Outdoor Adventures in or Near Washington, DC

Lay underneath the flight path from Reagan National Airport at Gravelly Point Park in Arlington, VA

Lay underneath the Reagan National Airport flight path at Gravelly Point Park in Arlington, VA

My team at work is launching a spacecraft this year so I’m grounded from international travel until at least February. The good part of that is that I am able to explore my vicinity (greater Washington, DC) with a fine-tooth comb while saving pennies for my next big adventure: Antarctica! Until then, I plan to become a regional expert by compiling a mighty list of experiences in and around the nation’s capital that locals and travelers to the area can draw from.

There are so many amazing areas in the US, in the world — in backyards across the globe — worthy of knowing and DC is definitely one of them. Travelers like myself so often get hung up on traveling places afar that we tend to squander the opportunity to report on fantastic experiences near home. In an effort to not do that, I’ll lead the list with an awesome, hearty hike just a little over an hour outside of the city:


Hiking in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley

Sit in the clouds at the top of Shenandoah Valley’s ‘Old Rag’

‘Old Rag’ in the Shenandoah Valley

Being from the Pacific Northwest, I’ll admit that I am a bit judgy of trails and hikes in the Shenandoah Valley. Mountains yes, Cascades and Olympics — hell no! Usually when I get out to Shenandoah, it’s with a handful of friends to go camping, and we usually stay up a little too late (and maybe drink a little too much) to want to get up this trail the next day. “How hard can it be?” I lazily throw out into the vapor before we settle for a more “moderate” hike (and by moderate, I mean walking on trails with an occasional low-grade hill.) Such trails lack quantities of sweat, my usual measure of a hearty hike.

Finally, I got to Shenandoah’s Old Rag for a day trip. The hike is about 10 miles in total, and according to the National Park Service, it takes about 8 hours to complete. I did some quick math — at a rate of just under two miles per hour, we’d sail to the end in just over five hours. No problem. 8 hours? No way.

Leaving the trailhead at 1:30pm on a holiday weekend, we were late starters and virtually alone on the trail. And we made record time until we hit mile 4, a rock scramble that took quite a bit of time solely because we were waiting for other hikers to get through the single-file areas. To imagine what this hike would be like on a busier weekend made me want to cringe. So, the NPS got it right: 8 hours, including time allotted for waiting. Well worth it — when we got to the top, we were in the clouds!

We went down the way we came (there is an alternate exit along a fire-trail, 1.2 mile longer,) only able to talk about how good it would be to taste a cold beer, eat ice cream and wear flip flops. In my experience, such talk is a sign that a hike has just kicked your butt. Sure enough, the next day our legs were like balloons, wobbling the way tired muscles do with every step. Whew! Finally a hard-core hike in the Shenandoah!! 🙂


Sail the Chesapeake Bay in Annapolis, Maryland

Sail the Chesapeake Bay in Annapolis, Maryland

Sail And Eat Crab in Annapolis, MD

Just an hour drive from DC proper is the capital of Maryland, home to America’s Naval Academy and one of the top sailing communities in the United States: Annapolis. It is a town also well-known for authentic Maryland crab fished from the adjoining Chesapeake Bay. There you have it, two solid reasons to head north. We stopped for a raw-bar seafood lunch and then hopped on a two-hour cruise on a beautiful schooner with a sprawling wooden deck (that was also featured in the film “The Wedding Crashers” if you care about that sort of thing. “Sure! Woo hoo!”) At just $42 per person (raw-bar not included), it’s a cost well worth the opportunity to enjoy a sunny day on the water away from the congested city.

Recommendation: make reservations in advance.


@iStefPayne paddling the Potomac River from the Key Bridge Boathouse

Paddling the Potomac River from the Key Bridge Boathouse

Kayak The Potomac River

I will probably never swim in the Potomac River — it has earned a terrible reputation in terms of cleanliness — but I will certainly kayak it! For just under 20 bucks an hour, one can easily hop in a self-propelled watercraft on the edge of Georgetown at Key Bridge Boathouse and venture upstream to the Three Sisters rock formations and on up to Fletcher’s Cove. They have stand up paddleboards, aka “SUP”, too if you’re into modern water-sport. Either option provides an easy, cheap, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants way to cool off and enjoy water-life during DC’s sweltering summer months.


Me and my bike and the C&O towpath -- it's a quiet and ethereal place so close to DC... and it's free!

Me and my bike and the C&O towpath — it’s a quiet and ethereal place so close to DC… and it’s free!

Bike The C&O Canal From Georgetown to Great Falls

Head up the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal along the north bank of the Potomac River to the overlook at Great Falls about 12 miles from the Georgetown entrance (the same place where you can rent kayaks and SUP, mentioned above.) Such a great ride — others run or walk but I ride — offering a little solitude and a lot of zone-time in the city. I just put on my headphones and go. The overlook is a halfway mark from my starting point in Georgetown and an excellent place for a brown-bag picnic lunch and a rest along the long ride.

On the path you’ll see historic lockhouses, turtles, cranes; incredible reflections of the trees in the canal; and at certain times of the year, thick green algae that looks dreamlike in photographs. I get a great sense of solitude and a worthwhile workout in the same sweep. The trail is 184.5 miles long so you can keep on going as long as you’d like. One day, I think I’ll just keep on riding all the way to Pennsylvania.


The Potomac River along the Billy Goat Trail, section C (the hardest and my favorite!)

The Potomac River along the Billy Goat Trail, section C (the hardest trail of the three and my favorite!)

Hike The Billy Goat Trail

The hike at trailhead C is just less than five miles and the rock scrambles make for a moderate, interesting hike. It is the most difficult of the three circuits in the area and my favorite. You can expect to see a lot of people at Billy Goat, it’s very popular with good reason — accessible, of moderate difficulty, and the views of the river and trees are amazing.  Typically crowds discourage me, but here I don’t mind so much — I love it. It’s one of my favorite ways to spend four hours with friends or by myself. Some practical info: the park is free of cost; leashed dogs are allowed in certain sections.



“There is pleasure in the pathless woods; There is rapture on the lonely shore; There is society, where none intrudes, by the deep sea and music in its roar: I love not man the less, but Nature more.” — Lord Byron






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Categories: Adventure + Exploration, Americas, Stories, Where to Travel

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