The bare trees reveal slanting meadows and distant peaks otherwise cloaked in foliage, the sky is free of haze, the air is crisp and . . . the parking lots are empty.
"It's one of my favorite hiking seasons," says Martha Clark, president of the Northern Shenandoah Valley chapter of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC), speaking of the months between fall's famous foliage and spring's wildflowers. "The leaves are down, and the overlooks are beautiful."
Winter hiking isn't for everyone--especially not the unprepared (see Before You Go, below). And though it's a rare treasure to have walked in a forest newly blanketed in snow or among trees agloss with fresh coats of frozen armor, hiking isn't a terrific idea in every kind of winter weather, either.
There are many trails nearby, however, that are particularly rewarding in bare-tree season for the day hiker--that is, he or she who prefers to end a cheek-rosying day outdoors with a hot meal, some hot cocoa and/or a shower--indoors, of course.
Here are a few suggestions for pre-cocoa activities:
In Shenandoah National Park, the rangers often will shut down Skyline Drive at the merest hint of any wet frozen stuff. (Treacherous enough when dry, the winding two-lane highway is minimally plowed and salted by the budget- and safety-conscious Park Service.) But you can skip the ridge-top drive, however, and enter the park from below. While outer-boundary park access has been limited in recent years by liability- and traffic-conscious property owners, there are still a few ways in of note. One is found by leaving U.S. 211 at Sperryville to follow Route 231 south toward Madison, and following the signs to the Old Rag Mountain trailhead--about a 90-minute drive from the Beltway. Unless the ground and sky are dry, though, best abstain from yet another vote for the park's most-hiked peak; instead veer right at the upper parking lot onto the Nicholson Hollow Trail. After a couple of early stream crossings (waterproof, ankle-high hiking boots are a really good idea), the trail is not terribly steep for the first couple of miles as it winds along a lazy, ice-crusted Hughes River--and, in the snow, has all the makings of a veritable wonderland. The nearby Hazel River has a similar appeal. For trail maps, access information or current road conditions, contact the park at 540-999-3500 or www.nps.gov/shen.
Virginia's Bull Run/Occoquan Trail, according to lifelong hiker (and photographer and PATC volunteer Webmaster) Andy Hiltz, "continues to be one of my favorite trails in the area. It's so close to such a huge number of people--and yet nobody ever seems to hike there." It's inexplicable--and, to anyone who's been on the trail at any time of year, for 15 minutes or a full day, wholly transporting. Hiltz isn't alone in being unable to explain one's aloneness on these narrow 5,000 acres amid the sprawling exurbia not more than 45 minutes from the Beltway, nor does he try to keep it a secret. "In winter, the views through the trees of the reservoir and the river are just exceptional," he says. (Plus, he can be home afterward in 10 minutes.) The trail, also open to equestrians, roughly follows the Bull Run stream and Occoquan reservoir for nearly 20 meandering miles between Fountainhead and Bull Run Regional parks on the border of Fairfax and Prince William counties. None of the stream valley crossings that mark the eastern end of the trail is particularly steep. For more, contact the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority at 703-352-5900 or www.nvrpa.org.
West Virginia's Blackwater Falls State Park is in snowshoe country--amid the downhill resorts (though not, actually, the one called Snowshoe) and fully winterized, fully booked cabins of the Canaan Valley, about 4 1/2 hours from the Beltway. At this elevation (3,000 feet, give or take) and on the wetter side of the precipitation-halting Allegheny Front, snow pretty much happens. If you feel like an amazingly quiet trek through rolling, evergreen-dominated woods that are full of it, snowshoes and cross-country skis are available at the park (as are lessons, though I prefer the homier digs and committed instructors at White Grass Ski Touring Center just up the road). But if you walk nowhere else here in winter, make the potentially treacherous--hang on to that rail with both hands on those unshoveled wooden stairs!--but entirely worthwhile trek from the parking lot to the park's namesake falls. No snowshoes are needed, and its massive boulders, aglitter with ice and framed by mini-rainbows and an acre of drooping evergreen boughs crusted white with frozen spray, make for a grayscale image you won't forget.
Two hours up the Potomac, across from Harper's Ferry, W.Va., are: a) one of the most scenic stretches of the Georgetown to Cumberland, Md. C&O Canal National Historical Park (301-739-4200), a relatively flat and, in these leaf-free months, vista-intensive hike beside the meandering upper Potomac; and b) the trail, not too steep, up to the rocky top known as Maryland Heights, from which the unobstructed cold-weather view of the old town of Harper's Ferry, the railroad tracks below and the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac river valleys beyond is as bracing as that stiff wind on your cheeks. The Northern Shenandoah Valley chapter of the PATC will lead hikes on the C&O hereabouts in both January and February (call 703-242-0693 for details; all hikes are free and open to anyone). Maryland Heights, meanwhile, is a favorite of career hiker Lee Sheaffer of Winchester, Va, who describes his spare-time habit as "Hell or high water; I go out every week." Sheaffer says he'll be trying an annual birthday hike up Old Rag again next month, "weather permitting" (last year's coincided with a severe ice storm), but in the meantime has lots of other short winter treks to recommend, including: Bear's Den Rock on the Appalachian Trail (from Snicker's Gap, where Route 7 crosses the Blue Ridge in Virginia, follow the blue-blazed trail to the white-blazed A.T.); anywhere in Manassas National Battlefield Park (703-361-1339), whose gently rolling valley-floor terrain and open fields suit it to all but the deepest of snow days; and the two-mile round trip from the Wolf Gap Campground (in George Washington National Forest west of Woodstock, Va., 540-984-4101) to suitably castle-like Big Schloss. "You catch it on a cold, clear day, and there's 100-mile visibility up there," he says. "It's quite gorgeous."
Before You Go
Don't rush out into the winter woods. If you still don't know what "layering" means, and if you mean to stay out all day without a map, a flashlight, a lighter and even some extra food, you might want to check Hiltz's sage and detailed advice to cold-weather hikers at www.patc.net/prepared.html. You also don't want to be walking quietly through the forest in comfortable earth-toned layers at the height of deer hunting season. Most seasons end the first week of January, but there are exceptions; for season details and dates throughout the region, check out www.buckmasters.com/hunting_seasons. Various chapters of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club sponsor year-round day hikes; contact PATC at 703-242-0315 or www.patc.net.