewpoint 3,000 feet over the water. Blackwater Falls Boardwalk Trail is a difficult quarter-mile hike featuring more than 200 steps to a deck next to the falls. Other paths maneuver you to Elakala Falls–four cascades in a single trek–and Pendleton Falls, reached by an easy-to-moderate trail.

Eat: Jump-start the day with lattes from Trailhead Coffee Shop (428 William Ave., Davis). After your hike, grab a burrito stuffed with creative fillings such as Fritos and spicy Buffalo chicken from Hellbender Burritos (457 William Ave., Davis), followed by beers at Stumptown Ales (390 William Ave., Davis) down the street.

Stay: Book a room at the Billy Motel (1080 William Ave., Davis), a midcentury-modern lodging with ten rooms and a kitschy bar area.

Distance from DC to Davis: 167 miles.


Cunningham Falls

location_on Thurmont, Maryland

language Website

The state’s highest cascading waterfall is more serene than dramatic, meandering gently down the mountain like in a painting. Start near the Catoctin Mountain Park visitor’s center—also a spot to learn about the park’s Indigenous and presidential history—before taking the 2.8-mile Falls Nature Trail, just off the parking lot. Travel through the woods via this easy-to-moderate hike, walking on rolling terrain that turns into a boardwalk at the end. Those with a disability parking placard can leave their car in a small lot near the start of the boardwalk, walking about 150 yards to the falls. Cool off after with a swim in 43-acre Hunting Creek Lake, in neighboring Cunningham Falls State Park.

Distance from DC: 67 miles.

Après hike: Savor a scoop of coffee-crunch or “Granny’s Crumb,” a popular biscotti-infused ice cream, at cow-to-cone shop Misty Meadow Farm Creamery (14325 Misty Meadow Rd., Smithsburg).


Kilgore Falls

location_on Pylesville, Maryland

language Website

The 17-foot-tall waterfall at Rocks State Park plunges into an enchanting pool for an image pulled out of a fairy tale. In fact, a dreamy scene in the film Tuck Everlasting was shot at the site. The one-mile, out-and-back trail to the falls is short and easy, leading you over a footbridge and through a small stream with steppingstones. Many hikers bring swimsuits for a dip, though there’s no lifeguard, so swimming is at your own risk. Summer visitors must reserve a free entry pass online.

Distance from DC: 81 miles.

Après hike: Sample summery fruit-infused wines at Fiore Winery & Distillery (3026 Whiteford Rd., Pylesville). The vineyard pours glasses of peach Chardonnay, dragon­berry rosé, and green-apple Riesling.


Cedar Run/Whiteoak Canyon

location_on Syria, Virginia

language Website

The lower falls at Whiteoak Canyon in Shenandoah. Photograph by Sarah Ann Atkins/Virginia Tourism Corporation.

See eight waterfalls in a single circuit during this very strenuous trek in Shenandoah National Park. It’s a beautiful hike, but a beauty that must be earned: The 8.1-mile loop ascends to 2,794 feet, with streams to traverse and rocky segments. Beginning in the Hawksbill Gap parking area, move on to the Cedar Run Trail, which eventually leads to the Whiteoak Canyon Trail. Pause at waterfalls big and small, including Upper Whiteoak Falls, the park’s second-tallest water­fall. You can also dip your feet into small oasis-like pools along the way.

Distance from DC: 95 miles.

Après hike: Refuel with wood-fired pizzas and calzones at Rappahannock Pizza Kitchen (3710 Sperryville Pike, Sperryville), where toppings such as sausage, mushrooms, and honey are sourced from farms in the area.


Dark Hollow Falls

location_on Stanley, Virginia

language Website

Escape the sun in Shenandoah National Park and descend onto the shady, steep Dark Hollows Falls Trail. Accessible from the Dark Hollow Falls parking area just off Skyline Drive, the moderate 1.4-mile path parallels a rippling stream downhill before arriving at the falls, cascading 70 feet down a mountainside. For another picturesque view, keep following the trail for a few minutes to the lower falls viewpoint, where you can rest before embarking on the challenging climb back up. Along the way, keep your eyes open for birds such as warbling red-eyed vireos and scarlet tanagers.

Distance from DC: 104 miles.

Après hike: Grab a picnic table outside the roadside stand Triple Crown BBQ (1079 US-211, Luray), open Friday through Sunday, to dig into pork sandwiches or a half rack of ribs with all the fixings.


Stay the Night: Crabtree Falls

location_on Montebello, Virginia

language Website

The Retreat at Crabtree Falls. Photograph by Beth-Anne N. Driskill.

Crabtree Falls consists of five cascades tumbling into one another across 1,200 feet–a destination waterfall that’s one of the tallest east of the Mississippi River. Start at the Crabtree Falls Day Use Area and take a brief stroll to the lower falls lookout–your first peek at the cascades–before getting on the three-mile trail. The moderate path moves along the waterfall with multiple overlooks. Once you reach the top, views of the falls recede and you get a panorama of the Tye River Valley. For cascades beyond Crabtree Falls, drive half an hour to the Lower Shamokin Falls trailhead, following the moderate, 1.7-mile out-and-back trail until you reach the bottom of Shamokin Falls.

Eat: Sample beer flights and burgers at Devils Backbone Brewing Company (200 Crandall Run, Roseland), a massive indoor/outdoor brewpub. For a cold snack, Black Bear Creamery (18 Pheasant Run, Nellysford) scoops cones of salted-caramel ice cream and mango sorbet to enjoy on the patio.

Stay: Half a mile from the trailhead, the Retreat at Crabtree Falls (11100 Crabtree Falls Hwy., Tyro) has ten cabins and glamping tents in the forest. Each has a private bathroom, a fire pit, and electricity.

Distance from DC to Davis: 180 miles.

This article appears in the July 2024 issue of Washingtonian.

Daniella Byck
Lifestyle Editor

Daniella Byck joined Washingtonian in 2022. She was previously with Outside Magazine and lives in Northeast DC.

Jessica Ruf
Assistant Editor