The nation’s capital is best known for its historic monuments and grand government buildings. But another attraction enchants D.C.’s burgeoning community of outdoor enthusiasts: An abundance of hiking and backpacking opportunities close at hand. Within an easy drive of the district, thousands of miles of trails extend into the wild backcountry, leading to raging waterfalls, misty mountain scenes, and deep wooded solitude.
Rock Creek Park is the district’s answer to Central Park—although at 1,754 acres, it’s more than twice the size of Manhattan’s crown jewel. Melodious streams serenade its 32 miles of trails, including the 3.5-mile Boulder Bridge loop to a century-old stone footbridge once frequented by Teddy Roosevelt.
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Just outside the Beltway, Virginia’s Great Falls Park showcases the mighty Potomac as it surges through a rocky gorge in a series of whitewater rapids and 20-foot waterfalls. The park’s 15 miles of trails include the 3-mile out-and-back River Trail, which traces the rim of the gorge.
Test your mettle on the area’s most strenuous hike, the 1.8-mile ‘A’ section of the historic Billy Goat Trail, across the Potomac in Maryland’s Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park. Wear sturdy shoes to scramble up (and down) a 40-foot cliff to glimpse the falls.
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Every president since FDR has sought refuge in the dense forests and serene vistas of Maryland’s Catoctin Mountain Park, home of the secluded Camp David retreat. Dayhikes include the 1.4-mile Cunningham Falls Trail—leading to the state’s tallest cascade, at 78 feet—and a 5-mile loop encompassing both the falls and 1,610-foot Hog Rock Vista.
For an overnight trek, head to the park’s wilder west side, where a web of trails leads through wetlands and fallow farms to two Adirondack shelters available for camping.
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Straddling the spine of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah National Park encompasses more than 500 miles of trails—including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail, or nearly 5 percent of the famed path’s total length. Backpacking opportunities abound for all skill levels, from a one-nighter on the mellow, waterfall-laden Rose River Loop to an advanced 42-mile circuit into the seldom-visited wilderness of Lewis Peak.
Backpackers also flock to the 1.8-million-acre George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, where more than 2,000 miles of trails crisscross the forested peaks and valleys of the Appalachians.
Need to Know
Winter doesn’t signal the end of hiking season in and around D.C. Lower elevation trails remain snow free for most of the year, while the Appalachians transform into a wonderland with fewer crowds and crisp, unobstructed vistas. Master the essentials of winter backpacking and dayhiking with a hiking and camping class at one of a half dozen metro-area REI stores. DC residents will have even more outdoor gear and services available to them when REI opens a flagship store in the NoMa neighborhood, at the foot of the Metropolitan Branch Trail, in Fall 2016.
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