Do you ever want to get out on the trail and enjoy a nice walk in the great outdoors but not turn it into a death march? Me, too. That is what easy day hikes are for, to get out in nature for nature’s sake, to stretch your legs, feel the breeze and see the interplay on sun and shadow in scenic woods, to leave your cares behind -- and perhaps get a little exercise while you are at it.
Northern Virginia has great places for that. Despite being in the shadow of the nation’s capital, Northern Virginia is dotted with surprisingly large swaths of greenspace, places where you can be enveloped by the beautiful outdoors for which Virginia is known.
Consider enhancing a sightseeing trip to the capital area with some rewarding but easy day hikes.
The following 10 rewarding but easy day hikes Northern Virginia will imprint in your mind the capital region’s natural beauty as well its extensive history and civilized grandeur.
Below, you will see the park where the hike takes place, the nearest town to where the hike is located, why you should visit, an essential fact about the hike, then the GPS coordinates of the park. With this information, you can make a rewarding trek of your own in Northern Virginia.
– GREAT FALLS PARK –
Nearest Town: Great Falls
Hike Distance: 15-miles of trails, including a concentrated interpretive trail network
Why Go There: To see the raw power of Great Falls
What You Need to Know: This park is also rich with American history.
GPS Coordinates: 38.99685, -77.25484
It is truly hard to beat the Great Falls of the Potomac. I guarantee you will be surprised at the power and beauty of this cataract, to the extent it will cause you to rethink the nature of Northern Virginia. The trail system coursing along the powerful falls crashing through Mather Gorge also includes pathways exploring the remnants of a canal system commissioned by none other than George Washington make this a “capital” idea. With a trail map you can make a fun and easy hike to view the falls, the locks, canals, and even the ghost town of Matildaville, built for the men and their families tending the 18th century lock and canal system.
The Great Falls trail system will surely sate you. Fifteen miles of pathways are open to hikers. Bring a meal along – the park has a large, alluring picnic area. The visitor center should be your starting point, to learn about the falls area, creating a backdrop for exploring this preserve.
– BLUEBELL TRAIL AT BULL RUN REGIONAL PARK –
Nearest Town: Centreville
Hike Distance: 1.5 mile loop
Why Go There: For the wildflowers
What You Need to Know: Bull Run Regional Park is 1,500 acres and has lots of outdoor possibilities
GPS Coordinates: 38.80171, -77.49154
Combined with the Bull Occoquan Trail, we can make a 1.5 mile loop on the Bluebell Trail at Bull Run Regional Park, an exemplary preserve. This park provides a large greenspace with activities for everyone in the midst of an urban area, just the sort of thing we need to balance with touring Northern Virginia’s capital region. The Bluebell Trail provides an opportunity not only to see aptly named Virginia bluebells in season, but also over 23 other types of wildflowers.
The loop hike wanders the bottoms along Bull Run and its tributary Cub Run. It is in these rich lowlands that this wildflower display occurs. But other seasons will provide beauty, too, such as hardwoods glowing red, orange and maroon in fall, or providing a thicket of green in summer or stark branches contrasting against a cold blue sky in winter. No matter than season, consider adding other options to your visit here at Bull Run Regional Park -- picnic, camp, stay in a cabin, paddle the Occoquan Water Trail, have a picnic or join a naturalist program. There’s a lot to do!
– BURKE LAKE PARK –
Nearest Town: Fairfax Station
Hike Distance: 4.7-mile loop
Why Go There: Make a lakeside loop
What You Need to Know: The park has lots of activities, from camping to mini-golf
GPS Coordinates: 38.76078, -77.30747
Burke Lake Park is centered by the 218-acre impoundment that gives the park its name. Surrounded by over 800 acres of land, this adds up to a big greenspace to recreate in Northern Virginia. The Lake Trail makes for a scenic and visually rewarding 4.7-mile hike, perfect for exercise or just to get outside.
The main loop circles the entirety of Burke Lake, with many side trails leading to benches and overlooks of the shoreline. It also passes handicap accessible piers. Even more views can be had from the lake dam, elevated as it is. As you are circling the lake, look back on where you were before. The vast majority of the trail is wooded.
Consider camping, fishing, orienteering or picnicking while at Burke Lake Park. They even have a miniature train ride!
– BLUE LOOP AT POHICK BAY REGIONAL PARK –
Nearest Town: Mason Neck
Hike Distance: 2.2-mile loop
Why Go There: Good place for a natural break amidst a hectic vacation
What You Need to Know: This big park is also an ideal flatwater kayaking destination.
GPS Coordinates: 38.6718, -77.16904
The natural surface Blue Loop is a perfect leg stretcher here at Pohick Bay Regional Park. For starters, the hiker-only path is not too long or too short and traverses a variety of terrain, from forest to waterside, where you can garner views of Pohick Bay, especially near Fisherman’s Point. The Blue Trail and the Red Trail (a 4.5-mile loop) share treadway for the first half-mile. Along the way you are mostly in woods, rolling through hills and ravines before emerging at the bay overlook. Your return trip is in woods as well.
Pohick Bay Regional Park comes in at over 1,000 acres, and is a great place for families. They have a waterpark open during the warm season. Or if you prefer other aquatic activities, rent a canoe, kayak or standup paddleboard and launch into Pohick Bay. Other possibilities include camping, picnicking, boating, plus two other shorter loop trails.
– SCOTTS RUN NATURE PRESERVE –
Nearest Town:McLeanHike Distance: Can make a 2 mile loop among a nest of trails
Why Go There: Waterfalls!
What You Need to Know: Stay on trails following Scott Creek and the Potomac River for waterfall viewing.
GPS Coordinates: 38.9588, -77.20503
Scotts Run and other streams in this nearly 400-acre park descend from hills down to the Potomac River, creating conditions whereupon rocky cascades can be found. You will be pleasantly surprised at the falling waters and the preserved nature around them. Make sure and view the ruins of the Burling Cabin, not far from where rocky Scotts Run forms the major cascade of the park. Also note that the massive Potomac River is doing a little falling of its own. You can see that from the Stubblefield Falls Overlook, where the Potomac crashes amid islands and boulders. Additional spur trails go down to other Potomac River vantages.
This Fairfax County park, part of the greater Potomac River gorge, will surprise you with its geological nature manifested in rock protuberances. The preserve is also known for its old growth hemlocks and spring wildflowers. Note: Swimming, bathing and wading is not allowed in the park.
– HEMLOCK OVERLOOK REGIONAL PARK –
Nearest Town:CliftonHike Distance: 2-4 mile loop
Why Go There: Streamside hiking
What You Need to Know: The historic ruins of Virginia’s first hydroelectric plant can be found trailside
GPS Coordinates: 38.80171, -77.49154
This park is best known for its outdoor education programs, where you can tackle the ropes course, or challenge the Zipline. Other outdoor adventure programs run throughout the year. However, the trails are more than an afterthought. For starters, the 19-plus mile Bull Occoquan Trail courses through the park and provides the backbone of the pathway system here at Hemlock Overlook Regional Park.
The Red Trail, Yellow Trail and Mountain Laurel Trail link from the main park area and also with the outdoor education facilities. Extend your loop using the Bull Occoquan Trail and the Popes Head Trail, both of which feature creekside walking. Part of the segment along Bull Run heads by the ruins of the first hydroelectric dam in Virginia, as well as groves of mountain laurel, blooming in May. Hardwoods such as beech are also found along the streams, as is the park’s namesake the hemlock.
– HUNTLEY MEADOWS PARK –
Nearest Town: Groveton
Hike Distance: 1.8-mile loop through wetlands and woods
Why Go There: Wetlands and birding
What You Need to Know: The park preserves a rare freshwater wetland in Fairfax County.
GPS Coordinates: 38.75754, -77.09845
Coming in at over 1,500 acres, this important Northern Virginia park harbors not only freshwater wetlands but also the 1825 mansion known as Historic Huntley, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Much of the land was once farmed and then was acquired by the government for varied uses before it became a Fairfax County Park.
Today, the park is known for wildlife watching, which you can do on this 1.8-mile circuit hike. Start at the visitor center, where you can gain insight into the wilds of Huntley Meadows. Expect to see beaver and birdlife in the wetlands, from herons to red winged blackbirds. Barnyard Run is generally dammed by beavers, expanding the wetland. A series of nature trails lead to the wetland that you traverse via boardwalks. Climb the observation tower to overlook the marshy flats. The balance of the wildlife walk circles by a meadow and then through woods, adding two more habitats to your outdoor adventure.
– OCCOQUAN BAY NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE –
Nearest Town:WoodbridgeHike Distance: Four miles of trails
Why Go There: Wildlife and easy walking
What You Need to Know: Hours change with the seasons so check times before going
GPS Coordinates: 38.64466, -77.23477
This national wildlife refuge is important wildlife habitat for Northern Virginia. Located at the confluence of the Occoquan River and the Potomac River, the 640-acre preserve of marshes and meadowland has a large amount of waterfront. Ospreys are most commonly seen above these waters. Look for river otters on inland streams. Songbirds are plentiful in the meadows. Other wildlife journeys through the refuge during spring and fall migrations.
Hikers can use four miles of gated roads – open to foot travel only (in addition to refuge personnel managing the preserve). Part of this trail system passes by Painted Turtle Pond as well as Occoquan Bay, where there is a photo blind. I suggest following Deephole Point Road for maximum water vistas. Other trails go by streams transitioning into wetlands. Since it is a national wildlife refuge, call ahead for opening and closing times.
– RIVERBEND PARK –
Nearest Town: Great Falls
Hike Distance: 2-mile loop
Why Go There: They have 10 miles of well-marked and maintained trails
What You Need to Know: Start your hike at the visitor center where you can pick up a trail map plus learn a little about the park’s human and natural history
GPS Coordinates: 39.01763, -77.25543
Riverbend Park is a fun place to walk and hike. A good 2-mile loop leaves the visitors center on the Madison’s Escape Trail, named for President James Madison’s route of egress when the British invaded Washington, D.C. in 1814. Next, turn right onto the Follow the Hollows Trail. That path rolls up and down through charming rocky vales divided by wooded ridges. Take a side detour to the nature center if you want. Whether you stop at the nature center or not, make your way to the Potomac River and the heralded Potomac Heritage Trail. Turn south following the river back to the visitor center.
While here, you can rent a kayak or canoe and explore the Potomac River. Have a picnic by the river. The park is a favorable location for springtime wildflowers.
– ELLANOR C. LAWRENCE PARK –
Nearest Town: Chantilly
Hike Distance: Four miles of interconnected trails
Why Go There: Experience a wide variety of trailside scenes
What You Need to Know: Start your adventure at a converted farmhouse built in the 1780s.
GPS Coordinates: 38.86149, -77.43099
This 650-acre park was a working farm for two centuries before becoming public property a half century ago. Today, the park’s agricultural past of tobacco and dairy is revealed in its changing vegetation that is reverting to a more primitive state over time, as well as maintained buildings such as the smokehouse. Meanwhile, we can walk along forested creeks, atop ridges and astride meadows. The interconnected pattern of the trail system allows you to lengthen or shorten your hike at will.
A highlight of trekking here is a trip across the metal bridge over Big Rocky Run. A former farm pond is another aquatic highpoint. A trail circles the small tarn. Turkey and deer will be seen in some of the more remote parts of the park. You can also connect to other area paths via the Big Rocky Run Trail. Learn more about this changing ecological preserve at the Walney Visitor Center. Finally, during the warm season, visit the preserve’s historic garden.
Johnny Molloy is an outdoor writer who has penned over 85 outdoor books covering hiking, paddling, camping, bicycling covering 28 different states. Having camped out over 5,000 nights throughout the United States, he continues to explore the great outdoors and write about it.