The view is often the best part of an excursion into the wild. Anyone who’s climbed a mountain can verify this. There’s something cathartic about scaling a mountain, or walking for miles in a forest, or setting up camp to face East for the sunrise, or the moment when the meteor shower starts. These are reminders that we humans on a hike aren’t just visiting nature; we’re actually a part of nature, and every beautiful vista we come across is part of the planet we call home.
The downside, of course, is that it can be a drag to get all the way out to a National Park to have that kind of experience. Getting to a place with a beautiful view takes effort, maybe some kind of physical exertion, planning, patience, and work. Luckily for us who live on the East coast, it’s actually pretty easy to get out to the wilderness. All of the places on this list, dearest Brightest Young Things, are within a 200-mile radius from the middle of the District.
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This is possibly the most popular destination on this list for our readers who are more acquainted with hiking outside of the immediate D.C. area. While the Ridge Trail is a somewhat steep climb, it’s a great spot to start with, and has a rewarding summit. However, for the less-experienced climbers and hikers, it’s important to stick to the trail. That actually goes for the majority of the destinations on this list.
Just over the Pennsylvania line, bordering Maryland, is a not-so-frequently-visited State Park, dedicated to the preservation of Pennsylvania’s wilderness. It’s a quiet series of winding trails and two-lane blacktops, snaking through the Alleghenies. This is a great park to visit for solitude.
Skyline Drive can be a bit of a tourist trap, especially when the leaves start to turn. It’s inherent to anyplace that gets a reputation for beauty; everyone wants to see it, and the crowds diminish how pretty the place can be. However, if you park your car, and walk far enough out into Big Meadows, there’s a beauty out there no crowd can touch. Try to go once the leaves have mostly gone, and you can hear the wind howl through the branches. Watch out for bears.
The trails are gorgeous, the trees are beautiful, and there’s even a few chances to spot deer or foxes during the slower season. However, the best reason to visit Cunningham Falls, far and away, has got to be the swimming hole. Bear in mind, you’ll need to hike with whatever you want to swim in– there’s no changing rooms in the woods.
Anywhere that can tie wilderness and history together has my vote. Harpers Ferry is one of the oldest settlements in the West Virginia territory, with a few landmarks going back to the 1750’s. It’s also full of sweeping vistas of the Potomac. One of the best times to visit is in January, when the sun sits low through the trees, cutting through the empty trees. It makes for a gorgeous sunset, especially if the river has iced over.
The slow lap of the water against the cypress trees, the chatter of the thousands of birds overhead, and the stirring of cicadas in the branches all make for a one-of-a-kind ecosystem. Just on the border between Virginia and North Carolina, the Great Dismal Swamp features some of the most unique landscapes in the United States. Don’t go here alone. Take a buddy. There is no shortage of cottonmouths.
Whoever said New Jersey can’t be gorgeous can stuff it. Wharton feels a bit like a “greatest hits” of a camping destination. There’s canoeing/kayaking, hiking, and a few spots to go watch the stars on a clear night. It’s also relatively quiet during the off-season, which makes it a great spot for couples.
For only a handful of views, and a fairly spartan series of campsites, Bald Eagle State Forest is objectively one of the prettiest sites on this list, and it’s largely due to human intervention. Much of the trees in the series of State Parks that make up Bald Eagle are only 100 years old. Steam engines passing through the forests caused wildfires, burning off the homogeneous growth, giving new trees a fighting chance. While man-made forest fires are detrimental to the wilderness so loved by those who hike, the end result at Bald Eagle is stunning. Sugar maples turning crimson red and fire orange, oaks turning deep hues of green-brown, and the odd willow turning into flecks of yellow, as the fall rolls on.
Some of the best hikes elicit a sense of humility. Walking through old growth forests with 200-year-old trees really hammers home the sense that our time on this planet is fleeting, and that we’re not quite as important as we sometimes believe. Something that compliments that feeling nicely is being in front of another force of nature, like the Atlantic Ocean. The meadows at South Cape May feature the Chesapeake Bay to the West, and the Atlantic to the East. The trees and wildlife reflect the ever-changing landscape of the beach at the mouth of the Bay. Everything is in constant flux here. Nothing stays the same forever. You’ll never come to the same park twice.