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Hikes within a Spit's Distance
Emily Groves
6/3/2009

With our nation's capital currently trying to work out an economic crisis, the unemployment rate hiking up at exorbitant rates, and a new president trying to exercise control over a psychologically damaged country, the average DCer needs to...well...exercise. With summer right around the corner, we need to remind ourselves that spring offers a great excuse to take a hike away from all of the urban chaos (especially since it is one of the few times when the weather is actually tolerable). From underutilized Rock Creek Park to the garbage-strewn Potomac Heritage trail to the many, many, many green places within an hour's drive from  DC (yes, truly capitalizing on green means venturing beyond the District and into Maryland…or even Virginia!), this feature will provide you with places to exercise your legs, your lungs and freshen up your mind within and outside the  DC region. And if the fresh air doesn't help you find a solution to your sinking 401K, then at least you will have burned off that Saturday night hangover.




Pierce Mill
Rock Creek Park
The place of Chandra Levy's unfortunate demise is  DC's real urban playground--its Central Park/Millennium Park/Golden Gate Park/Hyde Park…you catch my drift... Forget the treeless, tourist-laden, dry oasis that is the National Mall and use Rock Creek Park as your picnic and walking hotspot. Rock Creek Park has tons of hiking trails, and except for the occasional bum or piece of litter, you will be shocked that you are only miles from the hub of motorcades and demonstrations. Rocky outcroppings, babbling brooks (or, more accurately, creeks), the historic Pierce Mill, the very rocky Boulder Bridge, and tree-filled vistas all provide you with extensive hiking environments and historic landmarks to sample. And there are enough horses in the park to start your own rodeo. Just remember to obey every city park’s Golden Rule and leave after dark: despite the horse overload, this is still  DC, not Nebraska.




Great, indeed
Great Falls National Park
If you have ever dreamt of a place where trees outnumber monuments or if you have ever wondered how polluted the Potomac is before it flows past Georgetown, then you have probably heard of Great Falls. Great Falls National Park is one of the closet places with real trails to DC and definitely worth visiting. This park boasts views of the Potomac as you have never imagined it: rolling, rocking, and (maybe even) clean! Don't let state biases get in the way of visiting because the park is on BOTH sides of the Potomac. The Virginia side is more heavily wooded than the Maryland side and offers some fantastic swimming holes (which are refreshing places to take an illegal quick dip), but the Maryland side offers more challenging hikes--namely, The Billy Goat Trail. You cannot call yourself a hiking enthusiast without barreling over this trail's many rocks and suffering the mandatory post-hike sore shins. (And if you say this trail is a "walk in the park" then you are either a). obnoxious or b). in shape too good to warrant any further reading). Park rangers do patrol these paths, and while they do not carry guns, you should not bring your unleashed dogs and bikes on the trail unless you can handle a scolding. Note: Entrance fees are $5 (and include a multi-day pass to both parks) but the clever (and early-rising) hiker can find nearby spots that evade the payment system.


Leesylvania State Park
You native Californians may be lured into the idea of a park boasting its very own "beach" and only thirty minutes away from DC. Don't be fooled, my friends. This "beach" is only a bucket of sand filled with shady characters next to some shady-looking waters. The hiking--also full of shade--was pretty lame and not worth the trip. And to throw an umbrella over my sunshine, there was even an entrance fee.
Bottom Line: Stay away unless shadiness is your thing.




Walk the plank
Mason Neck State Park
This pleasant and relatively unknown state park is only a hop, skip and a jump down 95 South from  DC and it truly transports you wetlands…errr…worlds away (figuring by the fact that I encountered more animals than humans during my three-hour visit). The park only offers about four miles of unpaved trails because most of the park is off-limits to people as it adjoins a national wildlife refuge. Although not particularly challenging, the trails lead you through marshy areas, along the Belmont Bay Coast and through woods dotted with bird observation blinds. The Eagle Spur Trail leads to a particularly good viewpoint over a bird sanctuary where "nesting eagles" signs alert you to be quiet. Although I generally roll my eyes at binocular-wearing types, I genuinely wished I had had a pair. Maybe then I would have actually seen a bald eagle besides the stuffed one in the visitor center.




Oh crap, it's closed.
Turkey Run Park/Potomac Heritage National Trail
One of my favorite hikes for one of those "I feel like I should be outside getting some exercise, but I don't feel like traveling far" days is the nearby Potomac Heritage Trail. I usually begin in Turkey Run Park (aka "CIA territory"), but the more distant Scott's Run Nature Preserve is another good starting-off point. Taking the trail toward Theodore Roosevelt Island allows you to hug an area of the Potomac River you probably haven't seen before. The trail is also quite wooded and far enough away from the George Washington Parkway to mask (most) traffic sounds. When you walk through Fort Marcy, don't get too excited about seeing a cool fort, because there is just a grassy spot where the fort used to be. The best way to hike this trail is to have a nice friend pick you up at Theodore Roosevelt Island and drive you back to where your car is parked. Otherwise, you will have to backtrack (or hitchhike).
Important Note:
Certain parking lots at Turkey Run Park close at 4:15pm. If your love of bluebells or your lack of a watch has you dawdle a bit too long, you may have to make an awkward phone call to the National Park Service, and embarrassingly ask them to unlock the gate so you can get your car out. I do not recommend this.


Bull Run Mountains Natural Area
Bull Run is easy to miss (at least the part I visited). Located down Route 66 about 45 miles west of  DC, the trail is about two feet from the highway--if…err…when you find it (hint: use abandoned gristmill as your landmark). Unpretentious and not very well marked, once you leave the road and grab a do-it-yourself trail map, you will be rewarded with wooded forests, flowing streams and--after a moderate ascent--gorgeous views of the nearby valleys.
Note: Although gorgeous views are rewarding, upon your return to the city be sure to additionally reward yourself with visits to some less difficult-to-miss Virginia wineries.




Nice view
Shenandoah National Park
I'm probably not allowed to write about this park because it isn't exactly local. BUT I need to at least give it a major shout-out because it--in my opinion--offers DCers with the best hiking one will find in this area, and it is only a two-hour drive or so away from the city (depending on the traffic and how fast you drive). Rumor has it that this park has more black bears than any other national park, which I found a tad overstated and outrageous until I encountered multiple bears on multiple visits. And the famous Old Rag hike lives up to the hype, but unfortunately so does the park's weekend crowds (especially during fall foliage time, which, by the way, is also as awesome as Water Cooler Bob said it was).
Bottom Line:
Go here. Don't scoff at the $15 entrance fee and don't resist the temptation to camp overnight.




Cheers!
If walking up the left side of the Metro escalators is your happy idea of a day's workout, then I doubt you have read this far. But if you are the type of person that is always on the lookout for bald eagles, who looks up places online where you can use your Annual National Park pass hourly, who has a picture of a snowcapped mountain peak as your computer wallpaper, who has considered scaling the Washington Monument twice…then you should probably be living somewhere out West. Otherwise, get out of the museums and start capitalizing on all the local places that our glorious capital area offers.




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