Here are 8 great summer hikes in Northern Virginia, with shady trails, cooling water, and relaxing stops nearby, all a short drive from Washington DC. Summer in the DC region can mean steamy weather and tick-laden fields. But you can still enjoy nice summer hikes if you know where to go.
Our picks for summer hikes in Northern Virginia feature mostly shady trails and pretty views. We don’t have many swimmable streams or lakes in the area, but some of these hikes are near waterparks. At the end of the list is a handy map to help you plan your visit.
8 Great Summer Hikes in Northern Virginia
These summer hikes vary in distance and are easy to moderately challenging. And many of these Northern Virginia trails are easy, short walks that are ideal for a family outing.
1. Great Falls Hike, Great Falls
This moderately challenging 3-mile partial loop takes hikers through a less-visited section of Great Falls Park. The hike begins at the Difficult Run parking area on Georgetown Pike, and follows a shady section along Difficult Run. From there, a steep climb leads to the Ridge Trail in Great Falls Park. Next, a steep section of the River Trail offers stunning views of the Potomac River and Mather Gorge. Cool your feet in Difficult Run on your return trip, but be careful of the fast-moving current. The stream access is difficult and not great for young children.
2. Bull Run – Occoquan Trail, Clifton
The 17-mile Bull Run – Occoquan Trail follows the stream from Bull Run Regional Park in the north to Fountainhead Regional Park in the south. Our favorite segment begins at the end of Yates Ford Road in the lovely town of Clifton. Follow the access trail until you reach the river, then head north or south on the mostly level but sometimes rocky trail.
The trail is shady and you can stop to cool your feet in the river. At the end of your hike, enjoy a relaxing glass of wine at Paradise Springs Winery, just across the street from your starting point. Both the trail and outdoor spaces at the winery are kid-friendly and leashed dogs are welcome.
3. Seneca Park Potomac Heritage Trail, Great Falls
There are many wonderful segments of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail that are good for a summer hike close to Washington DC. We especially enjoy the woodland and riverside trails in the Seneca Regional Park area of Great Falls. From the parking lot at the end of Seneca Road, you can follow several different trails through the woods, toward the Potomac River.
Once you reach the river, follow the Potomac Heritage Trail west or east. At the western end of the park you’ll find benches for relaxing and a stone wall of the Patowmack Canal. The canal was created by George Washington to help connect a new nation through trade and commerce. Nearby is a hidden trail and a rope swing over a quiet section of the river.
4. Balls Bluff Battlefield and Red Rock Wilderness Overlook, Leesburg
Visit these two parks in Leesburg, to enjoy nature while exploring local history. Balls Bluff was the site of the first Civil War engagement to take place in Loudoun County. The park has an excellent interpretive trail that explains how the battle unfolded. Other trails include sometimes steep, wooded hikes to the Potomac River and a segment of the Potomac Heritage Trail. The hike around the battlefield is great for kids.
Nearby, Red Rock Wilderness Overlook also offers wooded hiking along a bluff over the Potomac River. At the parking area you’ll find the ruins of the Paxton Farm, with interpretive signs explaining the history of each building.
5. Lake Fairfax Park, Reston
You’ll find a variety of hikes at Lake Fairfax. Take a short easy hike, on the level dirt trail over the dam and along the lake. Or follow steep trails through the woods that are popular for off-road biking. After your hike, reward yourself with a cooling visit to the Water Mine Family Swimmin’ Hole. The popular water park features slides, floats, sprays, and a lazy river. There is also a carousel, playground, picnic area, and other fun for families to enjoy.
6. Scotts Run Nature Preserve, McLean
One of the prettiest waterfalls close to Washington DC is the payoff for a short, but sometimes steep, hike at Scott’s Run Nature Preserve. The waterfall cascades over a pretty jumble of rocks and into the Potomac River at the end of this Fairfax County hike. The most direct trail to the waterfall crosses two streams on concrete pillars before descending a steep hill to the river. Take a longer loop hike on the Potomac Heritage Trail to enjoy shady woods and a beautiful view. Two free parking lots on Georgetown Pike provide access to the park.
The Scotts Run waterfall is incredibly popular on summer weekends and is sometimes overrun with beer-drinking youth. In fact, the park suffers from off trail hiking and littering, so the park service patrols and hands out citations regularly. Try to visit early in the day, on weekdays, and in the off season for a more peaceful setting.
7. Mason Neck State Park and Pohick Bay, Lorton
You’ll find a wonderful variety of mostly level trails at Mason Neck State Park perfect for summer hikes. Each trail offers a chance to spy bald eagles and other birds in Belmont Bay and the surrounding marshes. From the quarter-mile Marsh View Trail, to the 4 mile out-and-back hike to Kane’s Creek, you’ll find shady, well-marked trails. The Visitor Center rents canoes and kayaks so you can also get out on the water.
After your hike, head to nearby Pohick Bay park and take the kids for a swim at Pirate’s Cove, one of the largest, outdoor freeform pools on the east coast. Pohick Bay Regional Park also offers boat rentals, mini-golf, and hiking trails.
8. Burke Lake Park, Burke
The 4.5 mile trail around Burke Lake makes our great hikes list in every season. In summer, the wide dirt and stone-dust trail is mostly shady, except for an open stretch along the dam. Sturdy strollers and bikes can navigate the trail, which is popular with families and runners. There are lots of birds and other nature to enjoy, so take your time. In summer, the park operates a miniature train that is a lot of fun if you’re traveling with young children. The park marina rents boats, the fishing is great, and a carousel, mini-golf, disc-golf, and other activities are available too.
BONUS: Ellanor C. Lawrence Park, Centreville
Fairfax County’s Ellanor C Lawrence Park is another nice option for a family summer hikes with a little learning fun. Take one of several shady trails through the woods. Stop by Walney Pond to look for fish, turtles, and birds. And explore the remains of several interesting, historic buildings at the former dairy farm. The visitor center offers a closer look at snakes, turtles and other critters that live at the park.
Summer Hikes in Northern Virginia Map
Here is a handy map to all of the parks and hikes listed here:
All of these summer hikes in Northern Virginia can be uncomfortable when the humidity is high. If time allows, consider a day trip to Shenandoah National Park, where the elevation keeps temps a bit cooler. Use our guide to plan your visit: Shenandoah National Park Day Trip Planner: Things to Do in the Central District.
Prefer biking to hiking? Check out our guide Northern Virginia Bike Trails: Paved and Mountain Biking Fun Near DC to see which of these trails are bike-friendly and for more local options.
Looking ahead to Fall? Check out our list of Great Fall Hikes in Northern Virginia.
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This article was published in 2015 and updated in 2018, 2019, and 2020.