Washington, DC has a reputation as a straight-laced city – a town chock a block with towering federal buildings and government agencies – hardly the kind of place to seek out the peaceful solitude of the great outdoors. But the nation’s capital actually has a surprising amount of green space – with everything from rambling urbans parks, to extensive multi-use trails, to winding, river-hugging footpaths. So lace up those hiking boots, load up your backpack, and go explore these scenic hikes in DC’s natural wonders.
Play castaway for a day on the tiny island just minutes from downtown DC, named for a presidential champion of conservation, Teddy Roosevelt. Once known as Analostan Island, the site was actually a functioning plantation during the Civil War — and then was largely ignored until the location was restored (and replanted with trees) by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1931. Today, a network of trails circle Roosevelt Island – all fairly short and very-well marked – making Roosevelt an especially family-friendly hiking destination (a loop around the entire island is about 2 ½ miles). Click here for more information and printable trail maps.
Rock Creek Park
The obvious choice for DC-dwellers jonesing for a quick nature fix, Rock Creek Park is the city’s ultimate urban escape – and also one of the oldest. Rock Creek Park’s 2,100-acres were granted protection by Congress in 1890, designated as an outdoor space to be enjoyed by DC’s residents (perhaps one of the best things Congress has ever done for the city). Rock Creek’s varied terrain and 32-miles of trails has something to suit hikers or runners of any ilk – and if you get tired of hoofing it around the park yourself, one of the best ways to see Rock Creek Park’s arborous acreage is on horseback, with riding tours arranged through the Rock Creek Horse Center.
Tucked away in one of DC’s most lavish neighborhoods, Battery Kemble is the unofficial off-leash hangout out of some of the city’s most well-heeled canines – and the park’s undulating hills and grassy meadows also make Battery Kemble arguably to best place to sled in the city. The park also has a somewhat storied history — during the Civil War, Battery Kemble was part of the city’s defense, with two hilltop cannons trained on the nearby Virginia border. Today, the park boasts a more than ample space for dogs (and their humans) to romp and a short streamside trail, running the length of the park and ending near Canal Road.
C & O Canal Towpath
Once one of DC’s most vital supply arteries, today the 184.5-mile towpath, running along the historic Chesapeake & Ohio (C & O) Canal, is one of the city’s most beloved multi-use trails (the extensive path stretches all the way from the Georgetown waterfront to Cumberland, Maryland). The towpath itself is perfectly flat – but for hikers seeking more of a challenge, several side trails offering more elevation gain splinter off the towpath around Great Falls, Maryland (including Section A of the Billy Goat Trail – a craggy, challenged, and sometimes death defying 1.7-mile haul with stunning views of Mather Gorge). Another perk – the National Park Service also maintains a series of free campsites (about 30 of them) along the C & O towpath spread about every 7-miles or so after Swain’s Lock (Milepost 16.6).
Glover Archbold Park
A slender but surprisingly extensive tract of green space in an urban section of Northwest DC, stretching from near Georgetown University (and the Potomac River) all the way to Tenleytown (Van Ness Street). The nearly 3- mile Glover Archbold trail traverses a stream valley — and the park’s location makes it easy to build Glover Archbold into a longer hike by detouring to nearby Battery Kemble trail or by beginning your hike in Georgetown on the C & O canal’s towpath.
Potomac Heritage Trail
Hiking options are almost unlimited on the Potomac Heritage Trail (PHT) – a 710-mile trail network spanning four states – from the Chesapeake Bay to the Allegheny Highlands in Pennsylvania. For city-dweller hikers seeking to cover serious distance — this is the trail. Check out this map of the stretch of PHT running though the greater DC area.
Nestled into one of the more gritty parts of the city, the National Arboretum is an unexpected, flora-filled oasis. The 412-acre arboretum doesn’t have hiking trails per se, but there’s no shortage of walking paths winding through the place’s various plant collection – and with everything from boxwoods to bonsais, there is plenty of scenery. Don’t miss the National Capitol Columns from 1828. Here’s a detailed map of the National Arboretum’s roads and paths.
In a leafy section of the Potomac Gorge, Turkey Run feels far removed from any semblance of city-living. A hotspot for wildlife—especially migratory birds — the nearly 700-acre riverfront park is also punctuated with tumbling streams, hidden waterfalls, and seasonal wildflowers – and best of all, some seriously gnarly trails. Turkey Run is also a good staging point for a longer regional hike (and the park offers access to the extensive Potomac Heritage Trail).
Local climbers know Carderock as one of the best places in the DC-area to seek out scalable rocks – but if hanging from a schist cliff face by your fingertips is not your idea of a good time, Carderock also provides access to two scenic (and very gentle) sections of the Billy Goat Trail – section B (1.4 miles) and section C (1.6 miles).
Cabin John Regional Park
Although located in the close-in Maryland suburb of Bethesda, Cabin John is hardly a run-of-the-mill neighborhood park. In addition to extensive athletic facilities (offering everything from baseball fields to an ice skating rink), Cabin John also includes an off-leash dog park, a nature center, a campground (with seven walk-in, primitive sites), 5-miles of hiking trails inside the park, and access to the nearly 9-mile Cabin John Stream Valley Trail. Here’s more information on the park’s network of trails.
[Featured Image: Launch Our Rocket via Flickr]