The Lake Thoreau Loop Trail is a 2-mile paved path that circles one of Reston Virginia's four lakes as it meanders along neighborhood paths. The trail offers some lovely lake views and a good mix of hills and level trail, for a nice workout in a short distance.
Reston Association calls this route the Red Trail, and it is well signed and fairly easy to navigate. We like this walk in all seasons. The trail includes a mix of shade and sun, and the path is well-maintained and kept clear in winter. The only time to avoid this walk is after an icy winter storm when it is just too slick.
You will almost always see dog walkers and adult groups on the route around the lake. The Lake Thoreau loop trail is also a good option for a hike with kids, as long as they don't mind tackling some hills. Some of the hilly sections are quite steep, so this route would be a real challenge with a stroller.
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Find more paved trails in our guide to Stroller-Friendly Trails in Northern Virginia.
Lake Thoreau Loop Trail Details
Park in the South Lakes Village Center to begin your walk, and you'll have nice options for coffee, drinks, or a bite to eat when you return. Walk between Cafesano and Red's Table to the lakefront and the start of the trail.
The plaza reopened with new seating tables in 2021, so this is now a great spot to enjoy some local takeout. You'll often see families and couples enjoying this picnic spot.
See also 25 Perfect Picnic Spots in Northern Virginia for Couples to Groups
Turn right at the lake, heading uphill into a neighborhood. Keep a lookout for the signs that mark the trail route. Follow the arrows, heading left onto a path that fronts the northern end of the lake. Here you'll have a nice view of the lake before the path loops up to Sunrise Valley Drive.
Turn left on Sunrise Valley Drive and follow the path steeply downhill and up to the Lake Thoreau Pool. Reston has 22 public pools, and this one is usually hopping on a hot summer day. At the top of the parking area, carefully cross Upper Lake Drive and head up the hill.
At the top of the hill, the path turns left, passing an open play-field. There is one tricky connection ahead. When you reach Upper Lake Drive, cross the street and turn left, walking a few yards then turning right back onto the trail. Keep an eye out for one of those helpful Red Trail markers.
The next section of the Lake Thoreau Loop Trail passes a tot lot as it curves to the left. Further on the golf course appears on your right, as you walk downhill to a small bridge. Stay left where the path forks, keeping off of the golf cart path.
From the small bridge, you'll have a nice view of the western end of Lake Thoreau. This is an excellent place to spot geese, turtles, and small fish in the lake.
Gather your energy, as you are about to climb the steepest hill on the walk. The path here is really steep, but fortunately not for long.
Next, you cross Purple Beech Drive and turn left at the Purple Beech Recreation Area. There is a nice playground, and in spring and summer, the trail is bordered by lovely wildflowers frequented by butterflies.
Climb another, less steep hill and turn left, passing Lake Ridge Pool. South Lakes Middle School and High School fields are across the street on your right. This section of the trail meanders through neighborhoods and past some pretty gardens. There are quite a few street crossings, but they're mostly driveways so traffic is not a problem.
When lake views open up to your left you are almost back to South Lakes Drive. Turn left at the corner of the lake and enjoy pretty views along the lakefront.
This is a popular fishing spot, and there are several benches and one picnic table available. Most pleasant evenings you'll see people enjoying the lake on pontoon boats, kayaks, canoes, and SUPs. The lakefront is also one of our favorite places to watch the sunset.
Note the spillway on your left as you walk past the lake. Each year, the South Lakes High School STEAM club creates a public artwork on the spillway. The project is a learning experience for the students and a great way to beautify this utilitarian structure.
South Lakes Village Center, Reston
When you reach the end of the lakefront turn left, back into the South Lakes Village Center. You have reached the end of the Lake Thoreau Loop Trail. Why not reward yourself with a meal or drink at one of the local restaurants?
The patios at Cafesano and Red's Table are both favorites for outdoor dining in Northern Virginia. Lakeside Asia and Flippin' Pizza are also local, and there is a Starbucks, Chipotle, Subway, and Safeway. Get your meal to go and you can enjoy it at one of the free, open tables at the plaza between Red's Table and Cafesano.
Find more local dining in our guide to 10 Tasty Reston Restaurants.
Tips for Your Walk on the Lake Thoreau Loop Trail
Visit the Reston Association website for information on this and other Reston paths, including this excellent Red Trail map:
- The South Lakes Village Shopping Center is located on Sunrise Valley Drive near Sunrise Valley Road, about a mile from the Reston Wiehle-East metro station.
- The Lake Thoreau Loop Trail does not offer continuous lake views but the final section along the lakefront is open to the water. Much of the trail is in wooded neighborhoods away from the lake.
- There are three tot lots along the Lake Thoreau Loop Trail. The tot lots are a nice perk if you have children along and they need extra motivation to tackle the next hill. Encourage your kids to explore more of the town with “tour guide” Robert E. Squirrel in the cute book Reston A to Z.
- If you would prefer a more level stroller and bike-friendly path, we highly recommend the nearby Glade Stream Valley Trail.
- All docks around Lake Thoreau are private. Enjoy views from the trail, but stay off the docks.
- The trail passes very near one of the tees at the Reston National Golf Course. I've never seen a ball flying my way, but it doesn't hurt to keep an eye out.
- You will encounter crowds of middle and high school kids on the trail when school gets out. Go Seahawks! It's the preferred route from school to Starbucks and the other stores at the South Lakes Village Center.
Optional Walk to Lake Audubon
You can easily extend your Thoreau loop hike to visit another of Reston's pretty lakefront paths. Instead of turning left to the final stretch along Lake Thoreau, follow the path straight under South Lakes Drive. Pass a Montessori school, then turn left on the paved path heading downhill to Lake Audubon.
Take the stairs down to the lake and a pretty view that is especially beautiful when fall foliage is at it's peak. Continue on the lakeside path until you reach the Audubon Pool, then turn back and retrace your route to Lake Thoreau.
Or add a little more distance by turning left at the top of the stairs. The path continues along Lake Audubon eventually curving back up to Owl Cove Lane. Follow the sidewalk uphill and you will come out across from the school you passed earlier. Cross the street, turn left under South Lakes Drive, then right after the underpass. Now you are back in front of Lake Thoreau and the final stretch of the loop trail.
Here is a Reston Association map that shows the paths beside Lake Audubon.
We hope you enjoy your walk around the Lake Thoreau Loop Trail. Strolling the pathways is one of our favorite things to do in Reston Virginia.
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