DC is known as a city of movers and shakers, but the action isn’t limited to the political realm. In 2016, the capital city was named the #1 fittest American city by the the American College of Sports Medicine—for the third year in a row. It’s easy to see why. Within minutes of the US Capitol, deciduous woods, rapids-filled rivers and pastoral countryside beckon.
As if to punctuate the adventure statement, REI just opened their fifth flagship store in town, with an activities desk offering info, gear, guides and organized excursions throughout the region. So as you hit the tree-shaded trail, paddle through exhilarating whitewater or bike past curious cows, give a quick wave to your fellow outdoors lover—he or she may very well be a senator or four-star general. Here are some of the top outdoor adventures in and around the Capital City.
Running the National Mall
With major road races occurring year-round, including the acclaimed Marine Corps Marathon in the fall and the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler in the spring (a warm-up for Boston-bound elites), Washington is a runner’s paradise. Locals never tire of jogging the National Mall, bound by trails that take you past the nation’s most important democratic monuments—all of which glow from within as dusk falls. Spring cherry blossoms, summer fireworks, autumn glory color and winter-snow wonderlands are some of its seasonal delights.
Climbing Great Falls
Rock climbers find happiness at Great Falls Park (nps.gov/grfa/index.html), just 20 minutes upstream from Washington, DC, on the Virginia side of the river. Here, neophytes and experienced climbers alike negotiate cliffs and outcrops ranging from Class 3 to 5.10. Nearby Carderock and Annapolis Rock are favorite go-tos as well. And note that in winter, when it’s cold enough, this is where Washingtonians come for ice climbing.
Paddling the Potomac
Where else can you escape the office at noon, jump in a kayak for a quick paddle, and be back in time for a 2pm meeting? Thompson Boat Center, next to the Kennedy Center, rents kayaks by the hour. Within minutes you’re paddling around Theodore Roosevelt Island, a woodsy island in the middle of the Potomac. Float upstream to Georgetown and beyond, or downstream past the National Mall’s marble monuments.
More hardcore kayakers surf and play in the white-tipped rapids of the Potomac River Gorge just below Great Falls. This spot has become a breeding ground for top-level competitive kayakers, and it’s within 30 minutes of the nation’s capital (only experienced kayakers should tackle this dangerous, sometimes deadly run).
Hiking the Billy Goat Trail
Of course Washingtonians can hit the trails of Shenandoah National Park, within an hour’s drive of the city, which wander into a deciduous realm of waterfalls, black bear and dreamy Shenandoah Valley views. But there are amazing hikes within city limits as well, notably the intertwining trails of Rock Creek Park (Teddy Roosevelt’s favorite wilderness escape from the White House). The most popular weekend warrior hike, however, is hands-down the fabled Billy Goat Trail in Great Falls National Park, about 30 minutes up MacArthur Boulevard, where you must leap and scramble over riverside boulders just like a billy goat.
A bounty for bicyclists
Whether you like your bike trails paved or tree-shaded dirt, DC’s got you covered. There are the pathways crisscrossing the National Mall with its front-row view of the monuments; the 18.5-mile Mount Vernon Trail shooting south to Mount Vernon; or the secret gem Capital Crescent Trail, a paved trail linking Georgetown with Bethesda. But if you want to join locals in making a day of it, take a spin on the Washington & Old Dominion Trail (W&OD), an old railroad bed that’s now a 45-mile paved route between southern Arlington and Purcellville, in Loudoun County. This pastoral ride winds past cows, farmhouses, picturesque towns and a brewery or two along the way.
Camping just outside the Beltway
Shenandoah National Park is an obvious camping getaway. But Greenbelt Park, known as the “backyard” national park and one of the city’s best-kept secrets, is the closest campground to DC. If you’re new to camping, Little Bennett Regional Park, up I-270 near Frederick, offers ready-made campsites that include a four-person tent, two camp chairs, a propane stove and a lantern.
Horseback riding in Rock Creek Park
Hop astride a horse at Rock Creek Park Horse Center (rockcreekhorsecenter.com) and hit the tree-shaded trails of Rock Creek Park, a little wilderness within the city limits. You’ll saunter past beaver dams, stone bridges and blooming trees, seemingly far away from the urban hustle-bustle. The center offers lessons as well. Also keep in mind that the countryside surrounding nearby Middleburg, Virginia, is an equestrian’s delight and a favorite training ground for Olympians; the annual Virginia Gold Cup steeplechase takes place in the spring.
Bikepacking in the Virginia countryside
If you’re a mountain biker wanting to make a several-day trek, the only question is where to begin? The Chesapeake & Ohio National Historic Park preserves a crushed-stone trail that winds 184.5 miles along the Potomac River to Cumberland, Maryland; first-come, first-served campsites speckle the route (though you can stay in inns along the way as well). At Cumberland, link up with the Great Allegheny Passage, a 150-mile route that winds all the way to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – Amtrak now offers Walk-on Bike Service (gaptrail.org) as an easy way to return to DC. You can also make a bucolic loop with the W&OD Trail to Leesburg, where you can hop aboard Whites Ferry across the Potomac to meet the C&O Canal; head north to Harpers Ferry and beyond, or circle back to DC.