Washington, D.C., Area Hikes

Introduction
By Paul Elliott
  |  Gorp.com
washington, d.c.
Capital Attraction: Downtown D.C. is a great, big walker's paradise (Photo © Photodisc)

Perched on the lower Potomac River between the Appalachians and the Atlantic Ocean, Washington, D.C., is the hub of a mid-Atlantic metropolitan area that has an astonishing number and variety of wonderful hiking venues. That's probably because, in addition to its basic physiographic setting, the area is generously endowed with federal, state, regional, and local parks, preserves, and forests that can—and should—be enjoyed year-round.

When considering where she'd like to live next, writer Katherine Anne Porter mused about wanting to move to "a world capital or a howling wilderness." In choosing Washington, she evidently settled for one of her two choices, but without realizing that it would also give her access to the other—if only she were a hiker.

Wilderness, in fact, rims the area on the west, and, in the few places where coyotes can be heard, it can even be said to howl. The Blue Ridge accounts for much of the wilderness, as you can discover by sampling the Appalachian Trail. Wilder still is little-traveled and vista-rich Massanutten Mountain, where I like to do a one-way ridgetop trek (the return part is an exhilarating canoe ride on a rapids-stippled river).

But pockets of wilderness exist in areas closer to Washington, and you can find them in such places as Sugarloaf Mountain, Catoctin Mountain Park, and Prince William Forest Park. Nature also rears its impressive head within the city limits. See for yourself by walking the River Trail at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens or the side trails in northern Rock Creek Park.

As a history- and culture-rich metropolis, Washington also offers a rich array of non-wilderness pleasures. Roaming a city on foot is one of the best ways of getting to know its past and present, declared writer Alfred Kazin (city walking, he added, is "an exercise in human delight"). Try exploring downtown Washington by hiking from the Lincoln Memorial along the Mall and through Capitol Hill to Lincoln Park. Also roam the US National Arboretum (an exotic and hidden floral treasure, with a strange architectural link to the Capitol), as well as Northeast Washington's distinctive and multicultural Brookland section.

Between the outer wilderness and core city lie many hiking venues that reflect the metro area's diversity of landscape, historical heritage, and recreational opportunity. To see what I mean, visit the C&O Canal National Historical Park, which forms a splendid ribbon of history that follows the Potomac upstream (note the spring warblers and towrope grooves on the old walls); Seneca Creek State Park, where the Greenway Trail sneaks delightfully and safely through subdivision-threatened farmlands (note spooky Black Rock Mill, with its sobering flood-markers); the Virginia State Arboretum, which is preserved as a serene Shenandoah Valley gem (note the 300-tree ginko grove); and Little Bennett Regional Park, which has secluded woodlands and magnificent upland meadowlands where bluebirds and butterflies play (note the area's largest tulip poplar grove).

Happy hiking to you in the mid-Atlantic's best hiking area, and be sure to participate in National Trails Day on Saturday, June 5; my recommendations: a trail rerouting project at Virginia's Riverbend Park (call Mark Nelson at 703-379-9400) or any of several Washington events (visit www.americanhiking.org for more).


Published: 25 May 2004 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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