The Best Hiking Spots Near Washington DC
So let’s be honest: Washington DC is crazy expensive. Want a small matcha latte? That’ll be $7, please. Need to park so you can grab a meal with a friend? Get out your phone and pay $10 (at least!) on a parking app. Buying groceries for your family? Hope you don’t have an emergency pop up, because you’ll be paying at least $150 for the week. Yay, DC!
But ya know what’s free? Getting outdoors!
The nation’s capital may be a bustling metropolis, but the surrounding area is gorgeous and surprisingly serene. Here’s a brief (but growing!) list of great places to hit a trail, go for a walk, and enjoy a quiet and wallet-friendly day.
Right and Up note:All of these hikes were taken with a 2-year-old either in an Osprey Poco AG (see link at bottom) backpack or on foot. So, you don’t need to hit REI and spend a fortune on serious hiking gear like you're Bear Grylls. No need to drink your own pee, folks.
Ball’s Bluff, Leesburg, Virginia
Ball’s Bluff Battlefield is located in the history-rich town of Leesburg, about 50 minutes west of DC proper. Visitors can take a self-guided tour or meet up with an incredibly knowledgeable volunteer guide. Battlefield tours are open to the public every Saturday and Sunday at 11am and 1pm from early April through the end of November.
There are several trails to choose from, and we opted to take the one that goes right along the Potomac River. We went a day after a heavy rain, so there were some soggy spots to walk through. Lilly, our 11-year-old Shih Tzu-mix, came with us and she hung in there like a champ. So if she can handle it, anyone can.
Right and Up tip: After your hike, you HAVE to visit Melt. Even if you don't hike, drive to Leesburg ASAP to sink your teeth into one of these bad boys. They are hands-down the best burgers we’ve ever had (and we know our burgers). Get the sweet potato fries that are served with a side of marshmallow fluff. Plus, it's a dog-friendly establishment. The owner even came outside to give our pups some belly rubs and ear scratches.
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
We live in Sterling, so this was only a 50-minute drive for us on a Sunday morning. From DC, it’s closer to 90 minutes. But it’s sooo worth it! The entire “town” of Harpers Ferry is part of the National Historic Park. If you arrive early enough you can find parking in the “town,” but your best bet is to drive to the National Park visitor center to take the bus in.
Since it’s a National Park, there will be an entry fee. But, active duty military members get a year-long pass good for all National Parks for free. Just show your ID to a lovely employee at the gate and they’ll give you a hang-tag and a card.
As for hiking, the Maryland Heights trail is no joke. It’s about five miles roundtrip, and the last mile or so is very steep. My husband wore our son in the backpack, and he was sweating big time. However, the view you get from up top is incredible. It’s an aspiring Instagram model’s dream.
For an easy “hike” with a fantastic view, head up to see Jefferson’s Rock. Look for the stone stairs alongside Saint Peter’s Church and head straight up. At the top you’ll find a massive flat rock where Thomas Jefferson himself stood to take in the gorgeous scenery.
Right and Up tip: What better way to finish off a sweaty hike than with delicious ice cream? We hit Creamy Creations just across the road from the train station. It serves some of the best chocolate ice cream I've ever had—definitely Top 5.
One could easily spend several days here and still not cover all of the important landmarks. At about a 90-minute drive outside of DC, you could spend a long day here or stay a night or two at a nearby campground or hotel.
There are several places where you can walk around to take in the vast views and learn the history. We were tight on time and were only able to spend the morning here. Because the historic points are so spread out, you will have to drive from spot to spot. There are a few where you just get out, look, and get back in, and there are others where you can walk around. One of the more remarkable places to walk and explore was Little Round Top overlooking the notorious Devil’s Den.
Though our visit to Gettysburg wasn’t necessarily a “hike,” we did a lot of walking here. Since we had a toddler in tow, it was tough to really take in the history. If you’re kid-free or have older children, we highly recommend linking up with one of the incredibly knowledgeable tour guides to get a proper understanding of the importance of this battle.
Great Falls National Park, Virginia
What an absolutely gorgeous place this is! We’re lucky to be just 15 minutes from this National Park, and it’s about 30 minutes outside of DC. The Potomac River runs right through it, and it features an incredible view of the roaring rapids and falls. There are several trails to choose from, including one that is horse-friendly. We like the River Trail since it features fabulous water views. I recently hit the trail with my son in the backpack and our Shepherd-mix on a leash. There are a few parts that have some very scary drop-offs, so I highly recommend that young kiddos are carried or you at least have a Kung Fu-grip on their wrists.
Right and Up tip:This park requires an entry fee, so make sure you have your National Park pass handy!
Theodore Roosevelt Island, Washington DC
President Theodore Roosevelt is known for being an avid outdoorsman and lover of nature. I imagine he was something like Ron Swanson from Parks and Rec. Plus, he survived an assassination attempt before a campaign rally and still gave his speech in a blood-soaked shirt. So, he was pretty awesome and quite deserving of his very own island.
Located right off George Washington Parkway in Rosslyn, Theodore Roosevelt Island is part of the National Parks. Aside from the small bathrooms and the courtyard area dedicated to Teddy, the entire island is (almost) totally au natural. If not for the planes flying overhead going in and out of Ronald Reagan Airport or the occasional helicopter buzzing by, you could completely forget you’re in a huge city.
The only way to access the island is by parking in the lot just off the parkway and traversing the footbridge. The trails are well-worn, so it’s easy to stay on track and take a leisurely stroll. The big loop of the island is about 1.5 miles long. After your walk you can head over to Rosslyn on foot to grab a coffee or meal at any one of the restaurants there.
If you don’t want to drive here, take the metro in and get off at the Rosslyn stop.
WOD Trail, Virginia
Though not technically a hiking trail since it's paved, the WOD Trail is a great way to get some exercise and forget about the hustle and bustle of city life.
The Washington and Old Dominion Railroad Regional Park is a 45-mile route in Virginia that runs from Shirlington to Purcellville. It was once a railroad, but was turned into a walking, jogging and cycling path in the 1970s and 80s. One end is near Jennie Dean Park in Arlington and the other is in the cute downtown area of Purcellville surrounded by restaurants, bakeries and breweries.
Covering the trail in its entirety could be possible by bike, but I wouldn’t know since I’m not a cyclist. Instead, we hop on the trail in Herndon with our son and jogging stroller, cover a few miles, turn around and go back to our car. It’s popular with cyclists, especially on a nice weekend. If possible, go on a weekday morning if you want to take a leisurely stroll. Otherwise you're constantly looking behind you to make sure a cyclist isn't about to buzz past you.
We hope to explore more trails once the weather turns away from debilitating heat and humidity and will update this list accordingly. What are your favorite trails and hiking areas? Tell us in the comments!
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about the author
Rachel is the editor of Right and Up. She is an Auburn grad (War Damn Eagle!) and holds a degree in journalism. While working as a sports writer covering the Tigers, she met a cute, tall officer stationed at Fort Benning. After a few margaritas, conversations about why a no-huddle offense is superior and 18 months later, they got married. They have PCS’d to Fort Huachuca, Fort Riley and are now in the National Capital Region.