“We have the Chesapeake Bay to the east, we have the mountains to the west, and we have urban areas with so much history in between,” Cooper says. “There are so many different ambiances you can take in,” Sklarew adds.
Whether you’re interested in communing with nature, logging some serious exercise or just getting a crabby toddler out of the house, there’s a hike for you, Sklarew says. Still not interested? Consider the activity’s meditative benefits.
“Hiking gets you out of your head, it gives you a chance to stop and look around, and it’s such an easy, low-stress way to get in shape,” she says.
Now bona fide perambulation proselytizers, Cooper and Sklarew are leading hikes all around the D.C. area and giving talks about the best spots. Ahead of their Smithsonian Associates presentation Wednesday, “Discover Your Backyard: Great Hikes Within and Around the Beltway,” we asked them to name a few of their favorite, lesser-known routes.
Best hike for people without cars
Glover Archbold Park
About 6 miles; 40th Place NW and Upton Street NW
Just a half-mile south of the Tenleytown-AU Metro station, hikers can drop into a thickly wooded valley where towering tulip poplars shade a boulder-strewn stream as it meanders its way to the Potomac. A spur of Rock Creek Park that’s all but disconnected from its big-name neighbor, Glover Archbold Park is known mainly to people who live in the surrounding neighborhoods of Foxhall and Georgetown, Sklarew says. “I always see people walking dogs, and kids down there netting frogs and turtles,” she says. Once a favorite haunt of notable environmentalist Rachel Carson, the late author of 1962’s “Silent Spring,” the trail also features a historic marker about her activism, which laid the groundwork for the modern-day environmental protection movement.
Best hike for families
Winkler Botanical Preserve
0.9 miles; 5400 Roanoke Ave., Alexandria
The 44-acre Winkler sanctuary abuts highways and high-rises, but you wouldn’t know it in the summer, when leafy trees and cricket choirs give the illusion of deep-woods isolation, Sklarew says. The preserve’s mulch and gravel pathways wind through a landscape of streams, ponds and little waterfalls — man-made features built to interest kids and attract wildlife, Sklarew says. As a result, it’s a great place to introduce children to hiking. “It keeps kids’ attention. It has all these activities: little stepping stones, a little Hobbit-like house they can play in, and fun weird chairs made out of twigs you can sit in,” she says. “Because it’s a small, short hike, it’s a great place to take toddlers.”
Best hike for sure-footed athletes
5.2 miles; intersection of Virginia state routes 7 and 679, Bluemont, Va.
Part of the so-called “roller coaster” section of the Appalachian Trail, Raven Rocks takes hikers up and down steep hills, through dense stands of trees and over slippery, moss-covered boulders. “You definitely need good shoes for this hike, and you need to watch your footing,” Cooper says. Among the hazards: loose rocks and tree roots that buckle up in the middle of the trail. Your reward for all this hard work? A gorgeous overlook, where you can take in panoramic views of the Shenandoah Valley from the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Just don’t take off your shoes — unless you tie them to something first. Cooper saw one woman lose her hiking boots over the side of a cliff.
Best hike for nature lovers
Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary
3 miles; 1361 Wrighton Road, Lothian, Md.
A protected, 1,500-acre wildlife sanctuary around an engorged bend in the Patuxent River, Jug Bay is teeming with life. Peek under a log in the wet woods and you’re likely to find salamanders and skinks. Sally forth along the boardwalk into the cattail marshes and look for long-legged herons and egrets stalking their prey. Scan the water’s surface for ripples and bubbles, and a beaver or an otter just might materialize nearby. If you see a critter you can’t identify, volunteers at the park’s nature center are happy to help, Sklarew says. “They have a great little museum that’s all about nature, with guides geared to children of all ages about what you can find,” she says. There are also QR codes along some parts of the trail that you can scan for additional information about the wildlife and history of the bay.
Best hike for history buffs
Woodlawn Manor Cultural Park
4.2 miles; 17715 Meeting House Road, Sandy Spring, Md.
The park’s Underground Railroad Experience Trail goes through fields and woods that served as a passageway for people escaping slavery in the 1800s. At the time, Quakers and free black people in nearby villages assisted in the escapes by providing food and supplies, perhaps leaving them in the hollowed-out trees you’ll pass by on this largely flat walk. The woods, however, were also filled with slave catchers, so escaped slaves often hid in the bramble patches. Other sites along the way include huge, 300-year-old trees that have long served as landmarks for all kinds of travelers. About a mile from the turnaround point, you’ll find the spring that gave the town its name, “where the people on the run would get themselves water,” Sklarew says. It’s now marked with a concrete arch. After your hike, visit the Sandy Spring Museum to learn more about the fascinating history of the town, Sklarew suggests.