Summer is over; fall is here. Stop lamenting the end of beach vacations and breezy cookouts — instead, embrace autumn by taking a hike to revel in the fiery foliage. James Baker, who runs the Instagram account @hikingthedmv, believes this is the best season to get out for a walk in the woods. “It’s cool enough so you’re not hot, but it’s not so cold you have to layer up,” he says. “Plus, the bugs have gone away, which is always nice.” Sounds like a winning combination. Here are seven memorable hikes through forested landscapes where trees will be dressed to impress.
If you don’t want to leave the city, Josh Silverman, director of trails for Wanderbirds, a nonprofit hiking club that organizes weekly treks in the area, recommends this half-mile trek in Rock Creek Park, which is particularly beautiful in the autumn. The Theodore Roosevelt Side Trail, a favorite walk of the former president, is a narrow, sometimes steep pathway wending its way up a rocky, root-strewn hillside. Along the way, you’re afforded a bird’s-eye view of the creek, while the clearing at the summit offers a resplendent look at the fall foliage. Corner of Blagden Avenue NW and Beach Drive NW in Rock Creek Park. nps.gov/rocr. Free.
Turkey Run Loop Trail
Located off George Washington Parkway, this loop sidles up alongside the Potomac River for a scenic stretch. “The water gets covered with beautiful red, orange and brown leaves, so you feel like you’re engulfed in fall,” Baker says. Leaving from the parking lot on Turkey Run Loop Trail, connect to the Potomac Heritage Trail, which runs along the river, eventually running into Dead Run Trail, which ultimately returns to the original trail. Just under four miles long, it has an elevation gain of just over 400 feet. Given its relative ease, the hike is good for families and dogs, who are allowed off leash in some areas. Turkey Run Loop Rd., McLean, Va. nps.gov/gwmp/planyourvisit/turkeyrun.htm. Free.
Little Stony Man
Shenandoah National Park is rich with great hikes offering a front-row seat to the changing colors of the season. This three-mile loop with 800 feet of elevation change following the Appalachian Trail on the way out, returning on the Passamaquoddy Trail, is a favorite of Silverman. From Little Stony Man on the rocky ridge top, there’s a magnificent view of the Shenandoah Valley with the Shenandoah River snaking through it. The exposed outcroppings are the perfect place to enjoy a picnic or do some fall photography before you head back. Mile 39.1 Skyline Dr. in Shenandoah National Park, Va. nps.gov/shen. $30 per vehicle.
Loudoun Heights Trail
Starting in Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, this out-and-back trail gives hikers an unparalleled overlook view of Harpers Ferry at the confluence of the Shenandoah River and Potomac River. “It feels like you’re in the Alps looking at some small Austrian or Switzerland town,” says Baker. “Plus, in the fall, the colors are just insane.” Over seven miles long with an elevation gain of over 1,400 feet, this hike will take roughly four to five hours to complete and is not for anyone looking for an easygoing endeavor. 171 Shoreline Dr., Harpers Ferry, W.Va. nps.gov/hafe/planyourvisit/loudoun-heights-trail.htm. $20 per vehicle.
South Mountain State Park
The Appalachian Trail cuts through Maryland for 40 miles, offering many opportunities for hikers who want to experience a portion of the storied byway. One of the most memorable stretches is a five-mile up-and-back trek through South Mountain State Park to Annapolis Rock, where you can settle on a stony outcrop to take in the panoramic views of the fall colors blazing across Cumberland Valley and the autumn light playing off the surface of Greenbrier Lake in nearby Greenbrier State Park. If you have the time and energy, Baker suggests continuing another mile to be rewarded with more gorgeous leaf peeping from Black Rock. 11174 Baltimore National Pike, Myersville, Md. dnr.maryland.gov/publiclands/pages/western/southmountain.aspx. Free.
Covered in mostly red and white oaks, Sugarloaf Mountain looks like it’s on fire in the fall as the leaves turn. To take in its majestic glory, trek up the Northern Peaks Trail, a five-mile loop, which brings you up to White Rocks, a tumble of giant boulders with sprawling views of the surroundings. Silverman recommends bringing a meal or snacks to enjoy since the rocks offer plenty of spots to perch. The parking lot can fill up quickly, so come early in the day to be guaranteed a spot. 7901 Comus Rd., Dickerson, Md. sugarloafmd.com. Suggested donation of $5 or more per person.
The five-mile out-and-back route along the Massanutten Mountain Trail in the George Washington National Forest has 750 feet of elevation change, making it a somewhat challenging undertaking. “It can be a bit of a scramble; it’s not for beginners,” Silverman says. At the top, a wooden fire tower offers 360-degree views of the forests, fields, valleys and crests spread out around the peak. Attaining this rare vantage point is rewarding at any time of day, but getting there in time for an autumn sunset — when the glowing colors on the horizon match the flaming colors of the leaves — is especially memorable. Corner of Mountain Top Drive and Fort Valley Road, Luray, Va. fs.usda.gov/gwj. Free.