While Washington DC is an amazing city to explore, there are also tons of hidden natural attractions and fun trails to see nearby. Luckily, DC isn’t too far from some incredible parks and hiking trails… many are even located inside of the city! There are so many amazing places to go hiking near DC, we admittedly had a hard time writing this guide. To help you plan your next outdoor adventure, we created this guide to 15 of our favorite hikes near Washington DC so you can start exploring.
Highlights: Stunning views of the Potomac River, quiet forest trails, boardwalks over waterways with lots of wildlife, and dog-friendly!
Located within Washington DC, in the Potomac River, lies Theodore Roosevelt Island. This small island is a natural escape from the city, with a 1.6-mile loop trail that hikers of all levels can enjoy. This easy trail is one of the best places to go hiking in Washington DC, featuring boardwalks over marsh areas, clean wooded forest paths, and a chance to escape Washington DC while still staying within its city limits.
As it’s in the middle of the city, you can access Theodore Roosevelt Island via public transportation. From the main parking area, there’s a picturesque footbridge across the river that leads to the island. Once you’ve arrived on the island, hop on the trail and enjoy this lovely, scenic DC hike.
Note: as of July 2021, the Potomac Heritage Trail between Theodore Roosevelt Island and Windy Run is closed. Check this website for the most up-to-date info about park closures around this area.
Trail Length: 8.2 miles total (west side only is 2.6 miles)
Highlights: Capitol Columns, Asian Collections, cherry blossoms in the spring
The National Arboretum is another less-frequented gem of a park within DC’s city limits and is home to some of the nicest hiking in DC. The trails in this urban park are beautiful and well-maintained, perfect for hikers of all levels or people who simply want to get outside for a stroll. Here, you can learn about the various trees and plants that grow natively in the DC area on one of the park’s many gardens and trails. There’s also a visitor center with more information and events throughout the year.
While the park is best known for the historic Capitol columns, there are several trails here through different areas that are worth exploring on foot. To avoid the crowds, we’d recommend starting at the Capitol columns, then following the park’s trails into different areas and sections of the grounds. The Asian Collections are our favorite area, with beautiful sprawling trees and shady benches you can sit on to immerse yourself in nature or even try forest bathing.
Note: as of July 2021, the Administration Building is closed to the public. Check this website for the most up-to-date info about park closures around this area.
Rock Creek Park
Trail Length: Varies
Highlights: Quiet, forested trails, Pulpit Rock scramble, Pierce Mill, Valley Trail
One of Washington DC’s largest parks, Rock Creek Park isn’t so much a trail as it is a network of pathways through natural and historic landmarks. Upon arriving in the park, you can choose from a variety of trails and paths, some easy and some more challenging, for a perfect day of exploring what, in our opinion, is one of the most peaceful green spaces in the entire city.
While you’re in Rock Creek Park, head to Valley Trail for picturesque views and wooded pathways. Inside the park, don’t forget to check out some of the historic attractions, like the Pierce Mill gristmill, the Rolling Meadow Footbridge, and Miller Cabin. If you’re up for some adrenaline-inducing activities, try a rock scramble at Pulpit Rock.
Note: as of July 2021, some parts of Rock Creek Park are closed. Check this website for the most up-to-date info about park closures around this area.
Mount Vernon Trail
Trail Length: 18 miles total, but can be shortened
Highlights: DC skyline views, paved paths for biking, connects with many other regional trails in the area
While not exactly a “wilderness” trail, the Mount Vernon Trail deserves a spot on any list of places to go hiking in DC. This walking, hiking, and biking path extends for 18 miles from Mount Vernon (yeah, George Washington’s birthplace) all the way to Theodore Roosevelt Island. It’s a perfect spot for families, runners, bikers, and history buffs to enjoy a historic and scenic area for hiking near DC.
On certain parts of the trail, you can catch excellent views of the Washington, DC skyline. Accessible without a car, the Mount Vernon Trail is perfect paired with a day trip from DC to Mount Vernon, or simply as a short adventure beginning in the city.
Scott’s Run Nature Preserve
Trail Length: 2.2 miles
Highlights: Clean, wide forest trail, ends in a waterfall!
If you’re craving the tranquility of a waterfall hike but don’t want a long journey to get there, Scott’s Run Nature Preserve is the perfect trail for you. One of the closest waterfall hikes to DC, it’s a short and easy jaunt through the forest to this riverside waterfall viewpoint. However, you’ll need a car to get here if you want to hike around the Scott’s Run area.
Scott’s Run Trail is a ~2.2 mile loop through the woods, with a stream crossing and some gradual hills here and there. The trail is dog-friendly and is the perfect length for a morning stroll. Accessible to children of all ages, this family-friendly trail is definitely one of the most fun and manageable hikes near Washington DC.
Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Trail
Trail Length: Varies
Highlights: Quiet trail along the canal, historic house and canal locks, spectacular views of Great Falls
The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Trailis an easy, popular hiking zone that runs along the historic C&O canal. It’s located just half an hour from downtown DC, and is the perfect place for a forest hike, especially in the fall when the trees turn all kinds of beautiful colors. You’ll need to drive to the park, but it’s an easy drive from anywhere in the DC metro area.
While there, don’t miss the historic home located close to the parking lot, as well as the historic canal boat and the wooden locks that still line the canal. Also, be sure to take the turn onto the Great Falls lookout boardwalk, which brings you to the edge of the Potomac River to a stunning viewpoint of the massive falls.
Designated as a National Historic Park, there’s an entrance fee to get into the C&O Canal area, but once you’ve parked, you can stay as long as you want in the park. You can also use a National Parks Annual Pass if you’ve got one, and entrance is free.
Note: as of July 2021, some parts of Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Trail are closed. Check this website for the most up-to-date info about park closures around this area.
Highlights: Stunning view of the merging of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, old Civil War fortress
One of our favorite hikes near Washington DC, the Maryland Heights Trail offers the best views of Harpers Ferry, a National Historic Park and important landmark of the Civil War. Here, the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers converge, as do the borders of three states – Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. However, don’t let this forested, rural area fool you – Harpers Ferry is just an hour away from Washington DC.
There are two trails available that stem from the Maryland Heights trailhead – the overlook and the full trail. If you’re strapped for time or want to spend the afternoon exploring the town of Harpers Ferry, we recommend opting for the shorter trail, which brings you to the most stunning view in the entire park. The viewpoint is full of boulders and captures a bird’s eye glimpse of the convergence of the rivers, as well as the town of Harpers Ferry and the historic iron bridges that lead into it.
Note: as of July 2021, some parts of Harper’s Ferry National Historic Park are closed. Check this website for the most up-to-date info about park closures around this area.
Trail Length: 7.3 miles
Highlights: This trail passes through 8 (yes, EIGHT) waterfalls! Need we say more?
Arguably one of the most epic waterfall hikes near Washington DC, the Whiteoak Canyon Trailis a moderately difficult and stunningly beautiful 7.3-mile trail where you’ll definitely get your fill of waterways and falls. Located in Shenandoah National Park, this trail is perfect as a Washington DC day trip or as part of a longer weekend trip in the park.
During the course of the Whiteoak Canyon Trail, you’ll get to see a total of 8 waterfalls of varying sizes and strength. If you’re hoping to catch some good photography opportunities, go during the fall when the leaves turn all kinds of bright and beautiful warm colors.
Dark Hollow Falls
Trail Length: 1.4 miles
Highlights: A beautiful waterfall to reward you after this short, steep hike!
One of the most popular hikes in Shenandoah National Parks, Dark Hollow Falls has the advantage of being both challenging and short, meaning you can pair it with another day hike in the park (or with a visit to a local brewery or winery after!). This steep uphill hike leads to one of the most stunning waterfalls in the entire park – a giant marvel made up of several smaller cascades.
Trail Length: 5.9 miles to summit and back
Highlights: Beautiful mountaintop views of the rolling hills and valleys below, wildflowers in the spring and summer
A stunning mountaintop hike, Sugarloaf Mountain is an awesome place to go hiking near DC in Maryland. Within the Sugarloaf Mountain hiking area, there are several different trails you can choose from, including the Blue, White, and Purple trails. Click here for a hiking map of the entire Sugarloaf area. Most of the trails are moderately difficult with uphill trails leading to spectacular views of the fields and rolling hills of pastoral Maryland.
Wolf Rock & Chimney Rock
Trail Length: 3.5 miles
Highlights: Amazing views on a picturesque rocky outcropping!
A moderately steep, shorter trail located in Catoctin Mountain Park, MD, Wolf Rock & Chimney Rock Trail is a family-friendly but challenging hike up to a few rocky views of the nearby mountains. It’s the most difficult trail in the park, and while we’ve rated it moderate, you should be careful as the trails are quite narrow and can get icy and slippery in wet or cold weather.
Difficult/Challenging Hikes Near Washington DC
Trail Length: ~10 miles
Highlights: Summit views of Shenandoah National Park, rock scrambles, and bragging rights!
One of the most popular (and one of the most challenging) hikes in Shenandoah National Park, Old Rag can get fairly crowded during the summer months. But for good reason – Old Rag Mountain offers some of the most spectacular views of Shenandoah National Park, possibly the best on this entire list of hikes near Washington DC. It’s a whopping 8-10 miles from start to finish, largely uphill, so be sure you’re well-stocked with water and snacks before you begin.
Also, it’s important to note that you might think you’ve reached the summit a dozen times before you actually do. Old Rag likes to play tricks on hikers with several false summits. The real summit comes after several scramble areas and has a sign designating it as Old Rag Mountain. You can breathe a sigh of relief once you finally see it!
Billy Goat Trail
Trail Length: 1.5 to 4.5 miles
Highlights: Stunning Potomac River and Great Falls views, an epic rock scramble up a cliff
One of the best hikes near DC, the Billy Goat Trailis a fun and adrenaline-inducing rock trail that runs alongside the Potomac River, right near Great Falls. The entrance/trailhead starts at the parking lot of the C&O National Historic Park – you’ll need to walk a bit along the canal before the official entrance to the Billy Goat Trail itself. Once you are on the trail, you can choose from a few different sections and trails, each ranging from 1.5-2 miles in length.
After you’ve started on the trail, it’s a bit of climbing and hopping over the rocky cliffside of the river before getting to the large, “famous” scramble up the side of a cliff. Leave your trekking poles at home – you’ll need your hands AND feet for this hike!
If you’re looking for an easier trail in the area, try the Great Falls Overlook Trail. It’s a leisurely stroll to a stunning viewpoint of the falls…sans rock scrambling and terrain changes.
Note: as of July 2021, some parts of Billy Goat Trail are closed. Check this website for the most up-to-date info about park closures around this area.
Trail Length: 7 miles
Highlights: Stunning views of Harpers Ferry, challenging uphill climbs
Located near Maryland Heights Trail in Harpers Ferry, the longer Loudoun Heights Trail is a perfect companion to Maryland Heights for a weekend trip to the Harpers Ferry area, or a perfect day hike for those short on time. This mountainside hike offers amazing views of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, as well as the historic iron bridges that connect Harpers Ferry to the other sides of the waterways. We’d recommend this for experienced hikers who want a little bit of history immersion alongside a challenging, physically demanding trail.
Note: as of July 2021, some parts of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park are closed. Check this website for the most up-to-date info about park closures around this area.
Little Devil’s Stairs
Trail Length: 5.3 miles
Highlights: Amazing views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, bragging rights for having completed one of the hardest trails in Shenandoah National Park!
Don’t let the name freak you out – Little Devils Stairs is one of the most fun and thrilling hikes near Washington DC. Located in Shenandoah National Park, the trail passes through streams, by waterfalls, and scales a few rocky scramble passes. It’s probably the most difficult hike on our list, but also one of the most rewarding.
We’d only recommend this trail to experienced hikers – the ascent is pretty difficult and requires a bit of technical knowledge once you get to the large rocks and scrambles. Bring trekking poles and lots of snacks and water and plan to enjoy the views along the way.
Note: as of July 2021, some parts of Shenandoah National Park are closed. Check this website for the most up-to-date info about park closures around this area.
Important Things to Know Before Hiking near Washington DC
How to Get Around to Trailheads & Hikes Near DC
For the hikes within Washington DC’s city limits, you can easily get around without a car. There’s ample public transportation available in the form of the public buses and metro system. If you’d prefer, there’s also Lyft, Uber, Via, and regular taxis you can take.
However, if you’d like to go into Virginia and Maryland, we highly recommend renting a car. While there are buses that go out to many suburbs and hikes near Washington DC, you’ll often have to walk long distances and it’s kind of a logistical nightmare. Instead, we;d rent a car for the day and driving to the various hikes near Washington DC you’d like to try.
What to Bring With You for Hiking Near DC
Breathable hiking clothes – For warmer hikes, you’ll want to wear a sweat-wicking shirt and breathable pants, like these Patagonia hiking shorts for men and women. For cold-weather hikes, we recommend dressing in layers, including merino wool baselayers for men and women, a down puffer jacket for men and women, and a Northface waterproof outer shell for men and women. And don’t forget a pair of the best women’s and men’s hiking socks!
Trekking poles – You won’t need these for every single hike, but we suggest throwing them in your car just in case. We recommend the Black Diamond Trail Ergo cork trekking poles, which are lightweight, easy to transport, and durable.
Water bottle – Having water available at all times is a huge must. To limit disposable plastic, we recommend bringing your own refillable water bottle. We’re obsessed with Hydro Flask water bottles because they keep water cold for hours.
Sunscreen and bug spray – Sweatproof sunscreen and DEET bug spray can help you avoid sunburn and bug bites, two of hiking’s most annoying after-effects. Our favorite kind of sunscreen is Sun Bum, as it is free of harsh chemicals and safe for marine life, including coral reefs.
A brimmed hat or cap – The sun can be brutal in open hikes, so always pack a brimmed hat or cap for day hikes in the sunshine.
Emergency blanket and first aid kit – We’d strongly recommend bringing a first aid kit and a lightweight emergency blanket on every hike. Why? Because the unfathomable can happen, and it’s always best to play it safe.
Durable day pack – A durable day pack is the perfect spot to stash all your hiking gear. While any backpack will do, we recommend the Osprey Tempest 20 or the Talon 22 day packs because they’re comfortable and breathable for long hikes. For more information, check out our best day packs for any terrain guide.
Kay Rodriguez is the founder & CEO of Urban Outdoors. Before Urban Outdoors, she worked at Bain & Company, National Geographic, and built and sold Jetfarer, a travel media company. When she's not writing furiously on her laptop or editing photos, you can find Kay hiking, surfing, bouldering, playing in the snow, or doting over her vast collection of houseplants.
Urban Outdoors is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.
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