Back when Beth Homicz was a tour guide in Washington, she developed her own fitness plan: Lead groups through Arlington National Cemetery twice a day. “It’s a good way to drop 10 pounds in a week,” Homicz says.
Exploring places on foot is better exercise than most people realize, she adds, because they’re distracted by the scenery. In the Washington region, that’s a smorgasbord of stuff. “There’s flora and fauna, geology, battlefields, beaches, rolling plains and meadows, all within easy reach,” says Homicz, who co-authored the newly revised edition of “AMC’s Best Day Hikes Near Washington, D.C.” It features detailed instructions for tackling 50 routes, ranging in distance, terrain and vibe.
Also debuting this spring is National Geographic’s “Walking Washington, D.C.,” by Barbara Noe Kennedy, a travel guidebook that’s devoted to strolling in the city. In addition to neighborhood tours, Kennedy put together “whirlwind” options that crisscross the capital, highlighting themes, such as African American heritage and kid-friendly spots.
Although both writers are longtime residents of the area — who’ve logged countless miles on foot over the years — researching the books was an eye-opening experience.
“I’ve been to Georgetown a billion-gazillon times,” Kennedy says. So what was the shocker for her? The Dumbarton Oaks Museum, with its gem of a Byzantine art collection. She knew it was around and had spent time in the adjacent gardens. “But I never made the time or effort to go,” she says.
That’s a common refrain for Washingtonians, who rarely play tourist at home, Homicz says. When she developed a hike that takes readers around the Mall, Homicz made sure to highlight lesser-known details that locals often miss. Stops include a brick springhouse on Capitol Hill, a series of tucked-away gardens and a gate in the World War II Memorial where you can hunt for a long-nosed cartoon character named Kilroy.
For Homicz, the biggest surprises came on her first visit to Watkins Regional Park in Largo. She hadn’t been expecting such delightful nature trails and a “Wizard of Oz”-themed playground — or the bloodcurdling shriek that stopped her in her tracks. “It scared the bejesus out of me,” Homicz says, although she soon realized it was just one of the on-site farm’s resident peacocks saying hello.
A lot of walking happened in preparation for these books. Homicz and her co-author, Annie Eddy, scoped out every step of each hike so readers would know what to expect, whether it be noisy peacocks, tight switchbacks or slippery surfaces.
Kennedy’s approach was to sketch out her routes ahead of time and then hit the streets to test them out. If a certain stretch felt too boring or too long, she tweaked it. What she learned from this methodical approach — beyond the time and distance approximations that are listed on each map — is that keeping your eyes open between sights offers its own rewards.
There are pocket parks, local hangouts and other discoveries to make, says Kennedy, who created a two-page spread featuring her favorite “secret statues,” including the Albert Einstein Memorial on Constitution Avenue. On her Embassy Row tour, she adds, it’s the route itself that’s the draw — you’re not necessarily visiting any specific buildings but just appreciating the mix of Gilded Age and modern architecture.
These types of urban adventures qualify as hikes to Homicz, who says today’s outdoor enthusiasts appreciate a mix of experiences and are looking for new ways to get out of their regular routine. That’s why the revised edition of her book features routes through the Colonial history of downtown Annapolis and along the Baltimore Waterfront Promenade.
Probably the most unexpected option is a 2½ -mile loop around Gwynns Falls and Leakin Park. That’s bound to sound familiar — and maybe unnerving — to anyone who listened to the first season of the “Serial” podcast. But despite its ties to the occasional killing, Baltimore’s largest green space is “a charming hodgepodge of historic remains, modern art, and plant life in a wild setting,” according to the book’s description.
There are also plenty of more typical hiking routes, including the Billy Goat Trail, Old Rag and lesser-known options. Homicz says a new “extreme” addition to the book is Signal Knob in Fort Valley, Va. The nearly 11-mile trek features sections that require folks to leap between rocks and is estimated to take at least seven hours.
No matter the kind of hike, however, Homicz says her goal is always to showcase natural and human history. Some details about local flora, fauna and other points of interest are always scattered among the trail descriptions. A handful of essays go more in depth, tackling topics readers can think about as they’re covering new terrain — how bald eagles were saved from extinction, the story of the Piscataway people, why Japan donated to the National Arboretum a bonsai that survived a nuclear blast.
There’s a lot to learn. So you’d better start walking.
When time is tight but you’re looking for a getaway, it can be tough to figure out where to go, says Beth Homicz, co-author of “AMC’s Best Day Hikes Near Washington, D.C.” Here are some of her suggestions, depending on your situation:
With kids: Little ones will have a blast at Watkins Regional Park in Largo, which boasts a playground, an antique carousel and a farm (with llamas, rabbits, ponies and more). Got teens? “You can’t do better than Arlington Cemetery. It’s an inspiring place. Not just a somber place,” she says.
With a dog: To avoid disappointment, check that dogs are allowed before heading anywhere, Homicz says. (The book puts a dog icon on pet-friendly routes.) For a level, long walk to let you both stretch your legs, she suggests tackling a section of the C&O Canal towpath. She’s also partial to Sky Meadows State Park in Delaplane, Va., where you can chill out among the wildflowers and butterflies when you’re tired of trails.
Without a car: Washington’s Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens boasts lilies and lotuses less than a half-mile from Metro’s Deanwood station. “Going early in the morning is best,” Homicz suggests, because that’s when more flowers are in bloom. Birding fans should ride to the College Park Metro station, which is where the book’s Lake Artemesia hike begins. Among the herons, loons and ducks, “it feels like you’ve gotten a lot farther away than you have,” Homicz says.