Washington D.C. is known for its stately monuments, wealth of museums and charming National Mall. The U.S. capitol is chock full of historical and political sights that can keep tourists occupied for days – if not weeks. Surprisingly, you can also find some of the best hikes on the East Coast near Washington D.C.
Of course, hiking and enjoying the outdoors is among the best ways to spend your free time with virtually no expense.
For locals, Washington D.C. has a wide array of options for outdoor outing options – kayaking, biking, boating and even rock climbing. Beautiful parks dot the city and the suburbs seemingly around every corner. Many of these parks are connected with a network of trails throughout the region.
Hiking is one of the most popular outdoor past times in the area. The best hikes near Washington D.C. offer something unexpected for both tourists and locals. If you enjoy the outdoors, you don’t want to miss them.
“D.C. is quite a good area to hike,” says Josh Silverman, and avid D.C.-area hiker and former director of the Wanderbirds, a local hiking club. “One of the best things about it is that it’s open to a wide range of hikers.”
Many of these top-rated hikes around D.C. are within a short drive – or even bike ride – of the city.
They are just a few of the hundreds of trail options in the area. But these hikes stand out for their beauty, unique experience and for the memorable impression.
“The area that we’re in is one of the most biodiverse on earth,” Silverman says. “So, for people who are interested in botany, flora and fauna, there just is a great deal to look at.”
(*Before you go, consider installing the AllTrails app. It’s free and shows you exactly where you are on any particular trail.)
1. Great Falls National Park
Great Falls National Park, just outside the D.C. beltway, has some of the very best hikes that are closer to the city. The park straddles two sides of the Potomac River. About half of Great Falls is in Virginia and half in Maryland.
Billy Goat Trail
Distance from Washington D.C.: About 17 miles.
Total Hike Distance: Varies. The most popular route, Section A, is about 5 miles. Billy Goat also has a Section B and C. (Some sections may be closed if there is too much rain or bad weather; Section B is frequently closed).
Where to Park: Great Falls Visitors Center Parking lot ($20) or Great Falls Parking Lot (across from Old Anglers Inn on Macarthur Blvd.)
About the Hike: Billy Goat Trail is hands down the best hike in Great Falls. It’s actually divided into three sections that sort of loop through to each other. You can do all three, two together or just one of the Billy Goat Trail sections.
Two things make this hike one of the best hikes near Washington D.C. First, it follows along the Potomac River, so you get these relaxing and amazing views throughout.
- You will not get lost on this simple and clearly marked trail that follows the river bank.
- Be prepared to do quite a bit of boulder-hopping. At one point, you even need to scale a cliff (in a hiker way, not a rock climber way.) For that reason, this is not a good hike for small children.
- Dogs are not allowed.
- Bring plenty of water.
- Wear good shoes that can endure lots of rocks.
2. Shenandoah National Park
Like Great Falls, Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park has a number of great hiking trails.
You could easily spend an entire summer just exploring the ins and outs of this natural treasure. The scenery, trail difficulty and trail lengths are very diverse. So, it’s a bit hard to compare trail-to-trail in the Shenandoah.
Still, there are a few hikes that really standout as ones not to miss. Topping this list is Old Rag – which is arguably the ultimate best hike near D.C.
Old Rag: **The Ultimate of the Best Hikes Near D.C.
Distance from D.C.: 86 miles
Total Hike Distance: About 10 Miles (About 6 hours)
Where to Park: Lower Old Rag Parking Lot, 25577 Nethers Rd., Etlan, VA
About the Hike: Old Rag should be at the top of any hiker’s don’t-miss list. It’s a must-do for locals. And tourists who have a few extra days for hiking after seeing the city might want to add Old Rag to their list.
Old Rag is about 10 miles long. You’ll be hiking up one trail, then down the mountain via another route. One of the most unique things about Old Rag is the “rock scramble” toward the top. At the rock scramble, you can expect to be hopping from rock to rock and hoisting yourself to the next level for about an hour.
At the summit, expect to find a spectacular 360-degree view of the region. This is why many hikers say the hard work to climb Old Rag is worth it.
- To hike Old Rag, though, you must be in pretty good shape. This is not an easy hike. In fact, it’s considered the hardest hike in the region.
- Old Rag has a lot of false summits, meaning you think you’re at the top, but you’re not.
- $20 entrance fee for the Shenandoah
- Aim to go early. This is a great trail, so it’s in high demand. But Parking is limited.
3. Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
Harpers Ferry is a small West Virginia historic town that lies at the fork of where the Potomac Rivers meets the Shenandoah River. It’s also right at the border of Maryland and Virginia.
The town lies in a sort of valley surrounded by small mountains that hold miles of the most scenic and challenging hiking in the Washington D.C. area, also considered the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park area. Among the best hikes of these trails is Maryland Heights Trail.
Maryland Heights Trail
Distance from D.C.: About 66 miles
Total Hike Distance: 6.5 miles
Difficulty: Moderate to Hard
Where to Park: Visitor Center Parking Area, 171 Shoreline Drive, Harpers Ferry
About the Hike: Maryland Heights Trail starts with a fairly steep incline, so you’ll be getting a workout right away. The trail becomes significantly less strenuous during the second section.
Expect to pass by old ruins from left when Union troops occupied the mountain. Signage along the way explains how they built their encampments. Envision hoisting the tons of materials up the steep trails you’re walking.
- Take a small detour about midway to a lookout above the town of Harpers Ferry. Enjoy a serene and breathtaking view of the rivers below, with the charming old town perched on its strategic location.
- Avoid bringing smaller children. This hike can get strenuous.
- Enjoy a relaxing bite at one of the towns several restaurants with outdoor patios. They’re used to serving Maryland Heights hikers. So don’t worry if you got a little sweaty – you’ll be welcome.
4. Sugarloaf Mountain
Sugarloaf Mountain is one of the gems of the D.C. region. It still seems undiscovered by many of the city’s locals, but it’s one of the best hikes in the area.
Sugarloaf Mountain is unusual. It’s in an area of protected farmland. The mountain sort of springs up from the flat fields as a singular mound.
Northern Peaks Trail (Blue Trail)
Distance from D.C.: About 48 miles
Total Hike Distance: Varies. There are several trails you could take that intertwine along the mountain. The Northern Peaks Trail, or the Blue Trail is 5 miles.
Where to Park: West View Parking lot on the mountain.
(There’s a parking lot at the base of Sugarloaf Mountain if you want to hike up or use the Yellow trail that circles it. However, it’s better to drive up to one of the smaller lots. That way, you can get started with more scenic hiking and avoid the lower base.)
About the Hike: Views from Sugarloaf are among the best in the D.C. area. You’ll see vast stretches of farmland and waterways from this hike. You can even see the mountain ranges that surround Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia.
The hike generally goes around the circumference of the mountain with lots of climbs and dips. Pass massive rocks where rock climbers get some good practice.
It’s unusual to get a scenic hike with good elevation in Maryland. But the Northern Peaks Trail on Sugarloaf delivers.
- No Entry Fee
- Plan to rest at one of several scenic overlooks along the way. However, the overlooks are smaller, and they can get crowded during peak times like weekends.
Best D.C. Area Hikes Off the Beaten Trail
Ripe with hundreds of hiking trails, the D.C. area also has a number of scenic and memorable hikes that are lesser known, says Silverman.
Here are some of the best of many choices for D.C.-area hiking that Silverman names as hidden gems, are all within a daytrip of Washington D.C.:
1. Annapolis Rock
The Annapolis Rock hike is a popular hike in Maryland, where there are fewer mountains. It’s located north of Frederick near Meyersville in South Mountain State park. This trail includes part of the Appalachian Trail.
Distance from D.C.: 62 miles
Total Hike Distance: 5 miles
Difficulty: Moderate to Easy
Where to Park: Park in the lot called Appalachian Trail Head Parking on Route 40, just off I-70
About the Hike: The hike is mainly through forests, but offers a wonderful view of the area at the lookout, Silverman says.
Tips: Only park in designated areas. Otherwise, you could get a ticket.
2. Roller Coaster
This is a notorious section of the Appalachian Trail in Northern Virginia known to be particularly difficult for swift elevation gains. It’s a one-way hike, so it’s best to plan for transportation from your end point back to your original parking.
Distance from D.C.: 57 miles to Bear’s Den
Total Hike Distance: 12.6 miles
Where to Park: At the northern end, Bear’s Den Park at 18393 Blue Ridge Mountain Rd., Bluemont, VA. At the southern end, at the Ashby Gap Trail Head along 601 off Route 50.
About the Hike: This definitely a hike for more experienced hikers – it’s a stamina-builder. This section of the Appalachian Trail has a significant amount of steep ups and downs, like a roller coaster – hence its name. Climbs are about 300 to 400 feet, totaling about 3,500 vertical feet in all.
Most of the hike is in shaded forest area, with several streams along the way. Toward the northern end near Bear’s Den, the trail offers some great views, including several overlooks, including one called Crescent Rock.
- This hike is usually done one-way. In that case, you’d have to arrange transportation back to your starting point. People hiking together use two cars, leaving one car at the end location.
- Bring plenty of water – don’t count on streams for filling up because they may dry up.
- In the summer, make sure you have bug spray.
3. Washington Monument Hike
The Washington Monument hike is located in Washington Monument State Park near Boonsboro, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. It includes a dry-laid stone tower built in 1827 that was the first monument to George Washington, which is about 30 feet tall.
The Appalachian trail is also connected to this trail.
Distance from D.C.: 62 miles
Total Hike Distance:
Where to Park: 6620 Zittlestown Rd., Middletown, MD
About the Hike: Climb a staircase to the Washington Monument where you get a 360-degree view.
4. Buzzard Rock
Buzzard Rock is a hike in George Washington National Forest in the northern Massanutten mountains, which forms a sandstone west ridge of the Shenandoah Valley. It is a climb, but it’s worth the effort, Silverman says.
“The Massanuttens are west of the Shenandoah, but they are very easy to get to,” Silverman says. “They’re a different geological formation than the Blue Ridge Mountains of Shenandoah park. So, it’s worth seeing.”
Distance from D.C.: 80.5 miles
Total Hike Distance: 7.4 miles
Difficulty: Moderate to Hard
Where to Park: Cross a small bridge in the Elizabeth Furnace Recreation Area near Front Royal, Va., and a small parking lot is on your right.
About the Hike: This is an out and back hike off the Massanutten Trail near Strasburg, Va., that offers great views of the Shenandoah Valley early on. It is a bit of a climb with great views.
You can choose to turn back early or continue farther than the designated hike.
- Parking for Buzzard Rock Hike is tight with a smaller lot, so try to come during off hours or arrive early.
- Several trails start in this area, so be sure you get started on the right one. (Buzzard Rock Trail is a white blaze trail that starts off along with a blue/orange blazed trail.)
5. Sky Meadows Loop
Sky Meadows State Park is park that’s along the Appalachian Trail in Northern Virginia. Silverman remembers one hike that he did here on a calm and foggy day.
“At one point, the clouds parted, and the sun shone on the twigs coated in ice,” he said. “Everything was glittering. It was just unimaginable.”
Distance from D.C.: 60.4 miles
Total Hike Distance: 6.8 miles
Difficulty: Moderate to Easy
Where to Park: Park at Sky Meadows Park Visitors Center at 11012 Edmonds Lane, Delaplane, Va.
About the Hike: The hike begins with an uphill trek until you hit the Appalachian Trail. It also includes an overlook and a portion through grassy meadows. Many hikers say they’ve enjoyed the wildflowers along the way.
- Dogs are allowed on this trail, but they must be kept on a leash.
- You can easily make this hike shorter with cut through trails, or longer by adding parts of the Appalachian Trail.
- For after hiking, there are a few wineries nearby that often host live music.
6. Catoctin Mountain Park
For a less strenuous hike with lower climbs, Silverman recommends exploring Catoctin Mountain Park in central northern Maryland near Thurmont.
Distance from D.C.: 66 miles
Total Hike Distance: Varying, from 2 miles to 9 miles
Difficulty: Moderate to Easy
Where to Park: 14707 Park Central Road, Thurmont
About the Hike: Catoctin Mountain Park has numerous trails worth exploring. Wolf Rock and Chimney Rock trail is about 3 miles long with a challenging climbs that rewards with excellent scenic overlooks of the region. Hikes in Catoctin Mountain Park tend to have larger rock formations and some deep crevices.
- Wear durable shoes as these hikes can be rocky.
Best Easy Hikes Inside the D.C. City Limits
Washington D.C. itself has a number of great natural pockets where you can enjoy some outdoor time without traveling too far. You can reach most of these by metro, bus or an easy walk from anywhere else in the city.
“If you don’t necessarily want a strenuous hike, but you still want to get outside there are many places in the D.C. area and in D.C. itself,” Silverman says.
Here are the top three best places to hike in Washington D.C.’s city limits:
1. Rock Creek Park – Roosevelt
Rock Creek Park, an urban oasis, is one of the best parks inside the beltway. It’s 2,100 of nature in Northwest D.C. with 32 miles of diverse trails.
“You could do an easy hike along the trails, but it also has a number of hills for those who are looking for something a little more challenging,” Silverman says.
If you’re new to the park, consider starting at the park’s Nature Center at 5200 Glover Road NW, Washington D.C.
Glover-Archbold Park, run by the National Parks Service, is a 173-acre park near Georgetown in Washington D.C. that’s a subunit of Rock Creek Park. Its main trail is a fairly flat trail that runs about 3 miles as an out and back trail that gives visitors a nice respite from the bustling city.
It starts at Van Ness Street NW between 39th and 40th Streets and runs down to the C&O Canal. There are many other entrances to the trail along the way.
3. C&O Canal
The C&O Canal, which stands for the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, is a flat towpath adjacent to the now-defunct canal that once ran from Georgetown in Washington D.C. to Cumberland in Maryland.
A section that was intended to go all the way to Ohio was never completed. Start in downtown Georgetown and go as far as you like – up to 184 miles into Western Maryland. The C&O Canal crosses several points of interest, including Great Falls and Harpers Ferry in West Virginia.
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