Updated December 20, 2022. During winter, hiking might not leap to the top of mind as an optimal activity. Some might even be leery of hiking when it’s cold outside — and possibly snowy or icy to boot. Luckily, Virginia typically stays fairly warm even in the winter months, and snow and ice are rare, too, meaning even more days with great hiking weather.
There are some things you should keep in mind if you want to go on a hike this winter, whether you’re a seasoned hiker or just taking a leisurely family walk with your kids. For instance, remember that in the winter, the days are shorter, so time your hike with when the sun will be out to maximize daylight hours; be realistic, especially if you’ll be hiking with kids, about how long it might take you to complete a winter hike.
Even though Northern Virginia has milder winters, you should still start your hike prepared by wearing layers and making sure your feet are well protected. Don’t include any cotton in any of these layers (it can retain moisture and make you cold if you sweat), but dress yourself in a base layer (one that wicks away sweat is smart), a mid layer (an insulating jacket), and a shell layer to further protect you from the elements (a light windbreaker). Since winter can be wet, slick, or icy, wear insulating socks (maybe bring an extra pair if you’ll be hiking in the snow) and invest in waterproof boots, ones with extra traction or maybe even micro-spikes or crampons (traction frames that attach to your boots) to ensure you don’t slip.
Northern Virginia is home to several trails and national parks with varying levels of difficulty perfect for hiking no matter the weather. We’ve rounded up four of our favorite hikes below.
Great Falls Park, Great Falls
Great Falls Park is a vast, beautiful national park with a visitor’s center, plenty of picnic tables, and lots of trails to hike. There are even three waterfall overlooks that are just as picturesque in the winter as they are in the summer. Walking to these overlooks is as easy as walking from the parking lot directly to each overlook, which are right next to each other and easily pointed out with signage. But there are also several intersecting trails for interested hikers, who can create their own paths with various difficulty levels and lengths.
There are six hiking trails within the park, ranging from the 1.8-mile Swamp Trail, aptly named because it takes you through the lowland forest, to the flat 3.2-mile Old Carriage Road Trail. The most popular is the 3-mile River Trail, which follows the Potomac River and carefully skirts the rocky edge of Mather Gorge, boasting spectacular views — but pay close attention to that rocky edge in the winter!
The River Trail is still a relatively easy hike and therefore a good winter hike to do. It shouldn’t get too icy because it isn’t steep and doesn’t have a fluctuating elevation, but because it’s a dirt path, it can get muddy and possibly slick after rain.
If you’re looking to get more steps in, start out hiking River Trail to where it connects to Patowmack Canal Trail — a trail that follows one of the first canals ever built — on your way back.
Burke Lake Park, Burke
Go here if you’re looking for a quiet winter hike in a 4.7-mile loop (officially, this trail is called the Burke Lake Loop Trail) and want to take in the water views — it will definitely be quiet and serene because the park’s carousel, putt-puttcourse, and miniature train are all closed in the winter months. You still might hear children playing in the snow over the sounds of birds, and there’s snowy fun on a small hill near the golf course nearby — it’s used as a short sledding run. There’s a parking lot close to the hill, too. The trails at Burke Lake Park are mainly gravel, so they shouldn’t get too muddy after rain or a snowfall, but make sure you wear waterproof boots just in case.
If you do go on a winter hike when it has actually snowed, you’ll probably see some cross-country skiers or snowshoers in addition to other hikers, bikers, and joggers. The park also typically has several different types of scheduled winter walks, like a Winter Bird Walk in February. But if you’re looking for other types of hikes and trails that extend beyond the Burke Lake Loop Trail, it does intersect with the Ox Road Sidepath, the Lake Mercer Loop Trail, and the trail to South Run.
The Ox Road Sidepath is paved (so hopefully not much mud!) and runs parallel to Route 123 from George Mason University’s Fairfax campus south to Laurel Hills Crossing, a new housing development and golf course built on the former Lorton Reformatory prison. Taking the Burke Lake Loop Trail to the Ox Road Sidepath’s southern end will bring you to the 40-mile Cross Country Trail, which extends through forests and different trail terrain all the way up to Great Falls National Park.
If you connect with the Lake Mercer Loop Trail, you’ll come to another lake: Lake Mercer in Fairfax. This trail is a bit over 5 miles in length.
Mount Vernon Trail, Alexandria
This is a popular trail in Northern Virginia because of its length as well as the other trails it connects with, creating different winter hikes with different views, depending on your preference.
If it isn’t icy yet and you want a longer hike, the 18-mile Mount Vernon Trail is paved and runs along the Potomac River for some great water views as well as views of DC’s skyline, starting from Theodore Roosevelt Island all the way down to George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon (hence the name). The trail also connects with several others, like the Potomac Heritage, Rock Creek, Four Mile Run, Woodrow Wilson Bridge, and Custis trails. Maybe this is why it’s also a popular trail for bike commuters, as well as fitness fanatics who want a change of scenery for their winter jog or power walk.
This trail also diverts and can lead hikers to a short dirt trail that’s slightly over half a mile, and to a long boardwalk (three quarters of a mile) over Dyke Marsh for more water and wildlife views, which sometimes can include eagles. The marsh is one of the largest wetlands in the DC area, a freshwater tidal basin that leads to observation platforms and beach access.
Scott’s Run Nature Preserve, McLean
Scott’s Run has a small parking area (and two overflow parking areas) that are always packed in the spring and summer — but in the winter, it’s much less crowded. On top of that, this park has a short hike to a waterfall (possibly shorter than Great Falls Park’s walk from the parking lot to its first waterfall lookout) and has several interconnecting trails within its 384 acres, meaning you can hike any which way and still have options for different hikes when you return. Georgetown Pike runs along Scott’s Run’s south border (as well as the parking area), and you can’t hike any farther north than the Potomac River.
Happy trails, hikers!