Washington DC/Arlington, VA
Washington, DC is unlike any other city. Underneath the political exterior lies a city rich with history, community, and trails. While Washington itself isn’t too expansive, the Washington Metropolitan area stretches to include parts of Maryland and northern Virginia.
I moved to Arlington, Virginia, just across the river from DC, a little under a year ago and continue to discover new trails and trail systems. Mild winters and hot, humid summers make year-round running easy, albeit a little muggy and sweaty in the summer months. While the DC metro area is fairly flat, we’re just an hour’s drive from Shenandoah National Park (SNP), and only a 90-minute drive from some quality mountain running deeper in SNP.
The trail running community is active and welcoming, with the Virginia Happy Trail Runners (VHTRC) and DC Capital Striders offering multiple weekly group runs in the DC metro area and weekly adventures into SNP. While it’s common to see runners dodging tourists and flocks of senators along the National Mall and Rock Creek Park, this city’s gems lie just beyond its political perimeter.
Where to Run
- Within the DC Metro Area: Potomac Heritage Trail
My favorite trail in DC is the Potomac Heritage Trail. The trail is easily accessible from DC and Arlington, VA. Parking is available at the trailhead at Roosevelt Island; the parking lot tends to be packed with runners, cyclists, and walkers on the weekends. Alternatively, you can run to the trailhead via the paved Mt. Vernon trail from DC and Arlington. The trail is an out-and-back and offers nearly 20 miles of uninterrupted single-track. It’s fairly flat and technical, with ample rock scrambling and some short but steep climbs.
You’ll often find me running a loop combining the technical PHT with the flat, packed gravel along the C&O Canal in Georgetown. Start at the PHT, run four miles to Chain Bridge, cross over the bridge and run along the C&O until you get to Key Bridge, which you’ll cross and find yourself back at Roosevelt Island. The loop is eight miles. There are also great packed mountain bike trails nestled along the C&O for a trail-only loop.
PHT Technical Section (Chain Bridge)
Northern Virginia: Great Falls Park
VHTRC introduced me to Great Falls Park – a local national park with more than fifteen miles of trails. The park combines technical, rocky trails with smooth fire roads. Views of the falls and Potomac are plentiful, and the park offers some steady, longer climbs along with fast, runnable trails. The Washington DC North Face Challenge 50K and 50 Mile races include these trails. The park also connects with Difficult Run, the PHT, and the Cross Country Trail (CCT). The park is just a 20-minute drive from DC. Come on a Wednesday at 6 p.m., and you’ll see a gaggle of trail runners preparing for their weekly group jaunt.
Swamp Trail (Complete Southbound)
Ridge and Difficult Run (Mathildaville to Parking Lot)
Shenandoah National Park, North District: Dickey Ridge
Dickey Ridge was my first experience with trail running, and it remains one of my favorite spots in SNP. It’s a smooth out-and-back with gentle grades and the occasional overlook. The full out-and-back (a total of 22 miles) takes you to Compton Gap, which is well worth the view. The first few miles are a gentle uphill, making the second half of the run a fun fly to the finish. The trailhead is only an hour from DC, located at the entrance of Skyline Drive in Front Royal.
Dickey Ridge – trailhead to visitors center
Dickey Ridge – Visitors Center to Dickey Hill
Dickey Ridge – fox hollow to trailhead
Shenandoah National Park, Central District: Buck Hollow
The opportunities are endless at Buck Hollow. There is limited parking at the trailhead, but a second parking lot is just a half-mile up the road. You have the option to do a short loop (6.3 miles) of the Buck Hollow and Buck Ridge Trails, or to extend the loop to include the panoramic views at Mary’s Rock (9 miles), or you can complete a 20-plus mile loop with the nearby Cave Falls and Pass Mountain Trails. Buck Hollow is a long, steep climb, and the downhill is fun, fast, and a tad technical.
Where to Eat (Pre & Post Places to Eat & Drink)
- Arlington, VA:
The Java Shack – If you are running trails in and around Arlington (such as the PHT), my favorite coffee shop is The Java Shack. A small spot, with ample outdoor seating and great coffee, Java is my favorite spot to caffeinate pre and post-run. It’s also within walking distance of Clarendon, a busy suburb within Arlington with plenty of spots for a quick meal.
Ray’s Hell Burger – When you need a burger, this is the spot. It’s a walk-up with plenty of seating and is very conducive to the hungry, muddy trail runner. The burgers are your classic, meaty goodness, and the sweet potato fries are fantastic. In addition to the burgers, I’d recommend a milkshake. There are boozy shakes, too, if that’s your style.
Lyon Hall – For dinner head to Lyon Hall, a bustling brasserie in Clarendon. In addition to a fantastic menu, this spot is known for its beer list, including more than 23 beers on tap and 50 in the bottle.
- Washington DC:
Filter – Originally a cyclist hub, Filter is a small coffee shop nestled in DuPont Circle in DC. The shop offers an expansive selection of coffee and pastries, and their pour over is particularly popular. The shop also has locations in Foggy Bottom and Brookland.
DuPont Circle Farmer’s Market – Also in DuPont, a favorite spot to grab a bite after a DC run is the DuPont Circle Farmer’s Market. The year-round market, held every Sunday, has a great selection of quick, local eats, including wood-fired pizza, homemade dumplings, sweet and savory baked goods (including gluten-free options!) and soups and sandwiches. I like to walk through after warming up at Filter.
Blue Wing Frog – My hands-down favorite spot in all of Virginia is Blue Wing Frog. Located in Front Royal, just minutes from the Dickey Ridge Trailhead, Blue Wing Frog is the perfect spot for a post-adventure lunch. The menu caters to both vegans and carnivores, and any entrée can be gluten-free. They offer a wide variety of local craft beers, hard ciders, wines, and meads along with homemade baked goods.
Thornton River Grille – Thornton River Grille, in Sperryville, Virginia, is our go-to spot for after running Buck Hollow and Mary’s Rock. The restaurant also includes a market for quick bites on the go.
Local Run Shops
Pacers Running is located throughout the DC metro area and offers weekly runs, races, and clinics at all of their locations, including the popular annual Beer Mile.
Potomac River Running Store is located throughout Northern Virginia and DC. The spot also host group runs and clinics.
Washington DC is a fantastic trail running city. With the perks of an exciting city at your fingertips and the trails and mountains of Shenandoah within an hour’s drive, it’s hard to go wrong living (and running) here. If you’re in the area for work (or play!) and are looking for an adventure companion or some local insight, feel free to reach out. You can find me on Instagram @strong_sam, Twitter @StrongSam2, and Strava. Or reach out via email at [email protected]. Happy trails!
This is so exciting! My history buff husband wants to take a DC trip. Now I have something to do while he and our sons go spend way too much time at monuments and battle fields! You saved our future vacation!
Great list, Sam! I’ve lived in the area for about 11 years. I’d also throw in Manassas Battlefield/Bull Run, and Fountainhead as “close” trails to run. And the race company, EX2 Adventures, puts on awesome trail races year round throughout Northern VA and parts of MD. VHTRC is the best!
Add in Prince William Forest, Rosaryville, some wonderful trails in MoCo, and there are oodles more in Shenandoah that are awesome as well as Lake Fairfax, Pohick Bay, Pimmit Run Valley trail, the MD side of Great falls and the entire C&O canal if you need something flat as well as catoctin being a short drive similar to that of shenandoah, harpers ferry is also only an hour (so think MD heights and Loudon Heights)…
So many trails left off of here…