A Complete Guide to Hiking in Northern Virginia

Hiking In Nothern Virginia

The region of Northern Virginia which is near the capital of the United States, Washington DC, has a lot to offer to lovers of the outdoors. If your favorite activity is hiking, then you will be right at home there. 

There are mountains, national parks, wild reserves, parks, and forests full of trails waiting to be hiked. Whether you want to hike alone, with friends, with a romantic partner, or as a family, I have prepared a complete guide to hiking in Northern Virginia just to match you with your dream trail.

Even better, I have prepared some extra information to help you prepare for your hike down to the finer details. So, what kind of hiking experience are you looking for?

Seasons for Hiking in Northern Virginia

Generally, the best season for hiking in Northern Virginia depends on the kind of hike you want to have. The reason being, there are hiking trails for every season- I will explain this further below.

Northern Virginia experiences a humid, subtropical climate that comes with 4 seasons. The question is; which trails are suitable for the various seasons?

Summer (June to August)

Summers are warm to hot with highs of 86oF. You want trails that are shaded from the hot sun. This is also the best time to go high altitude hiking since there are less snow and ice to worry about.

Fall (September to November)

Fall is drier and mild in the beginning but gets colder towards the end. The season also comes with colorful fall foliage. In the beginning, you can practically hike anywhere but snow starts collecting in the highlands towards the end. Your trail options narrow down to lower and lower elevations.

Winter (December to February)

The winters are mildly crisp with the coldest month, January, having a low of about 26oF. Most high altitude trails will close but you know what? You can still hike level, paved, and maintained trails. Some trails even look more appealing with a thin dust of snow. Trails with stream crossings and other water areas may remain too cold and wet, so it’s recommended to avoid them.

Spring (March to May)

Spring is associated with wet and cold weather in the beginning and becomes even wetter towards the end. You should then keep off trails that are shaded or easily waterlogged. Rain also makes the steeper trails more slippery. This means that shorter, open, and easy-to-moderate trails are great picks.

Tip: Weather can change drastically from one condition to another so before you head out to hike, watch weather forecasts, and find out the condition of the trail you are going for.

The Best Time to go Hiking in Northern Virginia

Hiking In Nothern Virginia

The best time to go hiking in Northern Virginia is April through October. This marks the beginning of comfortable warm weather to the onset of winter. However, as I have mentioned above, nothing should keep you from enjoying your hike, not even winter, as long as you are comfortable and safe.

January is the snowiest month and the peak of the winter season with nights going below freezing point. If you choose to hike in January, stick to day-hiking and also keep of highlands.

As good as summer is for hiking, temperatures can get very high especially in July, the hottest month of the year. During this time, stick to hiking in the morning to avoid sunburn and dehydration. If hiking during the day, you must bring enough water, and it’s highly recommended to bring a hat.

The best hikes in northern Virginia receive many hikers and especially on weekends and holidays. If you would like some company, this is the time to hike. If you want to hike solo, hike on weekdays and in the morning.

Safety and Comfort

Hiking In Nothern Virginia

Northern Virginia is a safe region to hike, camp, and engage in other outdoor activities. Most of the trails are well managed and are easy to hike. 

You will find markers between different sections of the trails. As such, even beginners can hope to hike without the need for tour guides. 

However, some of the trails in the area are best attempted in the presence of a qualified guide- so, as I usually say, call ahead and make the necessary arrangements. 
While out in the open, be on the lookout for wild animals that may wander into your path. Just like in the case of hiking in Texas, Northern Virginia is home to bears, bobcats, snakes, and coyotes.

What you Need to Know about When Hiking in Northern Virginia

Depending on the location of your hiking trail, the weather, and the kind of hike you want to have, you need to be prepared with all the right things. Here are a few pointers.

  • Hiking permit requirements vary and are dependent on the management of the various trails. Still, you may find different regulations for fees and permits within the same agency. 
  • You may gain free admission to use a trail but be required to pay for overnight camping and parking.
  • Ensure that your gear is light. Some of the trails in the region, like the Raven Rocks Trail, can be steep and heavy gear may prevent you from completing the hike.
  • Lastly, be prepared with the right hiking gear. For example, the rocky and steep trails require you to have a pair of professional hiking boots, gloves, and hiking sticks.
  • Bring enough water (especially when hiking in summer) and snacks when the hike gets rough.

The Best Hikes in Northern Virginia

1. The River Trail- Great Falls Park

Hiking In Nothern Virginia

Trail Length: 1.5 Miles
Difficulty: Moderate to Hard
Time: 1 hour 
Elevation Gain: 42 feet
Directions: Click here

The Great Falls Park is one of the best hikes in Northern Virginia. It comprises several hiking trails that cater to the needs of all kinds of outdoor adventure.

If yours is a purely hiking adventure, you will want to try to give the River Trail a go. Notably, the terrain of this trail does not allow biking, horse riding, wheelchairs, or strollers. You will, therefore, need sturdy shoes and be prepared to use your hands once in a while to climb or for balance.

The River Trail starts at the junction with the Ridge Trail on the South and follows the Potomac River. In the beginning, the trail is fairly level but it gets steeper, rocky, and narrow as you progress.

On your hike, you will have great views of Virginia and Maryland on opposite sides of the river. But it is the view of the Great Falls of the Potomac that will take your breath away.

Also, be on the lookout for the stunning view of the Mather Gorge, occasional vultures, and blue herons. 

The cliffs on the trail are steep and dangerous so keep an eye on any younger hikers or first-timers. Also, during wet weather, footing may become tricky due to lichens and sand on the cliff edges.

2. Blue Bells Trail

Photo by John Leszczynski

Trail Length: 2 miles
Difficulty: Easy
Time: 1-1½ hours 
Elevation Gain: 26 feet
Directions: Click here

The Blue Bells trail is located near Centreville, Virginia, at the Little Buffalo State Park. It is great for birdwatching, hiking, or nature trips and it is suitable for families with young kids.

If you like hiking with your dog, the trail is a great place for the two of you to bond as long as your dog is leashed. Furthermore, the trail is ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) accessible.

Starting at the east picnic area of the park, the trail curves through numerous trees, over a bridge all the way to the Blue Bells Tavern. At the bridge, you can enjoy the beautiful view of the creek below or if you have the time, find your way down- This is a little off the trail, of course. 

Do you like being surrounded by beautiful flowers? Catch the bluebells and over 25 other varieties of wildflowers along the trail in mid-April when they are in full bloom.

Due to the flat terrain and the shade from the trees, the trail soaks up more moisture when it rains and is even prone to flooding. Therefore, if you don’t mind the season, ensure that your hiking boots are sturdy and waterproof.

3. Bull Run Occoquan Trail (BROT)

Photo by John Leszczynski

Trail Length: 17.4 miles
Difficulty: Intermediate
Time: 11-13 hours
Elevation Gain: 332 feet
Directions: Click here

Are you a history enthusiast? If you go hiking in Northern Virginia, you should definitely check out the Bull Run Occoquan Trail. It is the perfect combination of history and nature and is great for hiking, biking, horse riding, and running.

Located in Fairfax County, the trail begins at the end of the parking lot at the Blue Run Marina and all the way to Fountainhead Regional Park (or the other way around). It takes you through a scenic forest that is home to trees such as the oak, hemlock, maple, and sycamore among others. 

If you keep your distance and remain silent, you can also see numerous animals. For example raccoons, Canada goose, bullfrog, whitetail deer, bald eagle, and blue heron.

There are several wooden bridges and sometimes rocks that make the streams along the trail passable.

For all the lovers of history; the area around the trail is said to be an important part of the Revolutionary and Civil War history. 

One indication is an informational sign on a crossing point used during the civil war and another marker showing the Washington Rochambeau Wagon Route used during the Climatic Battle of Yorktown by American and French forces.

4. The Old Rag Mountain Circuit

Trail Length: 9 Miles
Difficulty: Hard
Time: 7-8 hours
Elevation Gain: 3284 feet
Directions: Click here

If you want to go camping in addition to your hiking adventure, then the Old Rag Mountain Circuit located in Shenandoah National Park is your kind of trail.

I have to warn you though; the hike is considered among the most dangerous, going by the high number of search and rescue missions associated with it. Also, it is quite difficult and strenuous so ensure that you are in great physical shape and be ready to do some rock scrambling. 

Nevertheless, it is one of the most popular hikes in Northern Virginia and particularly in Shenandoah National Park. Besides the calories that you are going to burn, the trail has several rewarding sights that you can see from the strategically located viewpoints.

If you are lucky, you can see deers and other wild animals. The sight of vegetation that changes with altitude and especially wildflowers is also irresistible. From the summit, you can view the breath-taking expanse of the forest and mountain that make up the National Park.

Weekdays are usually less crowded compared to weekends but still, this hike is not your kind if you like hiking in solitude- there are hikers at any given moment. Notably, avoid hiking in wet or icy conditions and carry enough water and food. Also, pack a headlamp just in case you get late.

5. Neabsco Creek Boardwalk Hike

Trail Length: 1.8 miles 
Difficulty: Easy
Time: 1 – 2 hours
Elevation Gain: 32 feet
Directions: Click Here

This is one of the newest, most scenic, and among the best hiking trails in Northern Virginia. It was opened in 2019 during the National Trails Day. The hike is just a small part of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, inside the Neabsco Regional Park.

Are you hiking with your kids or your dog? This trail is made to accommodate all hikers including the elderly, kids, and even pets. The trail is fairly flat and comes with enough parking and amenities for a comfortable visit.

The two-hour trail also comes with a tour of Native Americans’ history in the area. Tour guides also discuss mills, plantations, and the park’s plants and animals.      

The trail curves gently over a marshy landscape with observation areas and benches to rest on. There are different species of birds to watch and turtles along the trail. And if you are keen enough you will get a chance to see a giant praying mantis. 

The boardwalk is however not shaded and as such, hiking in extreme weather can be difficult. I recommend you to pack enough water and slap on some sunscreen, especially in summer and dress warmly in winter. The wetland is also home to bugs and insects so include bug spray in your backpack.

6. Hazel Falls and Caves Trail

Photo by Andrew Parlette

Trail Length: 5.2 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Time: 3-4 hours
Elevation Gain: 1023 feet
Directions: Click here

As the name suggests, the trail is characterized by towering rocks and several caves. It is another trail in the Shenandoah National Park and an easier one compared to the Old Rag Mountain Circuit.

The trail starts at the Meadow Spring Parking lot of the National park and leads to the Hazel Falls and caves. Hikers who are up to it can choose to proceed to White Rocks-Hazel River Trail Loop.

From the beginning, the graveled trail descends into dense woodlands where pine trees and wildflowers dominate the scenery. Soon enough, the view of the Hazel mountain becomes apparent.

By this time, you can already hear the sound of the Hazel River flowing parallel to the trail and on your right hand. You are also likely to encounter several water areas especially if it has rained recently.

The last leg of your hike is a steep descent with a smaller waterfall first, then the larger Hazel fall and a cave beside it. 

Although the fall is not as big as other falls of the Shenandoah National Park, it is equally magnificent and especially if you happen to hike during spring when the water volume is high. 

Additionally, it is another great place to enjoy a solitude hike as it doesn’t attract as many visitors as other major falls.

7. Burke Lake Park Trail

Photo by Paulo O

Trail Length: 4.8 miles 
Difficulty: Moderate
Time: 2 hours
Elevation Gain: 115 feet 
Directions: Click Here

The Burke Lake Trail is a beautiful hiking spot in the midst of a 1.8 sq.mi park. From Washington, D.C, it only takes you 25 minutes by car to reach the park, making this one of the closest trails to a major city in America.

As the name suggests, this trail has a lake as one of its major attractions. When not hiking, you can engage in other relaxing activities such as mini-golf, boat rides, fishing, and biking.

The grounds also offer camping sites where you can spend the night with your family or friends. Other interesting attractions in the park include martial arts, fine arts, and dance classes. 

The 4.8 mile-long trail loops around the Burke Lake with some paved paths and a smooth elevation. If you are planning to hike during a rainy season, remember to wear good hiking boots- some of the unpaved sections can get muddy. 

The management, Fairfax County Park Authority, advises hikers and vacationers to visit from March through October. This period is known for cool and comfortable weather in the state. And the good thing is that you are free to bring your dog along.

8. Mason Neck State Park- Bayview Trail

Photo by Virginia State Parks

Trail Length: 1.2 Mile
Difficulty: Easy
Time: 1 hour
Elevation Gain: 
Directions: Click here

The Mason Neck State Park is another amazing place for outdoor adventure and nature tours. Besides fun activities for adults and kids within the park, there are several trails that are very popular with hiking enthusiasts.

The Bayview trail is a great one for families if you don’t mind a marsh hiking environment. Don’t let the description of the environment scare you away though, the trail is accessible all year long. And yes, your leashed dog can come too.

As you hike, the trail offers vantage points to view wildlife that includes bald eagles, blue herons, ospreys, frogs, and turtles. You can also walk down some wooden steps and cross a few boardwalks to see the picturesque Belmont Bay, Kane’s Creek, and hardwood forest. 

For a great view of birds, there’s a viewpoint at 0.5 miles. Other beautiful sights include a beaver dam and a speckled sycamore tree that towers over Belmont Bay beach. Back at the beginning of the trail, there’s a picnic area where you can relax and enjoy your meal.

If you still have time after your hike, there are other places that you can tour in the Park’s neighborhood. These include Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck Wildlife refuge, Pohick Bay Regional Park, and Gorge Mason’s Gunston Hall Historic site.

9. Winkler Botanical Preserve Hiking Trail

Photo by  Bill Rand

Trail Length:1.4 Miles
Difficulty: Easy
Time: 1 Hour
Elevation Gain: 200 feet
Directions: Click here

This is a nature sanctuary at Roanoke Avenue in western Alexandria and a perfect place to explore nature for a quick and easy hike. The Botanical preserve is located, almost hidden, amongst apartment complexes. It is a great hike especially if you are looking to hike in solitude. 

The trail is a well-maintained loop trail at the edge of a meadow in a forest setting.  Among the imposing trees, you will find a large pond with a beautiful manmade waterfall in its background. There are beautiful flowers and plants in and around the pond. In fall, the entire sanctuary is covered in yellow, orange, red, and brown foliage.

There are a few streams to cross on wooden bridges. If you are in the company of young ones, the streams are great places for them to gather pebbles. Due to the varied terrain, you require sturdy shoes. That said, bicycles are not allowed and neither are pets.

Some of the animals that you chance to see by hiking the Winkler Botanical Reserve are geese, blue jays, black squirrels, ducks, and deers. 

Have you ever heard of hobbits? Well, you would have to be a fun of the writer, J.R.R. Tolkien or the film series The hobbit. These are imaginary creatures, similar to humans but way smaller with hairy feet. They live in luxurious underground houses- hobbit holes.

Back to our trail, there’s actually a hobbit house on the site – 3-foot high. Remember it is underground and it is made to fit someone half your size? So, you will have to be content with kneeling and peeking through the window. During spring, flowers will cover the entire roof.

10. Raven Rocks Hike- Appalachian Trail

Photo by dancingnomad3

Trail Length: 5.8 Miles
Difficulty: Hard
Time: 4 hours
Elevation Gain: 1617 ft
Directions: Click here

The Raven Rock trek is one of the best hikes in Northern Virginia. The hike forms part of the famous Appalachian Trail that is possibly the longest-hiking trail in the world. Also known as the A.T, this trail runs from Georgia to Maine.

The trail is popular with thrill-seekers, including nude hiking enthusiasts. Don’t worry though, if you are not into the nudist lifestyle, the Raven Rocks Hike is near Bluemont, an area not associated with naked hiking. 

Parking is scarce in the area, a fact attributed to the steepness of the terrain. So, you may have to use public means to get to the starting point. Also, ensure that you are in full hiking gear, including a firm climbing stick and comfortable hiking boots (this is recommended).

The trail is sometimes referred to as the “roller-coaster” due to its curved paths that go up and down hills and valleys. Despite the difficulty involved in reaching the last marker, the Raven Rocks Hike is usually crowded- for an easier and quieter time, go on a weekday, and start the trek as early as possible, and try to finish before noon.

Dogs and kids are allowed on the trail, but I recommend that you keep a keen eye on them due to the rocky ground and steep climbs.

Final Thoughts

Northern Virginia is home to some of the best hiking trails in the world. Judging from the above list, no one is left out. The trails cater to all skill levels, varied attractions, and every kind of hiking adventure.

Additionally, this is a region that you can hike throughout the year as long as you identify which trails fit which seasons. So, which trails are you going to try out? I have done my part, so it’s for you to hiking in Northern Virginia.

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