Outdoors 101: Communing with nature
By Amy Orndorff,
The Washington area might not offer the outdoor adventures of Yellowstone or the blissful seclusion of Maine’s hundred-mile wilderness. But with a little effort you can commune with breathtaking nature.
Close in, the mighty Potomac offers ample opportunities for fishing, boating and paddle sports. To the west, the Virginia and Maryland portions of the Appalachian Mountains provide miles of hiking trails. You can also travel in just about any direction and find a place to pitch a tent and enjoy a night under the stars.
And never fear: You don’t need a frequent-buyer card at Hudson Trail Outfitters or REI to take part. We have broken down three of the most common outdoor activities — camping, hiking and water sports — into easy, medium and hard levels, so even the novice adventurer has options.
The Washington area is blessed with many well-maintained hiking trails. In order to call yourself a true local, there are three trails you must hike at least once. So lace up a pair of sturdy shoes, fill up a water bottle (or two) and get out there!
A first hiking trip should be relatively easy — with little risk of blisters and plenty of reward in the way of lovely views.
Sugarloaf Mountain in Dickerson fits that bill perfectly. Towering red and white oaks, rock outcroppings 14 million years in the making and numerous vantage points of rolling farmland all promise a lovely outdoor experience.
If that isn’t enough to entice you, the mountain is nearly foolproof. It’s less than an hour from downtown Washington, and with parking options high on the mountain, you can hike to the summit without feeling sore the next morning.
Depending on where you park, you can take one of three quarter-mile hikes (green, orange and red blazes) to the summit. If you want to up the mileage, try the purple (1.5 miles), white (2.5 miles), blue (5 miles) or yellow (7 miles) trails that wind around the mountain.
Sugarloaf Mountain, 7901 Comus Rd., Dickerson. 301-869-7846. 301-874-2024. www.sugarloafmd.com. Donations accepted.
The fabled Billy Goat Trail in the Great Falls, Md., area of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park is a hot spot for hikers, and for good reason — it offers remarkable views of the Potomac River at its wildest. As hikers traverse the rocky, blue-blazed path, white water churns ominously below.
The trail is divided into three sections: A, B and C. The best views (and the most people) are along the 1.7-mile A section, which also offers magnificent vistas of Mather Gorge. But be warned: It lives up to its National Park Service label of “strenuous” — parts are very rocky with steep cliffs. Heavy backpacks and small children are strongly discouraged, and pets are prohibited.
Once you’ve reached the end of this section, you can retrace your steps or take the intersecting towpath back toward the parking area. But if you really want to test your legs, try all three sections for an additional four miles (one way).
Also worth checking out is the 3.2-mile Gold Mine Loop, which begins near the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center and takes hikers by mine ruins.
Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center, 11710 MacArthur Blvd., Potomac. 301-767-3714. www.nps.gov/choh. $5 per car.
Don’t be fooled by the first couple of ho-hum miles of the Ridge Trail on Old Rag Mountain in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. It’s the last mile for which this hike is best known— a seemingly endless boulder field that requires jumping, climbing and squeezing through a maze of rocks.
Reaching the summit and taking in the miles of mountains and bucolic valleys makes all the effort worthwhile. Your best bet is to make a clockwise loop and return to the parking area via the Saddle Trail and the Weakley Hollow Fire Road for a hike of about 8.8 miles. The fire road, which is wide, smooth and well maintained, offers a relaxing cool-down after such strenuous activity.
Allow yourself an entire day to complete the hike. Yes, average hiking speed is 2 to 3 mph, and a fit hiker can complete the trek in less than 5.5 hours. But the route is so popular that bottlenecks often occur around difficult rock scrambles. It’s best to start hiking as early as possible and allow seven to eight hours.
The Park Service also suggests bringing two quarts of water per person. That might sound excessive — until you find your water bottles empty toward the end of the hike.
Old Rag parking is eight-tenths of a mile from the trail head. From Sperryville, take Route 211 south to Route 522 south. Make a right onto Route 231 and another right onto Route 601. Follow signs to the parking area. 540-999-3500. www.nps.gov/shen. $8 per person 16 and older March through November; $5 December through February. Families: $15 March through November; $10 December through February.
Making s’mores around a crackling fire. Stargazing in a night sky unobstructed by city lights. Telling ghost stories while surrounded by dark woods. These are memories you can make only by getting out of your house and spending a night outdoors (even in the relative comfort of a cabin).
If you don’t think you can last a day without a hot shower and plush mattress but still want to give a night in the woods a try, consider renting a cabin in Bull Run Regional Park in Centreville.
All six cabins have a front porch with an inviting swing — perfect for relaxing and taking in the fresh air. Inside you’ll find two rooms, a small refrigerator, microwave, enough beds to sleep six and, to top it all off, even heating and AC. A bathhouse with hot showers and toilets is a short walk away.
So what if this might not be the definition of “roughing it.” With a fire circle at every site, hiking trails and a nearby camp store with s’more ingredients, the park offers camping without sacrificing creature comforts.
Bull Run Regional Park, 7700 Bull Run Dr., Centreville. 703-631-0550. www.nvrpa.org/park/bull_run. For four people, March through November: $69.30 per night Friday-Sunday and holidays; $55.12 Monday-Thursday. Discounts for residents of Fairfax, Loudoun and Arlington counties, Alexandria, Fairfax City and Falls Church. Two-night minimum.
Camping is the ultimate family-friendly activity. Sans television and video games, a fire pit sparks creativity. Stories are shared, marshmallows are toasted and warmth comes from gathering around the fire.
But memories needn’t require a hefty investment in a tent, lantern, stove and other odds and ends. Instead, head to Little Bennett Campground in Clarksburg and take advantage of its camper -ready service.
For $25 to $30 a night (with a two-night minimum), the campground will provide a roomy four-person tent, two collapsible chairs, a stove and lantern. They’ll even set up your tent. All you need to bring are sleeping bags and makings for s’mores and you’ll be all set to create fond family memories.
Little Bennett Campground, 23705 Frederick Rd., Clarksburg. 301-528-3430. www.littlebennettcampground.com. Site costs: $25; $21 for residents of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Camper ready: $30; $25 residents of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
Although backpacking is perhaps the most challenging form of camping, it can also be the most rewarding if you value solitude and self-sufficiency. Everything you need to survive — tent, sleeping bag, food, kitchen gear, clothing, water — is on your back. And there’s nothing like finding a spot far enough away that your cellphone stops working.
Any experienced backpacker will tell you that the Appalachian Trail, which stretches more than 2,000 miles from Maine to Georgia, has some of the best maintained areas for backpacking.
The trail runs through Shenandoah National Park, and the park offers some of the best backpacking in the region. Shelters — structures with a roof, floor and three walls — are found about every 20 miles along this part of the trail and are usually close to a spring.
If a shelter is full (first come, first served, but long-distance hikers have first dibs), there are usually plenty of areas to pitch a tent close by. Shelter sites are well maintained and often include such luxuries as an outhouse and a food storage pole. (There are bears; hang your food high.) The park also has an easy-to-use Web site (www.nps.gov/shen/planyourvisit/campbc.htm) designed just for backcountry campers and complete with itineraries, safety tips and permit information.
Shenandoah National Park: entrances at Front Royal, Thornton Gap, Swift Run Gap and Rockfish Gap. 540-999-3500. www.nps.gov/shen. Entrance pass: $15 per vehicle March through November; $10 December through February. Passes are good for seven consecutive days. $30 annual pass.
With the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River (and all their tributaries) at our doorstep, there’s no excuse for not getting in the water. Whether your delight comes from a relaxing row through the Eden that is Pohick Bay, the tug of a trout on the end of your line or the adrenaline rush from rocketing down Great Falls in a kayak, there are plenty of ways to have wet and wild fun.
The morning is just beginning as you ease a canoe into the calm water of Pohick Bay. Bald eagles and osprey can be spotted overhead as you dip your paddle into the cool, clear water. Canoeing can be a serene experience, allowing you to slow down and appreciate the ecosystem that calls the bay home.
If you want an even closer look, take a morning canoe trip with a naturalist at Pohick Bay Regional Park. Anyone can rent a canoe, kayak, paddle board or jon boat and glide around the bay, but a three-mile guided tour offers an even more immersed experience.
These popular tours take visitors around the marsh with a knowledgeable guide identifying such interesting details as a grove of bald cypress trees (rare to see so far north), blue herons and locations where Paleo-Indian artifacts have been found.
The park provide canoes and life jackets, and paddlers are encouraged to bring water, lunch and binoculars.
Pohick Bay Regional Park, 6501 Pohick Bay Dr., Lorton. 703-528-5406. www.nvrpa.org/park/pohick_bay. Tours run in the spring and fall. $30, age 16 and older.
Anyone who has seen the 1992 Brad Pitt movie “A River Runs Through It” can begin to understand the romantic beauty of fly-fishing: wading into a mountain stream and casting back and forth until the line is released and lands on the water. If luck is with you, it’s followed by a quick snap of the line as a trout takes the bait.
The allure of the sport has led many to Mark Kovach. A stout man with a flair for stories thick with drama and humor, Kovach has taught fly-fishing for more than 30 years.
A recent basic/intermediate lesson began inside the Cozy Restaurant on Frederick Road in downtown Thurmont. The class was evenly divided between men and women, some of whom had traveled from as far away as Alexandria.
Kovach started by explaining the variations in equipment, including lines, leaders, rods, reels and hooks. He also emphasized understanding what your fish likes to eat. After everyone got a full fly box, he passed around preserved mayflies, caddisflies and stoneflies. Comparing the real insects to the man-made ones gives you a better appreciation for the art of tying flies, which involves tightly wrapping floss, tinsel, fur and feathers onto a tiny hook. But don’t worry about tying your own flies before class. Kovach encourages students to learn about gear before buying and makes sure everyone is outfitted for the day.
After a country-style buffet lunch (included in the fee), it was time to work on casting. Kovach explained the fundamentals and demonstrated his mastery of the cast. Matching his grace and ease proved challenging.
The day ended with students putting their knowledge to work at Big Hunting Creek in the Catoctin Mountains. It may not have been the famous Montana streams of “A River Runs Through It,” but when the trout were biting, it was beautiful nonetheless.
The next basic/intermediate trout classes are April 30 and May 7 and meet at the Cozy Restaurant, 103 Frederick Rd., Thurmont. 301-588-8742. www.mkfs.com. $175. Advanced classes are also offered.
Washington is to white-water kayaking as Aspen is to skiing, with countless enthusiasts, and even a few former Olympians, flocking to the area for its varied kayaking opportunities — from the Chesapeake Bay’s vast coastline to the Potomac’s challenging rapids. But before you don a helmet and take on Great Falls, you must (repeat: must) take a lesson.
Hopping into a kayak is nothing like renting a canoe for a relaxing morning paddle. In addition to be able to control the kayak, you must know how to roll and exit it underwater. You should also feel comfortable getting wet, because — as Potomac Paddlesports founder and president Edwin “Sunny” Pitcher puts it — “everybody swims.”
Pitcher should know. He began teaching in 1999, and about 1,500 people have taken his company’s Whitewater 101 lesson. The five-hour beginner’s lesson is perfect for people who want to see whether the sport is for them. Potomac Paddlesports provides the big-ticket items: kayak, paddle, neoprene skirt, helmet and flotation device. Students are expected to bring proper clothing and ear and nose plugs.
One big difference between white-water kayaking and other paddle sports is that you’re secured to the kayak by a tight skirt, meaning that if the boat capsizes, you go with it. Being comfortable holding your breath upside-down and underwater is vital. That might sound scary, but the instructors make sure that you get used to the unusual sensation slowly and that you’re able to safely exit a capsized kayak. Once you’re confident making a wet exit, the instructors give you a paddle and show how to right yourself by rolling the kayak. Build on these fundamentals with a few more classes, and you’ll be ready for the river.
Potomac Paddlesports Whitewater 101: Saturdays from April 30 through Oct. 8 on the Potomac River near Pennyfield Lock, 12351 Pennyfield Lock Rd., Potomac. Potomac Paddlesports, 11917 Maple Ave., Rockville. 301-881-2628. www.potomacpaddlesports.com. $145.