The Best Leaf-Peeping Hikes Near Washington DC
Peer at vibrant leaves as you take in the crisp fall air.
There’s something about the fall—the crisp fall air, the honey- and amber-colored leaves, the farm festivals—that can inspire even the most resolute indoor souls to get outside. There is simply no better way to enjoy this time than by lacing up your hiking boots, immersing yourself in nature, and soaking up the short-lived and most colorful season for yourself.
DC and its surrounding areas in Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia are awash in hiking trails where you can spend an hour or a full day enjoying the cooler air and taking in views of the vibrant fall foliage. Whether you opt for an easy mile loop or set out to ascend a mountain over the course of a long day, there’s something for everyone on this list of the 10 best hiking destinations near DC.
The C&O Canal is one of the most accessible nature escapes in the District. Thanks to a multi-year restoration project, the first mile of the canal tow-path is an idyllic walk that’s easy to access in Georgetown and makes for a leisurely stroll with an apple cider in hand. Keep it short or lace up your hiking shoes for a trek further down the 184.5-mile trail that will lead to hiking routes like the Billy Goat Trail in Maryland.
Distance from DC: The canal tow path begins in Georgetown
One of the region’s most popular hiking trails, the Billy Goat Trail in Maryland is accessible from the C&O Canal tow-path. The trail is divided into three sections and ranges from easy to strenuous. The full 4.75-mile loop offers a variety of terrain and sweeping views of autumn leaves and the Potomac River. When you’re done, stop by the historic Old Angler’s Inn, (just across the trailhead’s parking lot) for a celebratory post-hike bite.
Distance from DC: 35 minutes
Just across the Potomac River from the Billy Goat Trail, Virginia’s Great Falls Park offers more than 15 miles of hiking trails that are generally shorter and less strenuous. Try the Old Carriage Road Trail (1.6 miles) for a stroll on a mostly level walking surface. The trail was once the road that led to the now abandoned town of Matildaville. Make your own ghost town and take the Matildaville Trail (1.1 miles) which leads you past some of the stone ruins of the abandoned town.
Distance from DC: 45 minutes
Seneca Rocks, in West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest, is a dramatic outcropping popular with boulderers, and the North Fork River below the 900-foot-high rock formation is well-known to fly-fishers and photographers. The Seneca Rocks Trail is ideal for a fall morning or afternoon. The 3.6 mile out-and-back hike is a swift ascent with rewarding summit views of the forest and surrounding valleys.
Distance from DC: About 3 hours
White Oak Canyon Trail in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park provides the rigor of perennial-favorite Old Rag, without all the crowds. The 9.5-mile trail is an out-and-back hike that culminates at the top of a waterfall, but if you’re not up for an all-day commitment, make White Oak Canyon’s Lower Falls your destination (2.9 miles out-and-back). Autumn is the best time to make this hike when the temperatures cool slightly and the leaves show off their vibrant colors. If you go on one of fall’s warmer days, cool off in one of the many swimmable spots along the trail.
Distance from DC: 2.5 hours
As the third most forested state in the nation, West Virginia's hiking offerings are almost too numerous to count. Bear Rocks Preserve stands apart from the rest thanks to its very rare high-elevation cranberry bogs. The bogs erupt with color in the autumn and the 2.4-mile Preserve Trail offers sweeping vistas from which to take it all in. The area was once a dense forest of red spruce and hemlock but fell to deforestation at the turn of the last century. The Nature Conservancy has been working to revitalize the area and is actively planting new trees and making progress to acquire additional acreage so now is a good time to show the area some love.
Distance from DC: 3.5 hours
This full-day Shenandoah hike is worth the effort. The 7.5-mile loop covers 1,897 feet in elevation gain and is at its most vibrant (and spooky) in the fall when the forested portions are in full color and the old family cemetery you will hike past seems to be the most spirited. The hike’s terrain and views vary so along with the tombstones and trees, you’ll experience a gorge and several waterfalls.
Distance from DC: 2 hours
Harper’s Ferry is interesting year-round, but in the fall, you’ll want to make use of the forested hiking trails. And just like the town itself, the Maryland Heights Hike is steeped in history. It was here that the Union Army camped following the Battle of Antietam and began fortifying the strategic area of Maryland Heights. Today, the stone foundations of the fortifications, as well as of their tent pads, are in visible remnants along the 6.5-mile trail and the route offers sweeping views of the town of Harper’s Ferry, the intersection of its rivers (the Potomac and the Shenandoah) and, if the timing’s right, a coal train chugging through.
Distance from DC: 1.5 hours
The most famous and popular hike in Shenandoah, Old Rag is at its best in the autumn when cooler temperatures make the nearly 10-mile climb more tolerable. It’s the 360-degrees views at the summit you undertake this challenge for, although stunning at peak autumn, it’s highly unlikely you’ll have the view to yourself. If you can, plan the hike for a weekday when you’re more likely to avoid the steady stream of hikers who come from miles around to scramble to the top of the mountain.
Distance from DC: 2.5 hours
Signal Knob, the northern peak of Massanutten Mountain, is located in Virginia’s George Washington National Forest. The 1,500-foot peak was a crucial defense to the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Today, it’s a significantly rocky 10-mile loop that is strenuous in its sheer length. The hike up offers vistas of Buzzard Rocks (more hiking here), Fort Hunt Valley, and the nearby town of Strasburg. When you’ve completed the hike, reward yourself with a stroll through charming Strasburg and stop refuel at its mouth-watering eatery, The Pancake Underground.
Distance from DC: 2 hours
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