Top Ten Day Hikes in the Mid-Atlantic

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Woman standing at an overlook with fall leaves in Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park in all its autumnal glory  (Greg Dale/National Geographic/Getty)

10. Falls Loop from Browns Gap
6.6-mile loop in Shenandoah National Park, VA
Water lovers will swoon for this 6.6-mile loop in southern Shenandoah National Park. Pass three major cataracts and numerous other cascades while exploring two boulder-strewn canyons connected by the Appalachian Trail (AT). Leave Browns Gap, milepost 83 on Skyline Drive, and join Browns Gap Fire Road. Turn right onto Doyles River Trail to reach Upper Doyles Falls, a three-tiered drop. Many unnamed cascades accompany you downstream until Lower Doyles Falls at mile 2.4. This is the steeper of the two falls. Squeeze down the narrow gorge, and then veer right on Jones Run Trail and rock-hop Jones Run, whose gorge is littered with huge boulders. Look for the old-growth tulip trees shading the stream. Scenic cascades tumble down the equally rocky watercourse. At mile 3.7, arrive at Jones Run Falls, where the stream spills 50 feet over a solid rock wall. Ascend from the creek to reach the AT at mile 5.4. Your northbound trek back to Browns Gap is very gentle, leaving you ample opportunity to take in the mountain views, which are especially breathtaking during Virginia's famed autumn.

9. Red Creek Plains
3.6-mile circuit near the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, WV
The Red Creek Plains are a high-altitude plateau of sublime tundra, rocky outcrops offering fine vistas, and deep, dark spruce forests lying adjacent to popular Dolly Sods Wilderness (read: fewer hikers). Travel through open bogs of moss, tundra flora, and heath glades—low-lying plant communities of mountain laurel, azaleas, and blueberries. The moderate, 3.6-mile there-and-back hike starts near the Dolly Sods Picnic Area. Take the upper South Prong Trail, crossing the first of 12 boardwalks over bogs lying between stands of spruce and small meadows. Pass through a boulder field at mile 0.7, and top out on a rock at mile 1.2. From the rock, grab views of the wooded Flatrock Plains and the deep South Fork Red Creek Valley to your west. Descend into thick spruce woodland that morphs to northern red oaks growing eerily in low and wide shapes due to the harsh highland conditions at 4,000 feet. At mile 1.8, a view unfurls in a craggy boulder field, with the South Fork of Red Creek crashing below and the Dolly Sods Wilderness in the northern distance. To your east, waves of mountains extend beyond the Allegheny Front.

8. Catoctin Mountain Park
8-mile loop in Catoctin Mountain Park, MD
Just outside of Catoctin's visitor center, you'll find an eight-mile loop boasting five stellar vistas. Hike through archetypal Appalachian flora and fauna on the Falls Nature Trail, making a side trip to Cunningham Falls, where Big Hunting Creek spills 70-plus feet, the highest cataract in Maryland. A stony climb leads to Hog Rock, where the Monocacy River Valley spreads southward. Next up, the Blue Ridge Summit Overlook, whose northwesterly panorama stretches beyond Catoctin Mountain into neighboring Pennsylvania. The views keep on coming. Just after the halfway point, you come to Thurmont Vista, where you can peer easterly to the town of Thurmont, 1,000 feet below. Next, Wolf Rock not only lends views but also tests your imagination—find the wolf's head in its shape. A short spur leads to Chimney Rock, six miles into the loop. It offers arguably the best vista of the circuit—you decide. Mountain laurel flanks the trail as it leads you on a final climb before winding back down to the visitor center.

7. Sunfish Pond
8-mile loop in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, NJ
This inspiring route takes the northbound Appalachian Trail (AT) to a mountaintop lake, all within the protected confines of Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. From the Dunnfield parking area hop on the AT for a 1,000-foot climb up Kittatinny Ridge to Sunfish Pond. Your return route takes the Dunnfield Hollow Trail, a perched stream valley tracing scenic Dunnfield Creek downhill toward the Delaware River. Be prepared for multiple creek crossings as you travel downstream. Rejoin the AT a half-mile from the parking area, or add a side trip on the Blue Dot Trail to reach Mount Tammany. Enjoy river views from the Indian Head of the famous "water gap" for which the park is named, then descend on the rough and rocky Red Dot Trail. The downgrade is eased with another grand vista. If you are looking for something shorter, start at Dunnfield Parking Area and make the four-mile loop to Mount Tammany using the AT/Blue Dot/Red Dot trails.

6. Bear Rocks and the Cliffs
7-mile circuit on the Appalachian Trail, PA
Soak up 360-degree panoramas of the Pennsylvania countryside from towering outcrops at the Bear Rocks. But to get there, you first have to navigate the sheer-sided Cliffs. This seven-mile out-and-back adventure takes the world's longest marked footpath east from PA 309, northwest of Allentown. Bring your sturdy boots to tackle the Appalachian Trail as it rises on Blue Mountain, a ridge soaring over bucolic farmland; you pass the spur to New Tripoli Campsite after two miles. Beyond here, the trail becomes seriously stony, a place where the Quaker State earns its status as the rockiest part of the AT. Of course, the rocks merely warm you up for the Cliffs, also known as the Knife Edge. Here, slender, stiletto-thin outcrops drop hundreds of feet, making you calculate every step and hand placement. Yes, you will use all fours in places. The Cliffs stretch for a quarter-mile but seem to last forever. The ridge then widens, passing multiple rock outcrops that would be more heralded except for their proximity to the Bear Rocks, which you reach after 3.5 miles. The Bear Rocks are composed of several piled outcrops that offer 360-degree views of Pennsylvania pastoral lands stretching as far as the eye can see.

Published: 21 Mar 2011 | Last Updated: 10 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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