Outdoors 101: Your guide to outdoor fun in the D.C. area

Apr 15, 2011

Weekend writer Amy Orndorff will be joined by local fishing, kayaking and National Park experts to take your questions about where to go and what to do around the Washington area.

Thanks for joining us today for our Outdoors 101 chat! The weather is looking good for Sunday so we want to know: what are your plans and how can we help?


Also, I would love to know what your favorite outdoors experience in the Washington area has been. What's in it for me? Future story ideas. What's in it for you? A special (and very cool) prize.


We already have tons of questions, let's begin!

Thanks for taking my question! My husband and i just adopted a dog. Are there any good trails/parks in the dc region that are pet friendly?

Shenandoah National Park has over 500 miles of trails from short hikes to waterfalls and vistas to much longer and strenuous hikes.  The best part is that the park is very pet friendly!  Pets are allowed on over 480 miles of the trails.  Pets are prohibited from only 20 miles.  Go to www.nps.gov/shen to find out more.

where can I go (hiking, or preferably canoeing) to "get away from it all", i.e., feel as though I'm not in or near a city

The C&O Canal National Historical Park offers the feel of a major national park with the proximity to home. Sunday evenings are a great time to have the place almost to yourself. Really, this resource is a jewel for all who live near DC: 


Shenandoah National Park has over 500 miles of trails from short hikes to waterfalls and vistas to much longer and strenuous hikes.  The best part is that the park is very pet friendly!  Pets are allowed on over 480 miles of the trails.  Pets are prohibited from only 20 miles.  Go to www.nps.gov/shen to find out more.

Pre children, my husband and I used to go to Fredericksburg, rent a canoe, they'd take us up the river and we'd spend the morning paddleing back down to where the car was parked. Now that the kids (7 and 14) are finally both old enough to sit in the canoe for a period of tiem - and do some of the paddling - we'd like to do this with them,. The Fredricksburg outfitter we used in the past will only allow 3 people in a canoe! Do you know of any outfitters that would allow 4 people in a canoe but a similar deal where we park our car and they take us to a drop off point?

I would suggest that you check in with the good folks at Antietam Creek Canoe Company: 


I've been talked into buying a mountain bike. I have one picked out, and the next step is the car carrier. Which is better: a top carrier, or one that attaches to the rear bumper?

This is one big reason I am a big fan of trucks. I called a friend who mountain bikes (and drives a car) and he says go with the trunk carrier... they are easier to remove and you don't have to lift the bike as high.

Loved the insight into outdoor activities in the area. Do you have any other suggestions that you couldn't fit into the article? I was also wondering if you know of places to take a beginning mountain biking class? Thanks!

Oh man, I could have written an entire book if my editor had let me. For mountain biking I don't know about a class, but I can tell you that Patapsco Valley State Park offers some good trails for beginners. That is where I started!

Where is the best place to take your two-year old for his very first camping experience?

Big Meadows Campground in Shenandoah National Park would be great.  There are showers and bathrooms in the campground and the nearby visitor center would be a great stop to find hiking trails appropriate for the family.  On Saturdays there is a terrific Birds of Prey program with live animals - a red-tailed hawk, a barred owl and an eastern screech owl.  There are restaurants near by in case you don't want to cook out.

What are some of the better places to go on a day hike if you don't have access to a car? Let's say something up to a mile or so from the closest bus stop or train station, and not a so-called "urban hike" (which just seems to entail walking around town and occasionally seeing some trees in a park)? Or are there none? Seems to be the one thing this region is lacking.

You are in luck. There are countless hiking clubs in the area that depart from metro stations and the Wanderbirds actually charter a bus every week. Check the sports listings in the Weekend section for a list of where the local clubs are going.

Where's a good place to go within easy driving distance of Arlington? And is there a "season" for rafting here? I know in other places I've gone, it's dependent on seasonal releases from dams, but haven't heard anything about the rivers in the area. Thanks!

The closest White water rafting is on the Shenandoah river near Harpers Ferry,WV about 70 miles from you.  There are two  outfitters in that area I'd recommend- River&Trail Outfitters in Knoxville MD and River Riders in Harpers Ferry WV.  

One of the best times to go is now!  Spring rains can bring the rivers way-up.  In fact, no one is running right now because the river's in flood from the rains earlier this week.

Where are the best flat water kayaking spots in the area? We live in Warrenton, VA. Tnx. Pat

There are many to choose from. Fairfax County offers Lake Fairfax and Lake Audobon. Montgomery County offers Black Hill and Lake Needwood, along with the C&O Canal and tidal sections of the Potomac. Be sure to check the wind forecast and weather tempratures. Here is a great resource:http://www.amazon.com/Maryland-Delaware-Canoe-Trails-Paddlers/dp/0960590870/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1302887281&sr=8-1

Can a person rent a canoe on the Anacostia River--are there regular boat tours availabel on the Anacostia?

Check in with the Anacostia Watershed Society:


This is a great organization that has offered kayak or canoe outings in the past...and don't forget to volunteer for a river cleanup event! :)

You can also head up to Bladensburg Waterfront Park. They rent boats and offer boat tours.

Hands down the annual canoe trip my youth group took. Our pastor loves canoeing and took us all down the Shenandoah, the Rappahanock, the Potomac, one other. Hands down the bunch has been the Shenandoah (should out to Down River Canoe Co.). As a kid it was always hilarious to see which of the chaperons wouldn't be able to navigate the first class two rapid and would end up taking a swim (it is not quite so hilarious to be the chaperon now trying to navigate that same rapid). After watching enough upsets my dad got the idea of flipping some of us smart-alec kids by hand, launching years of the most epic canoe flipping wars ever. Totally one of summer's highlights.

And we are off! This is a very sweet story. Thanks!

Don't forget to check out the Occoquan!

More options for the flat water kayaker!

Other than Angler's Inn on the Potomac, are there other places nearby to whitewater kayak?

Angler's access offers something year round. There are an amazing number of rivers within a six-hour drive of DC including the Youghiogheny, Shenandoah, James, Castleman, and many more. Check this great resource from the folks at American Whitewater:


As an assistant ScoutMaster for a Troop, we are starting to plan the next year's activities and campouts, such as last weekend's Orienteering Meet at Little Bennett park. What are some of the under-utilized resources in the area that would give the boys something a little different than a Beach campout, a cooking campout at Marsden tract and more canoeing, cycling, climbing etc..

Have you guys tried geocaching yet? Looks fun:


I wrote about geochaching a couple years ago and had a blast. It is a great thing to do with kids.


When I went hiking on Old Rag I went with troop 1472. It was fun to watch them use teamwork to get to the summit!

Where are some good canoeing options that are reasonably easy to get to from MoCo? We'd need to rent the canoe.

Have you tried kayaking? Flatwater kayaks can be as roomy and stable as a canoe, even more so since your center of gravity is lower. No skirts, no rolling, just pure Zen wth two blades instead of one. My organization offers guided kayak trips with instruction and equipment provided. If canoeing is still your first choice, check with Jack's in Georgetown, Fletcher's, and the folks at http://www.antietamcreek.com/. 

My mom is in a wheelchair. Do you have any suggestions for good accessible hikes? If it helps, my Dad is a He-man when it comes to pushing her.

Has she visited Annmarie Garden? It has a lovely paved path through the woods. It isn't long, but I know people who use wheelchairs and are big fans of it.

Have you ever or know of others that participate in outdoor clubs? Are there any just for women? I've been thinking of joining one but don't know if I'll fit in because I'm not really outdoors-y, but would like to be.

I don't know of ones just for women, but I have tagged along with many hiking clubs and had a blast. Plenty of women of all shapes/sizes/experience levels. In my experience, outdoors clubs have been incredibly welcoming.

So the prize for best local outdoors experience has just been determined: a lovely National Geographic book "10 Best of Everything National Parks!"

I am fairly certain that REI offers beginner mountain bike classes based from their stores in the region. I am mostly a road biker/triathlete these days (but used to be an avid mountain biker) and my friends and I are split on roof carrier vs hitch/rear. I have a hitch, mostly because I'm shorter and have an SUV. But many prefer roof tops for fear of rear end collisions and overall better stability of the bike during travel. Just have to watch overhead clearance!

REI has everything! Thanks for putting in your two cents in the roof carrier vs hitch/rear battle.

I've lived in the county since '77 and I just became aware that there is a cross county trail (http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/cct/). I haven't seen it yet but it looks like it might be a great hike that's local and can be taken in sections over time.

This hike is on my to do list, as well. I have heard good things.

best places for late night fishing?

I usually stop fishing at sundown.  I've never had much luck fishing for smallmouth bass at night.  Catfish are the main nocturnal pursuit.  Most people use stink baits...chicken livers and such.  There's many places along the Potomac.....But I don't know the best. 

Next to Georgetown and Belle Haven Marina in Old Town, where else can one rent kayaks? I love it but feel like those areas have been done to death...

We rent kayaks and roof racks starting in May. Please visit http://www.potomacpaddlesports.com. The other option is to rent one ouf our guides, who brings the kayaks for you!

I used to run on the section by Oakton Rec. If you keep going north from there it gets really pretty. The only caution is that conditions vary wildly, from broad and paved to a narrow dirt track in the five mile stretch or so I'm familiar with. I don't know why it's not more well-known, it's a cool trail.

It will be well-known now. Thanks!

Why don't you all do more outdoorsy stories in the Weekend section?

The more interest I see the more I am able to show my editor that people really do care... My editor is open to more, she just needs to see that a lot of people want it!

What's the best way to stop bugs and schvuggies from ruining my camping trip?

Go in the winter. Really. It is the best time to camp because you don't have to deal with the bugs or the people. The best thing to do during the warmer months is to wear pants or long sleeves.

I have never gone kayaking, and I am worried about how difficult it is to pick up. I just envision being floating downstream upside down. What does a total novice learn how to go kayaking?

There are three primary disciplines: whitewater, recreation, and sea kayaking. All are distinctly different types of water but require similar skills. First off, take lessons! Then, choose skill appropriate places to paddle. If whitewater is something you aspire to, a series of lessons with an experienced instructor makes all the difference. Step one: Learn to roll and control the kayak. Step two: Make friends who are also new to the sport and practice these two skills. Step three: Continue on a learning progression that teaches you how to edge the kayak and THEN test your skills in the water. Our reasearch has shown that practice, practice, practice, under supervisio makes great whitewater kayakers!

Did you see the video of me trying it out for the first time? I'd like to think I am pretty fearless, but the idea of floating downstream upside down scared me, too. Taking a lesson really helped make me feel more comfortable, and you can't have a good time unless you feel comfortable!

I'm looking for easy spinning rod fishing options in the area--day trip distance--with either boats for rent or places to fish from the shore. I fished when I was a kid, but it has been a long time, so the easier the better. It would be a big bonus if you can rent the tackle.

The closest & best fishing in the area right now is at Flecher's Boat House in the District.   They rent boats.  Sell bait & some tackle.  When the river comes down next week things should be Hot!  Shad are the main quarry but perch, catfish and even strippers are in the mix.

Birdwatching is also a good outdoor activity, particularly now with the beginning of spring migration. The Audubon Naturalist Society provides lots of opportunities for beginners as well as more experienced birders. Go to www.anshome.org

Thanks for the suggestion. I totally agree. In my side box I mentioned bird watching as a fantastic way to enjoy nature. I tried it out and was surprised to find it to be quite exciting!

What are good free hikes on the northern Virginia side of the city, preferably close in. My SO and I love to hike but are both frugal, and he prefers to go early and not drive too far (I'm a bit more flexible). We always struggle for options.

We seem to be having some tech issues, but I wanted to make sure everyone got to see Karen's response to this q:


National Parks have several fee free days planned starting tomorrow April 16 to April 24 in celebration of National Park Week. Over 100 national parks, including Shenandoah, will waive entrance fees. Come hike for free! For the rest of the fee free days visit the National Park Service webpage at www.nps.gov/findapark/feefreeparks.htm.com. The annual pass for Shenandoah is only $30 and is good for unlimited visits during a 12 month period ? a great deal!

My favorite outdoor experiences in the DC area are both BLUE. 1. Hiking on the 20+ miles of trails at 700+ acre Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve in Loudoun County near Leesburg. There is a wonderful trail there with many spring wildflowers that should be blooming at this very moment. Includes beautiful Virginia bluebells and many other species, including some rare ones. More Virginia bluebells at Balls Bluff park and Bull Run. 2. Monitoring a bluebird nestbox trail. They're starting to nest right now. Later this summer, check out nature camp for ADULTS in Vesuvius, Virginia. Website at http://naturecamp.net/programs/adult-session-programs/ For more great activities in Loudoun County, check out the website of Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy. Most of their walks, hikes, lectures, etc. are totally free. They offer opportunities to engage in "citizen science" activities, like bluebird nestbox trail monitoring, stream monitoring, bird counts, bluebird counts, amphibian monitoring. Bye! Gotta go . . . outside!

Wow. I think I am going to go take a nice long lunch...

Friends of Dyke Marsh also hosts a bird walk every Sunday morning at 8 AM that starts near Belle Haven marina just south of Old Town. You can look it up on their website.

Great suggestion, thank you!

Most places (I'm 99% sure Potomac Paddlesports included) offer beginner classes in a pool. You're still in a boat, still upside down, but hey, it's a pool. Once you've gotten used to that, they have you go upside down in some calm water outside. Then you hit whitewater, but you know how to get out of that canoe or right it in a jiffy and you're prepared. Don't be scared - they can train you well!

Learning in a pool has advantages and disadvantages. We view the pool as a great place to keep skills over the winter months. Having a reliable roll on flat water, then testing it for "bombproofness" secoond in a Class I rapid sets you up for success!

Hi! I really want to rent bikes for a day this spring with my SO and bike somewhere and have a picnic. Two questions: 1) are there any places in DC (close to cleveland park is a bonus!) to rent bikes for a reasonable price? most of the places i've found are kind of pricey! 2) any recommendations for picnic areas we could bike to? We don't typically bike so nothing too far away please!

Capital Bikeshare (all those big red bikes you see lined up in racks downtown) sound like exactly what you need. As for picnics, how about Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens?

Anyone considering an Old Rag hike should try to get there during the middle of the week. Spring, summer and fall weekends on Old Rag can be more congested than 395 during rush hour. The Cedar Run Whiteoak Canyon loop is becoming just as crowded. Send your readers to http://www.midatlantichikes.com/ where they can find reviews of every trail in Va, MD, WV and Pa. They will be blown away by how many close in trails are available. Also Roosevelt Island to Grosvener is a great hike through Rockcreek Park. Hike in July and you'll have a metro car to yourself on the return trip to Rosslyn.

Again, tech problems. Arg. This is why I like being outdoors... Karen's answer:


Love hiking in Shenandoah National Park, but tired of the most popular hikes? I suggest a stop at one of the visitor centers along Skyline Drive (Dickey Ridge at Milepost 4.5 or Byrd VC at Milepost 51). The park rangers would be glad to find you a trail less traveled.

I'm late I know! But, I have a 100lbs Labrador, any places that will balk at renting to us and take him? We are about at the point of just buying our own so we can take the dogs too.

I don't think anyone will balk at all. Call ahead to be sure.

I have been to Great Falls National Park several times, but all from the Maryland side. I see others on the Virginia side looking out over the Potomac from a high stone-based cliff with some rock climbing below. Where is the parking and entrance for this trail on the Virginia side? Any other suggestions?

No worries, I have you covered. All you need is right here!

Thanks for the picnic recommendations--can't wait to try them out!-- but unfortunately capital bikeshare isnt really targeted for people using the bikes for a full day. The prices get really expensive over a few hours.. they are built more for quick trips than for longer retnals.

How about a flea market/thrift store, then? Maybe a friend will let you use theirs? Sorry I don't have more suggestions.

For those looking for someplace closer than Shenandoah National Park, Prince William Forest Park also has camping areas and dog-friendly trails. .

I think Shenandoah is a gem and there is nothing like it in the mid Atlantic. That said, lots of people know about it so it can be crowded and you have to drive a bit. I have been to PWFP several times and found it to be lovely and peaceful. We are lucky to have so many options!

Thanks to everyone who wrote in and to Karen, Sunny and Mark for joining me today. And the winner of the best local outdoors experience is (drum roll, please) the lover of all things blue! Please email me at orndorffa@washpost.com. The canoe-flipping was a close second, so if that person can contact me I will send you something, too.

In This Chat
Amy Orndorff
Amy Orndorff is a writer for the Weekend section. She has written several stories over the years about hiking and biking. Her latest cover story, Outdoors 101, highlights hiking, camping and water sports.
Mark Kovach
Mark Kovach has been teaching people how to fly-fish for more than 30 years. He runs Mark Kovach Fishing Services, which offers float trips down the Potomac River as well as fly-fishing lessons for all skill levels.
Edwin "Sunny" Pitcher
Sunny Pitcher is the founder and president of Potomac Paddlesports. He specializes in teaching whitewater and sea kayaking, and stand-up paddling. Pitcher is an American Canoe Association (ACA) Outstanding Instructor Award nominee and recipient of the ACA's Superstar and Student Recognition Awards. When not teaching paddling, Pitcher enjoys hiking with his family.
Karen Beck-Herzog
Beck-Herzog is the Public Affairs Officer for Shenandoah National Park where she has worked for more than eight years. She is responsible for working with the Shenandoah National Park Trust, public relations and special and commercial uses of the park. She enjoys hiking in the park with her two young children.
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