Beautiful weather makes us want to take a hike, but it also makes us want to chill. Here are 6 scenic places ...
These Northern Virginia hidden gems deliver beautiful nature, fascinating history, or both, at lesser-known destinations perfect for a locals outing or a day trip for Washington DC visitors. After 20 years in Northern Virginia we are still surprised by the incredible diversity of places to visit and things to do in our region. Popular spots like Great Falls Park and Shenandoah National Park call us back regularly, but we love to follow the road less traveled to uncover new local experiences.
Our list of Northern Virginia hidden gems is grouped into natural and history-focused spots, but you will find both nature and history at many of these destinations. Links offer additional details and pictures to help plan your outing.
Natural Northern Virginia Hidden Gems
1. Bear’s Den Overlook, Bluemont
A half-mile uphill hike from a parking lot on Route 7 leads to rocky Bear’s Den and a beautiful view of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley. The rocky outcropping offers lots of spots to sit and enjoy lunch or a great sunset view. You can also reach the overlook from the day use area of the Bear’s Den hostel. If you want a longer and more challenging hike to a view, try Raven Rocks just across Route 7. Combine your visit with a stop at nearby Purcellville for tasty dining, several breweries, and a distillery. Free.
2. Bull Run Mountains Conservancy, Broad Run
The Bull Run Mountains natural area preserves the unique nature and history of the most easterly mountain chain in the Piedmont. While you can no longer visit the overlook (closed due to erosion), there are still many miles of hiking trails available. Before your hike, check out the dramatic ruins of Chapman’s Mill, thought to be the tallest stacked stone building in the United States. The mill was gutted by fire in 1998, but you can still enter the building and take photos. Free.
3. Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve, Alexandria
The paved Mount Vernon Trail and riverside Belle Haven Park get most of the traffic, but the nearby Dyke Marsh Trail is a Northern Virginia hidden gem worth a visit. The .7 mile dirt trail follows the banks of the Potomac, with great views of the marina, Woodrow Wilson Bridge, and National Harbor in the distance. The level, easy trail ends with a boardwalk and viewing platform over a tidal marsh and across the river. Free
4. Difficult Run and Cross County Trail, Great Falls
The Gerry Connolly Cross County Trail extends for over 40 miles across Fairfax County, from the Potomac River in the north to the Occoquan River in the south, passing through many of Fairfax County’s best parks along the way. Our favorite stretch of the CCT follows Difficult Run north to the Potomac, entering the easternmost section of Great Falls Park. The trail is shady and the river offers a place to cool your feet in summer, and foliage colors the banks in fall. Extend your outing with a partial loop hike that includes Run, Ridge and River Trails. Here are some helpful tips for hiking the CCT with links to other trail segments. Free
5. Great Marsh Trail, Mason Neck
The Great Marsh Trail is a paved, 3/4-mile accessible trail that is part of the Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge on Gunston Road. There is a large platform at the end of the trail with expansive views of the 250 acre Great Marsh, one of the largest fresh water marshes on the Potomac River. This is a beautiful spot to watch for birds, including the many bald eagles that nest in the protected marsh. Extend your visit with a stop at Mason Neck State Park for beautiful birding, hiking, and boating. Free
6. Huntley Meadows Park, Alexandria
Huntley Meadows Park brilliantly transformed a former asphalt testing facility into one of the most beautiful marshland habitats in our busy region. Visitors stroll a long, ADA-compliant boardwalk allowing close-up views of the many birds, amphibians, and other wildlife in the park. Climb the Observation Tower, one of our favorite romantic spots in Virginia, for beautiful views and a rest. Free.
7. Meadowlark Gardens, Vienna
Meadowlark Botanical Gardens is a Northern Virginia hidden gem we return to throughout the year. The gardens grow, transform, and fade, but the parks 95 acres and paved paths always offer peace and beauty. A children’s garden, gazebo and pond, and small bridges entertain families; and the Korean Bell Garden adds cultural interest. $2.50 – $5.00; free in winter.
The Potomac Heritage Trail (PHT) covers over 800 miles from Washington DC to Pennsylvania, with local segments following the banks of the Potomac River in Northern Virginia. Close to the DC, we like the stretch from Theodore Roosevelt Island to Windy Run. More popular segments pass through Great Falls and Riverbend Parks. Free.
9. Prince William National Forest, Triangle
It’s odd to think that part of the national park system can be a Northern Virginia hidden gem, but we frequently meet locals who have never visited Prince William National Forest. Those who do visit will enjoy 37 miles of beautiful hiking trails, a 9-mile scenic loop drive, and paved and gravel bike roads. There is also interesting history from the parks days as a “relief camp” for low-income DC children. Camping is available in historic cabins or open sites. $7.00 per vehicle for a five-day pass, waived on national free entrance days
10. Seneca Regional Park, Great Falls
An entryway of woven branches welcomes hikers, birders, and equestrians to the beautiful woodland and riverside trails at this Northern Virginia hidden gem. One section of the Potomac Heritage Trail passes an historic section of 1700’s stone wall from George Washington’s Patowmack Canal. Near the parking area, signs explain details of an historic calvary crossing during the Civil War. Free.
Historic Northern Virginia Hidden Gems
11. Balls Bluff Battlefield Park, Leesburg
Balls Bluff was the site of the first Civil War engagement to take place in Loudoun County, and the park has an excellent interpretive trail that explains how the battle unfolded. Other trails include sometimes steep, wooded hikes to the river and a segment of the Potomac Heritage Trail. The park also includes one of the smallest National Military Cemeteries in America. Nearby Red Rock Wilderness Overlook also offers wooded hiking along a bluff and down to the Potomac River. Free.
12. Brentsville Courthouse Historic Center, Bristow
This multi-building site tells the story of three centuries of life and growth in the town of Brentsville, founded in 1820 as the Prince William County seat. Restored buildings include the Union Church, a one-room school, the County Courthouse and Jail (under reconstruction), and the nearby Haislip-Hall house. Interpretive signs and guides help visitors understand life in the central town, especially on busy court days, which was prosperous for some but very difficult for others. Part of the Underground Network to Freedom, 12 African Americans were executed here. Tours are $5 for adults with discounts for military, students, and children.
13. Downtown Clifton, Virginia
Clifton’s compact downtown is a Northern Virginia hidden gem blessed with interesting and well-marked history plus several delicious restaurants, with good hiking and a winery nearby. The downtown is a National Historic District, and a stroll up Main Street leads to houses and businesses marked with signs offering interesting tidbits about the people who lived and worked in them. Free.
14. Gunston Hall, Mason Neck
At Gunston Hall, the family home of George Mason IV, you can enjoy a guided tour of the mansion and reconstructed outbuildings, and explore 550 acres of grounds and hiking trails. As you explore the history and beauty of Gunston Hall, you’ll learn about George Mason’s lasting impact on Virginia and the very beginnings of our American democracy. Mason was among the first to call for such fundamental American liberties as religious tolerance and freedom of the press, ideals that became the foundation of the United States Bill of Rights. $10 with discounts for seniors and children.
15. Lake Anne Van Gogh Bridge, Reston
The Van Gogh Bridge is one of several interesting and picturesque art installations at Reston’s original village center, Lake Anne. The Lake Anne Plaza opened in 1966 to national acclaim and was even compared to Venice’s Piazza San Marco by an architecture critic. Concrete artworks are built into the plaza and surrounding pathways and underpasses, and the lovely bridge and nearby swing offer a pretty spot to enjoy the view and take pictures. Local Reston restaurants at Lake Anne include a brewery and a coffee shop/wine bar. Free
16. National Museum of the Marine Corps, Triangle
Anyone traveling busy route I-95 will notice a dramatic 210 foot stainless steel mast, angled to mimic the flag-raising on Iwo Jima, that soars from the Museum of the Marine Corps, so it isn’t exactly hidden. But too few locals stop to explore the excellent immersive displays and multi-media experiences that tell the story of the strength and heroism of the Marines Corp throughout history. Displays capture important moments of American history from the perspective of Marines who participated in them, from an assault on Iwo Jima by Higgins Boat, to a frozen mountain pass in Korea, to the aftermath of battle in Vietnam. Free.
17. Pope-Leighey House, Alexandria
The Pope-Leighey House was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, recognized by the American Institute of Architects as “the greatest American architect of all time,” to encourage living in connection to, and harmony with, nature. Designed for middle-class family living, it reflects Wright’s belief that garages, attics, and basements were unneeded structures that encourage excessive consumption and cluttered living. Guided tours explain how every design detail contributed to Wright’s vision of happy family living. Open April to December, tours are $15, or $20 for a combined tour with Woodlawn Plantation.
18. Snickersville Turnpike, Aldie to Bluemont
The Snickersville Turnpike (SR 734) is a quiet, two-lane road, that passes farms and fields, and preserves much of it’s early character. George Washington travelled the road as a surveyor, and by 1786 it was the first operating turnpike in America, praised by Thomas Jefferson as a success. A monument erected by survivors of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry marks the site of one of the bloodiest cavalry battles of the Civil War. The Turnpike passes three general stores along the drive, including the Philomont General Store, which has been in continuous operation since 1913. Free.
19. Stabler Leadbetter Apothecary, Alexandria
A Northern Virginia hidden gem that preserves and displays it’s 1933 contents, the Stabler-Leadbetter Apothecary was frequented by Martha Washington and Robert E. Lee (or their servants) and everyday residents in the bustling port of Alexandria. Glass bottles line the shelves, many containing the same exotically named medicines and herbs they contained when the business abruptly closed. The glassware, the furnishings, the fabric, and even the contents of the containers-unicorn root, dragons blood, “worm destroying drops,” and more—are all original. $5.
20. Turning Point Park and Occoquan Regional Park, Lorton
Occoquan Regional Park is best known for it’s location along the Occoquan River, popular for boating and fishing. Our Northern Virginia hidden gem is a small area within the park known as Turning Point Plaza. Informational plaques and benches on the brick plaza memorialize the women who were imprisoned in their fight for the right to vote. Suffragists arrested at the White House were sent to Occoquan Workhouse where these educated and dedicated women endured horrific treatment and deplorable conditions. The events at Occoquan helped turn the tide and gain support for women’s suffrage. Free.
Our 20 picks for Northern Virginia hidden gems are great destinations for family time, a solo escape, or a DC day trip. If you’re a local, keep the list handy for inspiration the next time you’re looking for something to do near home. Have you visited any of these hidden gems?