Weekend Backpacker: Washington, D.C.

Great Escapes Outside the Beltway
By Victoria Logue

For a major metropolitan area, Washington, D.C., is a hiker's paradise. Within just a few hours' drive, hikers have access to countless destinations in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia. From the rolling surf of the Atlantic Ocean to breathtaking mountain vistas, from a peaceful beach walk to whitewater canoeing, Washington-area outdoorsfolks have their pick among national forests, a national park, a national wildlife refuge, a national seashore, a national historic park, and a national scenic trail—all within a three-hour drive of the United States capital.

Shenandoah National Park

Skyline Drive, which runs for 105 miles along the crest of the Blue Ridge, offers a panorama of hardwood forests and awe-inspiring views as you drive its length. The park that flanks the drive offers myriad outdoor opportunities.

Recommended trip: Old Rag Loop
This is a classic Shenandoah hike and for good reason—the scenery is spectacular and you feel you've accomplished something when you complete the rigorous seven-mile loop. This hike is interspersed with woodland walking and rock scrambling over granite boulders. The views from the top of the mountain are worth the strenuous hike. There are two day-use shelters along the loop, but camping is restricted. Note this is an extremely popular hike, and space is limited by the size of the parking lot, which holds 200 cars. Get there early, especially on a summer or fall weekend!

Getting there: From Washington, D.C., take Interstate 66 west to Front Royal, Virginia. At Front Royal, follow U.S. 522 south to Sperryville. Turn right, heading southeast, and follow U.S. 522 for 0.5 mile to VA 231. Turn right on VA 231 and head south for seven miles to VA 601 (Peola Mills Road). There is a sign for Old Rag Mountain. Drive 0.3 mile to VA 600 (Nethers Road) and turn right. Stay on this main road, passing through the community of Nethers. You'll reach the Old Rag parking area on your left in 2.6 miles. The loop starts here.

Permit information: While you need a permit to backpack in Shenandoah National Park, you do not need one to day hike. If you choose to camp while on the loop, you will have to get a permit first. Campgrounds are available along the drive, as well. Permits are free, but you must pay the park entry fee ($5 per car with one occupant or $10 per family).

Maps: Maps are available in the park and from local outfitters.

Practical information: This is a strenuous hike and children should attempt the hike only if they are in good shape. It is advisable to carry water on this hike, since no water is available until the Old Rag Shelter a good ways after the summit.

Recommended guides: There are a number of good hiking guides to the Shenandoahs, including the Appalachian Trail Guide to Shenandoah National Park by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and Day and Overnight Hikes in the Shenandoah National Park (Menasha Ridge Press) by Johnny Molloy.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 12 Jul 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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