Last updated on September 22nd, 2023 at 08:36 pm
You don’t have to wander far from the Beltway to enjoy some truly spectacular hikes! On a recent trip to the Washington DC area, I squeezed in five of my favorites in three days. Why so many you may ask? I was visiting from the east coast of Florida where the leaves aren’t changing and there is no discernible change in elevation on any of my nature walks (I can’t bring myself to call them hikes). Don’t get me wrong, Florida has its assets. I just don’t enjoy hiking there as much as I do in other places like northern Virginia.
Fall is my favorite season to hike. I love the crisp autumn air and the changing colors of the leaves. There are usually fewer crowds on the trails too. In fact, on one of the hikes below, I never saw another soul. Most importantly, I don’t have to worry about mosquitoes. The days of getting eaten alive by miniature demons are pretty much over in the DC area, and I didn’t have to lather myself in bug spray to hike. That is until I headed back to Florida after my short reprieve. The mosquitoes there haven’t got the memo. But I digress. Here are the fabulous fall hikes I enjoyed on this little jaunt. If you’re ever visiting DC, consider getting outside the city for a day or two and experiencing some of the area’s natural beauty.
#5 Meadowlark Botanical Gardens
Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna, Virginia is managed by NOVA Parks. It consists of 95 acres of ornamental display gardens and unique native plant collections. While the main walking paths are perfect for strollers, there are also plenty of wooded hiking trails around the lakes and forested exteriors. Since 2012, it’s also home to the fascinating Korean Bell Garden, which includes a 3-ton “Bell of Peace and Harmony,” decorated with symbols from Korea and Virginia.
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Since it was not an overly taxing hike, really it was more of a nature walk, I headed over to the next one on my list: Teddy Roosevelt Island.
#4 Teddy Roosevelt Island
Theodore Roosevelt Island is a 91-acre wilderness preserve that serves as a memorial to the nation’s 26th president. The Swamp Trail is a gentle, 1.5 mile trail that extends along the perimeter of the island and offers views of the Potomac. This hike is so close to DC that you can see the the Kennedy Center, Watergate Hotel, and the Washington Harbor Complex through the trees.
If you’d like to add another mile and a half, try the island’s two short interior trails. Make sure you stop in the Memorial Plaza to see the large statue of Teddy and read some favorite quotes embedded in the stone memorial.
#3 Scott’s Run Nature Preserve
Only one mile from the beltway on Georgetown Pike, the Scott’s Run Nature Preserve is a little piece of wilderness saved from urban sprawl. I love to warm up my hiking skills here with the easy jaunt to the falls.
The great thing about this nature preserve managed by Fairfax County Parks is the range of hiking trails here. Some are gentle and wind quietly through forest.
Other trails require hiking up and down precipitously steep hills and cliffs. In many places the trails descend sheer bluffs, and you have to move very carefully down rocky cliffs.
You can mix and match your choice of interconnecting trails on the preserve’s 384 acres. If you want to follow a more established route, try the 2.5 mile loop mapped out here. It hits all the highlights the park has to offer.
#2 Billy Goat Trail
Since this is my year of being adventurous, I had to go back to Billy Goat Trail A at Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park. It is one of the most popular and challenging trails in the metropolitan DC area. The hike takes you over angled rocks and rough terrain while providing great views of the Potomac River. The toughest part to me is the 50’ traverse taking you to the top of cliffs.
The total hike distance is about four miles including the walk back to the parking lot along the toll path. You can add the Billy Goat B and C trail segments to make it a longer 7-mile hike. B gives you a taste of rock scrambling without the fear factor of A’s heights, and C is a nice calm hike with views of the river.
Tip: You can access this trail for free by parking in the lot across from the Old Anger’s Inn at 10801 MacArthur Blvd, Potomac, MD, but get there early if you’re going on the weekend. Otherwise, there is a fee at the Great Falls Tavern and Visitors Center entrance.
#1 Great Falls National Park
Great Falls National Park has some of the best hikes in the greater DC area. The entrance fee is $10 per car (if you don’t have a national parks pass), but it is well worth the view of Great Falls where the Potomac River falls over a series of steep, jagged rocks and flows through the narrow Mather Gorge.
There are 15 miles of hiking trails, but I like the River Trail best because it follows the Potomac River for about 1.5 miles, along the tops of the cliffs. In some areas, this trail runs right next to the edge of the cliff, offering spectacular views of the Potomac and Mather Gorge.
If you look across the river, you can see the Billy Goat Trail on the Maryland side.
Tip: Don’t try to go here after 10:30 on weekends. The line can be up to 45 minutes. Also, I recommend stopping at the Visitor Center before starting your hike. You can get a trail map and watch the short video on the history of the Falls. After leaving the Visitor Center, be sure to take the opportunity to stop off at the three overlooks on your left as you begin the trail. They provide great views of the Falls and river and provide great photo opportunities. Take your time and enjoy the stunning views along this trail.