Remember sitting in grade school on that unfairly perfect spring day, staring out the window, just waiting for the teacher to tell you it’s time for recess? Or wishing your class could take their lesson outside under that flowering tree you’ve been longingly gazing at for the last two hours? Well, you were onto something when you were seeking the oasis of the great outdoors.
Scientific studies show that spending time outdoors not only helps your immune system and physical well-being but can also help fight depression and anxiety, while improving your creativity and focus. Add in some exercise to the outdoor activity – like a hike, trail run or stand-up paddleboard session – and you just gave all these previously discussed benefits an added power boost. No place on Earth is more intense or busier than the D.C. area, exemplified by that ever-popular first meeting question: “So what do you do?” Thankfully, there are some pretty incredible spots in and around the DMV where you can take in the epic scenery of the outdoors, break a sweat and press that mental reset button.
Theodore Roosevelt Island
Designed by landscape architects in the 1930s as a memorial to our 26th president – one of the nation’s most powerful conservation voices – this island forest will have you completely forgetting you’re in a busy metropolitan city. This area is one of my favorites to run through, with several trails that give you a break from the hard concrete of the D.C. streets as you surround yourself with lush greenery. A full loop around the island on the Swamp Trail is 1.5 miles, while the 1/3 mile Woods Trail takes you through the memorial plaza where you see the statues and fountains dedicated to Roosevelt complete with some very inspirational quotes. The island is easiest to access via the Rosslyn Metro: at the N Lynn Street and Lee Highway intersection, take the trail entrance to your right just before the Key Bridge and follow the trail through the parking lot until you get to the bridge crossing into the island on the left. If you are driving, this lot is only accessible via the northbound lanes of the George Washington Memorial Parkway – but just a warning, it gets crowded quickly.
Stand-Up Paddleboard on the Potomac River
When I first got to the District, the initial “tour” I took was via the water on a stand-up paddleboard (SUP), and since then, I’ve been hooked. As the weather heats up, you’ll see loads of people out on the water taking advantage of the gorgeous Potomac views and solid core workout. If you think you’ll be doing this a few times, then it is definitely worth grabbing a season pass for $249 per person, where you get unlimited paddling at any of the boat houses around D.C. I’m a big fan of the Key Bridge Boathouse, where you can take in the monuments and sites from the water, then hop off and venture to Georgetown for a post-paddle beverage. Warning: as the weather gets nicer, this will become popular. I recommend getting to the boathouse no later than 10:30 a.m. to avoid long lines, and to take advantage of the weather. 3500 Water St. NW, DC; www.boatingindc.com
Scott’s Run Nature Preserve
This is a popular one in my household, as it’s the closest hike with a waterfall view (my husband Scott and I are big fans of waterfalls). The park is easy to access from the two parking lots along Georgetown Pike (pro tip: if they are full, you can likely park nearby on the street). We like taking a 3-mile loop that starts at the smaller parking lot and takes you up the Stubblefield Falls Overlook Trail. Then make a right at the Oak Trail and meet up with the connector to the Potomac Heritage Trail, which you’ll stay on as you climb the rocky terrain toward the Potomac River. You’ll get amazing views of the river, hit the Stubblefield Falls Overlook and eventually make it to the Scott’s Run Waterfall, where it’s great to just sit for a second and take in the scenery. Continue down the Potomac Heritage Trail and then use the Parking Lot Connector Trail to cross back to the lot. 7400 Georgetown Pike, McLean, VA | 13.1 miles from D.C.
Dark Hollow Falls
Start at mile post 50.7 on Skyline Drive and take the short, half-mile hike downhill until you reach Dark Hollow Falls. Ample time is generally spent on our visits at the waterfall – especially if the weather is warm. The trip back up to the parking lot is steep, so you’ll definitely get in that glute workout. If you are looking to rack up some mileage, you can instead do the 3.7-mile Rose River Loop Trail that takes you to the smaller but still beautiful Rose River Falls, with some added smaller waterfalls and plunge pools to explore before you reach the Dark Hollow Falls. Skyline Drive, Milepost 50.7, Stanley, VA | 101 miles from D.C.
Raven Rocks Trailhead
This is one of my favorites to get in some mileage and a solid workout. The start of the hike is accessible via Pine Grove Road off Route 7, where there is a small parking lot. If the lot is full, there is a larger lot nearby at the base of Blue Ridge Mountain Road. This stretch of the Appalachian Trail is a solid 5.5-mile hike out and back, with three ascents that reward you with a gorgeous view of the Shenandoah Valley and surrounding mountains. Since you put in all that work to get to the top and come back down, reward yourself at nearby Bluemont Vineyard, which sits 951 feet above sea level and gives you an incredible panoramic view of the area. Bluemont, VA | 57 miles from D.C.
Billy Goat Trail
This is a popular trail year-round and for good reason, so aim to get to the parking lot (Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center) by 8:30 a.m. to beat the crowds – especially on the weekend. The trail is made up of three sections: A, B and C. We tend to gravitate toward doing a combo of the Billy Goat A and B Trails (about a 4.5-mile hike), which offer great scenery and some added excitement with the rock hopping and climbing. This is by no means a casual stroll, but the views are incredible and worth the effort. I highly advise wearing hiking boots and bringing some water. 1710 Macarthur Blvd. Potomac, MD | 17 miles from D.C.
Yes, you are a bit further out from D.C., and this may warrant a camping trip at White Rocks Campground, but I promise you this is worth it. The 4-mile loop on the Cascade Falls Trail takes you through rocky streams and serene ambiance to reach an incredible 69-foot waterfall. Choose between taking the steep route, the Upper Trail, or the scenic route, the Lower Trail, to the waterfalls and then take either route to head back to the parking lot. Come summertime, bring your bathing suit for a swim in the pool at the base of the falls. Note: you do have to register your vehicle and pay $3 to access the day use area of the park. 2068 Cascade Dr. Pembroke, VA | 292 miles from D.C.
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
The view from the main overlook of this hike is out of this world, but equally impressive is the incredible history of this area. A Civil War battle town, Harpers Ferry is home to the nation’s second armory responsible for shipping manufactured weapons and materials throughout the U.S. We made a weekend of this hike, camping out under the railroad tracks at the nearby grounds, but have since come back for daytrips. It’s recommended to park at the visitor center and grab a shuttle to the Lower Town to access the trails, but so far, we’ve had luck parking in the limited lots of Lower Town (get there early). Definitely take some time to explore Lower Town, which is a step into the past with exhibits, museums and historic buildings. There are 22 miles of hiking trails in the park, but we favor the Maryland Heights Trail. The 4.5-mile roundtrip from Lower Town takes you by some impressive historical and scenic spots, while traversing steep terrain up to the picturesque Maryland Heights Overlook. Once up top, you really are in sheer awe of the view, and deserve taking the time to sit and take it all in. Head over to nearby Harpers Ferry Brewing post-hike for a flight or two – you earned it. Note: there is a $20 per vehicle fee to enter the park. If you enter on foot or by bike, it’s $10 per person.
171 Shoreline Dr. Harpers Ferry, WV | 61.7 miles from D.C.