Saturday, November 21, 2015

9 Hikes to #OptOutside on Black Friday

Sunset over Shenandoah Valley
The end of autumn isn't the end of hiking season in Virginia and Maryland: in fact, late November, when the crowds follow the leaves out, is perhaps one of the best times to explore the incredible landscapes of the Chesapeake Bay, Piedmont, and Blue Ridge in solitude. There's perhaps no better day to spend outdoors than the day after Thanksgiving: scrambling up the bluffs of Mather Gorge on the Billy Goat Trail is almost certainly more satisfying the scrambling for the last remaining Surface Book on sale on Friday. Here are nine hikes, some favorites and others unjustly negectled, that can allow you to opt outside after Thanksgiving.

1. Billy Goat Trail Section A
Mather Gorge on the Potomac River
DC area residents who want to stay close to home can explore Mather Gorge, a steep, rocky canyon on the Potomac River downstream of Great Falls. If there's any place that still might have remnants of color, it will be here in the Piedmont, where the Potomac spills down a roaring set of rapids and then channels through a narrow canyon. Those who love rock scrambling will love this hike, which brings hikers close to the cliff edges above the river.

2. Maryland Heights
Harpers Ferry, viewed from Maryland Heights
Maryland Heights offers spectacular views of the confluence of the Potomac and the Shenandoah Rivers at Harpers Ferry. This hike is a good second trip for those who have explored the town but not the nearby mountains and a good introduction to the dramatic scenery of the Potomac Water Gap for those who haven't visited before.

3. Compton Peak
Columnar basalt at Compton Peak
The panoramic views from Compton Peak may not be the most sweeping, but the columnar basalt exposed here may be one of the oddest and most fascinating features of Shenandoah National Park. The proximity of this hike to the north entrance of the park makes it one of the easiest and enjoyable hikes in the park to access from the DC metro area.

4. Hughlett Point
Chesapeake shoreline at Hughlett Point
If you mention hiking, most Virginians will assume you're heading out to the Blue Ridge. That's a shame: some of the most beautiful landscapes in the state are along the shoreline of the Chesapeake Bay, where the rivers originating from the Blue Ridge flow meet the sea. Hughlett Point is a short but beautiful hike that offers access to a rare stretch of wild coast at the eastern tip of Virginia's Northern Neck. Be sure to check out nearby Christ Church and the wealth of other historic sites on the peninsula if you visit.

5. Lands Run Falls
Lands Run Falls
Lands Run Falls is the closest waterfall in Shenandoah National Park to the DC metro area, but requires a short off-trail jaunt to reach it from the Lands Run Fire Road. Luckily, November is a great time to do this, with reduced vegetation making off-trail travel significantly easier. Your reward is a small but pretty tumbling cascade.

6. Calvary Rocks
Calvary Rocks 
Now that the leaves are gone, it's prime time for off-trail travel in Shenandoah! One of the greatest views in the South District of Shenandoah is from the summit of Calvary Rocks, which require a smidge of off-trail travel at the end of the hike for 360-views of Shenandoah Valley and Trayfoot Mountain. If you're not so adventurous, you can take the Riprap Trail to nearby Chimney Rock instead.

7. Bear Church Rock via Graves Mill
Fork Mountain from Bear Church Rock
Some of the most beautiful places in Shenandoah are also some of the most remote. From Bear Church Rock is one of the greatest wilderness views of the park: the Staunton River Valley, without a single human structure or farm marring the landscape below (with the exception of a radio tower atop Fork Mountain). The extended elevation gain along the trail up from Graves Mill is a good way to work off some of the Thanksgiving carbs and the waterfalls and pools along the Staunton River provide good ideas for places to return to for swimming during the hotter summer days.

8. Doyles River and Jones Run Falls
Upper Doyles Falls
One of the most spectacular waterfall hikes in Shenandoah is at its best during colder months, when flows are higher in the tall drops of Lower Doyles Falls and Jones Runs Falls. Winter time also means you likely won't have to share these beautiful falls with many other visitors.

9. Robertson Mountain and Corbin Hollow
Blue Ridge view from Robertson Mountain
If you appreciate a good challenge and want to work off not just some but all of the calories from your Thanksgiving dinner, Robertson Mountain may be your best bet in Shenandoah National Park. The trail up Robertson Mountain from Weakley Hollow is the steepest in the park, taking a direct route to land at the summit and its broad views of the Central District of the park. Return by Corbin Hollow to appreciate the history of the mountain settlers who used to live in the area before being evicted upon the park's establishment.

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