Washington, D.C., has so many attractions: the Smithsonian Museums, monuments to the nation’s greatest presidents, and some of the best restaurants in the country. But the outdoors options near the city often go unrecognized. While the capital may have originally been built on 100 square miles of low-lying land next to the Chesapeake Bay, the breathtaking Blue Ridge Mountains and the scenic Potomac River Valley are within an hour drive. These landscapes just outside the city limits make the hiking near Washington D.C. some of the best in the Mid-Atlantic. These three trails are some of the finest the nation’s capital has to offer.
The Billy Goat Trail
This trail is less than a half-hour drive from the National Mall, so it’s sure to be popular on weekends, holidays, and just about anytime the sun is shining and people want to be outside. So, get there as early as possible.
The Billy Goat Trail will take you on a nearly 8-mile hike over Bear Island, between
the Potomac River and Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Start the hike at the Great Falls parking lot, then cross the canal at Lock 19 to reach the Billy Goat Section A Trailhead and follow alongside the Potomac River. Most of the trail deviates less than 100 hundred feet in elevation, but the challenge of the hike comes in the rockiness of the terrain. There’s a fair amount of scrambling to be done in the second mile, and a sign warns that hikers have been injured here in the past. Go slow, and think carefully about each step; it looks more intimidating than it actually is.
The scrambling tapers off after a mile, and the trail makes its way towards the river, where there’s a beautiful sandy beach. After another mile, you’ll turn onto Billy Goat Section B, a much easier section that has great views of the river and its islands. At Marsden Tract Campground, you’ll round the island and head back up on the canal towpath, all of which is relatively easy. This is an excellent hike if you’d like to get a little bit of scrambling in, but not spend the whole day working out.
The trail though Maryland Height is an amazing hike for anyone who’s looking for a bit of a challenge with a healthy side of history, and it’s only an hour and a half from D.C. The trail starts at a small parking lot in Harpers Ferry near the Amtrak station. From there, you can cross the Potomac River using a footbridge that parallels the railroad tracks just to south of parking lot (not the Amtrak bridge). The historical sites start on the opposite bank with the shell of a stone building that once housed the lock operator on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. The ascent to the ridge begins here, on the Combined Trail; with 1,300 feet of elevation gain, the first two miles of it are the most challenging section of the hike.
Along the climb, you’ll have the chance to see a Civil War-era naval gun emplacement, stone hearths used to produce charcoal from the surrounding forest’s lumber, and a number of trenches for soldiers to use during infantry attacks. From the summit, it’s a descent of nearly two miles before you reach the much smaller second ridge. A 400-foot climb and subsequent descent will take you to river grade, where you can return to your vehicle. If you’re interested in a much easier hike, you can hike the canal towpath after crossing the Potomac from Harpers Ferry; no uphill trudging required.
If you’d like to get outside without expending the effort of lacing up a pair of hiking boats, donning your sweat-wicking base layer, and scrambling your way up a field of boulders, there’s always the Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park. There are tons of short hikes along the drive that can be accomplished in a pair of tennis shoes and jeans. You’ll have to pay the park’s entrance fee, and the traffic on the main road is hell on summer weekends, but the short and leisurely trails make the 1.5 or 2-hour drive there worthwhile.
One of the easiest trails from the northern entrance is the Snead Farm Loop. It’s a fairly easy three-mile loop that starts at the Fox Hollow Nature Trailhead at mile marker 5. Follow the Fire Road as it winds its through the woods and over some small hills to an interesting stop at the namesake farm where an old barn stands (one of the few non-Park Service buildings still standing in Shenandoah). Take some time to look around the farm; you can even go down in the cellar, where the family’s store of food was kept. Afterwards, get on the Snead Farm Loop Trail, and follow it until it reaches the Dickey Ridge Trail, which will take you back to the parking lot. There are so many trails in the park right off of Skyline Drive; if you just keep going down the road, you’re sure to find a trail that fits you.
When all it takes is an hour-long drive (or less than half an hour for the Billy Goat Trail), there’s no excuse for D.C. residents and visitors not to spend some time out in nature. Forbes recently rated it the 2nd-healthiest city in the U.S., and there’s no doubt that the number of outdoor recreation activities was a big reason for it. So next time the news is covering all the political scandals and backstabbing happening within the halls of the Capitol and the White House, just step outside, clear your head, and remember how a good hike can make you feel much better.