Hikers enjoy great views of the Potomac River along the Billy Goat Trail in C&O Canal National Historical Park. Photo by Daniel Schreiber

6 Great Nearby Hikes

By Amy Reinink

Since the area’s earliest days, residents have escaped the city’s swampy summer heat by heading for the hills. These days, you don’t have to go far to make your own getaway. Some excellent day hikes are just a stone’s throw from downtown Bethesda. Those seeking more of a departure have myriad options, too, with Shenandoah National Park and Monongahela National Forest both within driving distance for day hikes or quick weekend trips.

Rock Creek Park: Those looking for an escape into the natural world can find it in their backyards—sometimes literally—with the 2,000-acre Rock Creek Park, which abuts many neighborhoods in Silver Spring and Chevy Chase. Pick up the Western Ridge Trail on Beach Drive, near the Washington, D.C., line, and follow the green-blazed, four-plus-mile trail through the heart of the park. Side trails lead to the park’s Nature Center and Planetarium, at 5200 Glover Road NW, or the Smithsonian National Zoo at 3001 Connecticut Ave. NW, both in the District. Or stick to the path as it wends through thickly forested woods and you’ll forget you’re in the city at all. (www.nps.gov/rocr)

Billy Goat Trail, Section A: There are three sections of the Billy Goat Trail in C&O Canal National Historical Park in Potomac. Section A, running from Great Falls toward Old Angler’s Inn, is the most popular—and most rigorous. Roughly four miles round-trip, this hike takes two to three hours and provides stunning views of Great Falls and the Potomac River below. The trail, which follows an old riverbed, begins near the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center, and continues straight along the Potomac River for roughly two miles of varied terrain, from dirt trails through thick forests to rock scrambles. Save time by taking the towpath back to the parking lot, or savor the views again by retracing your steps. (www.nps.gov/choh/index.htm)

Sugarloaf Mountain: This 1,282-foot mountain in Dickerson—just a 45-minute drive from Bethesda—is the highest spot in Montgomery County, and arguably has some of the best hiking. We like the three-hour, seven-mile loop from the West View parking lot to the summit. Follow the blue trail through a thick forest of oak, tulip poplar and eastern hemlock trees. Continue along the quarter-mile red trail to the summit. The last push is steep, but worth it for the quartzite cliffs and bird’s-eye views of Montgomery County and beyond. With 15 miles of trails within the recreation area, visitors have plenty of well-marked options to shorten the route. Stop for a wine tasting at Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard on Comus Road, near the entrance to the recreation area, before heading home. (www.sugarloafmd.com)

Old Rag Mountain: The 8.8-mile Old Rag loop near Sperryville, Va., is as much a warm-weather D.C. tradition as the National Cherry Blossom Festival. But be forewarned: On sunny summer days, the route to the 3,291-foot mountain gets as crowded as the Beltway during rush hour, so start the hour-and-45-minute drive from Bethesda early. The hike starts in the lower Old Rag parking lot. From there, walk half a mile uphill along State Road 600, then follow the blue-blazed Ridge Trail through several switchbacks to the first of many viewpoints at the two-mile mark. The fun begins less than a mile later, when you scramble over a series of rock formations for the last mile of the trail. This includes shimmying through a narrow crevice in a large rock formation and walking through a small cave. Continue to follow the blue blazes to the summit for 360-degree views of Shenandoah National Park, then follow the blue-blazed trail and map directions to get back down. With steep, unstable pathways and inevitable stops for photo opportunities, it’s wise to set aside an entire day for the hike. Families with young kids may want to view the National Park Service video detailing the dangers associated with the hike before planning a trip. (www.nps.gov/shen)


Whiteoak Canyon: Looking for something less strenuous than Old Rag? Try the three-hour, 4.6-mile out-and-back Whiteoak Canyon hike, also in Shenandoah National Park. Highlights include some of the park’s highest waterfalls and multiple swimming holes. Start at the Whiteoak Parking Area along Skyline Drive and follow the Whiteoak Canyon Falls Trail downhill. The trail will eventually parallel Whiteoak Run, a babbling stream you’ll follow until you reach Upper Whiteoak Falls. Stop to admire the 86-foot cascade, the highest of the Whiteoak falls, and cool down in one of the swimming holes below it before heading back. Intrepid hikers may want to continue on to the lower falls, adding 2.7 miles round-trip to their journey. You’ll be hiking uphill on the way back, though, so conserve your energy. As with Old Rag, arrive early to avoid congestion. (www.nps.gov/shen)

Monongahela National Forest: Those looking to escape summer crowds might want to drive a couple extra hours beyond Shenandoah National Park to Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. The roughly seven-mile, three- to four-hour Cowpasture Trail loop offers something for history-seekers and would-be botanists alike. From the Cranberry Mountain Nature Center, walk northeast on Route 980 until it meets up with crumbling blacktop, the site of the old Mill Point Federal Prison Camp, a 1930s work camp with no bars, fences or barricades. (The remote location was thought to be enough to prevent escapes.) Follow the Cowpasture Trail as it leads into the woods and eventually meets up with the boardwalk through the Cranberry Glades, a series of five peat bogs created during the last glacial period. The area’s acidic soil supports plant life more commonly found in Canada than in the Mid-Atlantic region, including cranberry vines and carnivorous plants. After following the boardwalk around, meet up with Route 980 again and retrace your steps back to the nature center. It’ll take you four hours to drive back to Bethesda, or reserve a spot to pitch a tent at the Cranberry Campground for the evening ($10 fee). (www.fs.usda.gov/mnf)

Julie Rasicot

Julie Rasicot can be reached at julie.rasicot@bethesdamagazine.com