Our Wanderlust column clues you in on all the best hikes and parks in the greater D.C. area. This month, we zoom in on Burke Lake Park.
Burke Lake Park is the epitome of family fun in the summer sun. It has almost everything you could possibly want to do outside during the summer months: hiking, boating, swimming, rides and outdoor activities. If you’re like me every summer, wishing you could be a kid again at summer camp, this park can offer some sincere nostalgia.
If you’re looking to go camping in the DMV, and you don’t want to drive all the way out to Shenandoah, Burke Lake Park is the place to be. It is so conveniently located that if your camping trip gets rained out, and you’d rather just sleep in your warm, dry bed, you can just head back home in under an hour. The campgrounds at Burke Lake Park are located steps away from Burke Lake tucked into the surrounding forest. Camping is open from April 1 through the end of October, and just one convenient way to enjoy all that this park has to offer, because once you arrive, you will want to stick around all weekend long.
How Long and How Difficult?
The 4.7-mile loop trail is mostly flat and wraps around a beautiful lake. This trail can be hiked or biked (so be aware of minor bike traffic). The hike itself is very easy, though some may struggle with the length. Once you get started, you have only two choices: keep going and complete the 4.7 miles or turn around. Thankfully, this park has so much to offer that if you start off your hike and decide you’d rather do something else, there are always deviations. If you’d rather see the park by boat, you can rent one at the marina. Or you could spice up your hike with guided exercise stations along the way.
Burke Lake Park is on Manahoac land, less than an hour from Washington D.C. If you don’t have a car, you could take the Metro to either Vienna or Franconia-Springfield stations and then use a ride-share app to go the remaining 20 minutes to the park. Or, if you’re visiting on a weekday, you could easily catch a Virginia Railway Express (VRE) train from Union Station to Burke Centre station and back. Burke Centre station is an easy 9-minute drive from Burke Lake.
Who Should I Bring?
Your whole family. Seriously. Whether you’re bringing your children or your parents or a date, you can find an activity everyone will enjoy at Burke Lake Park. And, as a perk on those extra hot days, the majority of the loop trail is shaded by the gorgeous surrounding forest, so you won’t have to worry as much about your baby or elderly parents getting too hot.
Multiple playgrounds, picnic shelters, an ice cream parlor, a carousel, a miniature train, miniature golf, disc golf, a driving range, beach volleyball, fishing platforms, fishing boats, campgrounds, the smell of campfires wafting through the air and more. If you decide to camp for the weekend, you should book the camping package deal that includes discounts to the nearby GoApe ropes course at South Run Park which is just a 1.3 mile trail walk from Burke Lake.
This trail is fully wheelchair accessible but only about 1 mile of the trail is paved (the section that heads from the marina parking lot toward the fishing platforms). There are specially constructed fishing platforms that are wheelchair accessible and signs that indicate that priority for those platforms goes to those in wheelchairs. Beyond the fishing platforms, the trail is gravel, which could be difficult to navigate but it is largely flat and well-maintained. I often see families easily pushing strollers along the trail.
What is the Best Path to Take?
The 4.7-mile loop trail is pretty self-explanatory since it is one big circle with only a couple off-shoot trails. So long as you stick to the trail that encircles the lake, you’re on the correct path. I prefer to start my hike at the marina — there is ample parking available at this location, so it is an easy starting point. The marina also has access to bathrooms which is clutch for the beginning of this lengthy trek. There are a couple other restroom locations along the trail, but one is tucked back in the campground area about halfway through the trail, and it is easy to miss.
Turn left onto the trail after taking in the lake views at the marina. Keep following the trail as it hugs the shore of the lake and eventually, you’ll see disc golfers carefully tossing colorful plastic discs into chain link baskets tucked between the nearby trees. Keep walking and you’ll start to notice train tracks just to the left of the trail and perhaps the sound of a distant train whistle. If your timing is right, you’ll catch a glimpse of the miniature train as it carries families on a scenic tour of Burke Lake Park. On weekend trips to the park, you may come across an Arts in the Parks program on the amphitheater stage just to the left of the loop trail within the first half mile of the hike.
At about the one-mile mark you’ll come to a beautiful view of the lake with a bench and easy access for fishing. There is also a workout station here and at several other points along the trail. These Perrier Parcourse Fitness Circuit workout stations were built in 1975 and offer up some ridiculous exercise options for you to try along your trek. One of my favorites is station 11, the Hop-Kick station, where you are instructed to: 1) stand erect, 2) spring off left leg, 3) at same time, kick right leg out and extend right hand to touch right toe, 4) recover and repeat, alternating sides. The hilarious accompanying illustrations are reason enough to make the trip.
Continue along the path and you’ll find the campgrounds at around the 1.5-mile mark. You’ll probably smell the s’mores roasting on the campfires long before you see the sites tucked into the surrounding trees. Keep walking along the loop trail and take in the beautiful lake views at benches scattered along the lakeshore.
Around mile 3 you’ll be able to see Vesper Island State Waterfowl Refuge off in the distance and hopefully glimpse some herons, ducks, geese or even bald eagles flying, perched, or floating around just offshore. Between the 4-mile mark and last .7 mile of trail, you’ll find fishing platforms, a beach volleyball course, playground and picnic areas. Finally, don’t miss the ice cream parlor for the perfect end cap to your adventure.
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