9 Places to Hike Near Washington, D.C.

Jennifer Lubell
U.S.News & World Report

If you've had your fill of monuments and museums, perhaps it's time to trade in the National Mall's paved walkways for some hiking trails. Washington, D.C., has a wealth of hiking areas just a stone's throw away.

U.S. News asked local experts to recommend some beautiful spots in and around the nation's capital, where visitors can stretch their legs and enjoy some fresh air. Here are their top picks.

Rock Creek Park

Larger than New York City's Central Park, Rock Creek Park is one of the best urban parks in the country to see deer and other wildlife, says Sherri Dalphonse, executive editor of Washingtonian magazine. Covering nearly 1,800 acres of Washington, D.C., Rock Creek Park is a great choice for travelers who don't have a car and want to hike within city limits. The asphalt and dirt trails are mostly on level ground and make for easy hiking. To explore the area where President Teddy Roosevelt once rode his horse, try the 3.5-mile Boulder Bridge Hike, where you can walk across one of the park's oldest bridges.

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Theodore Roosevelt Island

If you're truly a Roosevelt enthusiast, a park named after this renowned American president and founder of the U.S. Forest Service is located just off the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Spend a morning or afternoon walking one of Theodore Roosevelt Island's three hiking trails, the longest of which spans a mile and a half.

The shortest of the hikes, the Woods Trail, features the Roosevelt memorial and fountains. If you're in the mood for biking afterward, take the Mount Vernon Trail from Theodore Roosevelt Island to Old Town Alexandria. This scenic, nearly 8-mile ride graces the Potomac River and provides a lovely view of the monuments from across the water.

Columbia Island

Another spot located off the George Washington Parkway that lends itself to a morning or afternoon hike is Columbia Island, whose beautiful plants and landscape are due to the work of Lady Bird Johnson. Treat yourself to views of the Washington Monument as you stroll along this easy 5.7-mile hike. Island attractions include the Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove, the Navy-Merchant Marine Memorial and the Columbia Island Marina, where you can enjoy a hamburger or homemade potato salad at the island's cafe.

Great Falls Park

Just 15 miles from Washington, D.C., this historical 800-acre park showcases the dramatic journey of the Potomac River as it slices through giant rock formations and waterfalls. Climbing, biking and whitewater boating are some of the activities outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy in this park.

The Maryland side of Great Falls has one of the area's best day hikes: the Billy Goat Trail. Nearly 5 miles long, it makes for some fun and challenging hiking along the Potomac River. On the Virginia side, try the River Trail, which offers great views of the Mather Gorge, the narrowest point of the lower Potomac River.

Chesapeake & Ohio Canal

Maryland's side of Great Falls features the "C&O Canal" Towpath, which originates in Georgetown and runs nearly 185 miles to Cumberland, Maryland.

The trail "follows the original path of the failed federal project laid out for the transportation system of steel and other goods from the Rust Belt cities to the Chesapeake Bay," says Erich Hosbach, director of sales and marketing at The Graham Georgetown hotel in Washington, D.C. "The private sector built something else for this purpose: railroads, and left the mule towpath to become one of the most delightful trails on the East Coast."

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Shenandoah National Park

"If someone has the time, it's worth driving out to Shenandoah National Park, where there are many hikes to choose from of different lengths and difficulties," Dalphonse recommends. Overall, there are about 500 trails in this scenic park located about 75 miles from Washington, D.C., in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. The best hike in this region is Old Rag, but it's a tough trail that can get crowded on weekends, especially if there's good weather, Dalphonse says.

For a beautiful drive on a fall afternoon, try Skyline Drive, whose 75 overlooks feature picturesque views of the Shenandoah Valley.

Tidal Basin

If you'd like to mix a little history with a quiet walk without leaving the Mall, visit the Tidal Basin reservoir near the Thomas Jefferson Memorial under the famous cherry trees, whose blossoms usually peak in late March to early April.

Elliott Ferguson, president and CEO of the city's tourism site, Destination D.C., recommends visitors take time to walk around the perimeter of the basin and enjoy the Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. memorials. The basin also has paddle boating, which is popular in spring, summer and early fall.

Catoctin Mountain Park

Home to the historical remains of the Catoctin Iron Furnace, this 9-square-mile attraction offers trails of varying length and difficulty on the east and west sides of the mountain. "This also happens to be home to Camp David -- although, obviously, hikers can't get near the presidential retreat," Dalphonse says.

[Read: The World's Best National Parks.]

Catoctin Mountain Park is located in Thurmont, Maryland, about an hour and 15 minutes from Washington, D.C.

Sugarloaf Mountain

Looking for another scenic hiking choice in Maryland? Try Sugarloaf Mountain, about an hour away from the nation's capital. This privately owned recreational area offers four trails of varying lengths. For some of the most scenic views, try the 5-mile "Blue" or Northern Peaks Trail. Once you're done hiking, venture a couple miles south to enjoy a glass of wine at Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard.

To experience more of what Washington, D.C., has to offer, check out the U.S. News Travel guide.



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