Great waterfall hikes near Washington DC

*All distances are measured from the Washington Monument.

Eight waterfalls, one hike

Where: Whiteoak Canyon/Cedar Run in Shenandoah National Park.

DC Distance:* 96 miles.

Duration of the hike: 8 miles.

Difficulty: Arduous.

This loop hike includes eight waterfalls, including the 86-foot one at the upper end of the Whiteoak Canyon Trail, the second-tallest waterfall in Shenandoah National Park. Fair warning: with an elevation change of nearly 2,500 feet, this hike is a healthy workout. But you can cool off by standing under a few falls or sitting or wading in the recovery pools. The park’s dense forest also provides shade on hot days. Leave your car in the Whiteoak Boundary parking area, then head up the Whiteoak Canyon trail. You will finish by descending the Cedar Run Trail. One of the midway falls in Cedar Run has a relatively flat, rocky part where you can sit and feel the stream of water or cool off your feet.

After the hike: Sip Sauvignon Blanc or Old Rag Red at Sharp Rock Vineyards in Sperryville.

Accessible to everyone

Where: Cunningham Falls in Thurmont, Maryland.

DC Distance: 66 miles.

Duration of the hike: 0.25 to 1.25 miles.

Difficulty: Easy to moderate.

At 78 feet high, Cunningham Falls is Maryland’s tallest cascading waterfall. Unlike a straight shower of water, a cascading waterfall meanders over sections of rock, prompting some visitors to scramble up the rocks to sit under the spray. (The park recommends against it.) There are two paths to the falls in Cunningham Falls State Park. From the main lot of the William Houck area, you can take an easy, lower path of crushed gravel that is only half a mile long. The longer Cliff Trail includes some fun rock scrambling and is about three-quarters of a mile. Or combine both trails to make a loop – start at the Cliff Trail and return via the Lower Cliff Trail. The waterfall can also be viewed via a quarter mile handicapped accessible boardwalk. For this, use the parking lot on Foxville Road. (This requires a disabled license or tag.)

After the hike: Plunge into Hunting Creek Lake in Cunningham Falls State Park. The lake has two small beaches.

General run in Shenandoah National Park.

A very high waterfall

Where: General run in Shenandoah National Park.

DC Distance: 90 miles.

Duration of the hike: 6.2 miles.

Difficulty: Arduous.

The Overall Run Waterfall, at 93 feet, is the tallest in Shenandoah National Park. Yet timing is everything: if there hasn’t been recent rain, it could be just a trickle. With heavy rainfall, however, it is spectacular. The hike starts from Hogback Overlook on Skyline Drive at Mile 21 and follows the Appalachian Trail to the Tuscarora – Overall Run Trail. A small side trail leads to a view of the top of the falls. A little further along the Tuscarora–Overall Run Trail there is a view of the lower part of the falls. It’s mostly downhill to the falls, but that means it’s uphill to the car. Serious hikers can try an 11 mile loop that continues downhill to a swimming hole (no views of the falls here) and back via the Overall/Beecher Connector and the Beecher Ridge Trail.

After the hike: Hit Skyline Brewing, near the park’s Thornton Gap entrance, for what’s on tap that day – maybe a Shenandoah Wheat or White House Honey Porter (so named because it’s the same recipe made in the White House kitchen under President Obama).

Cool and nearby

Where: Race from Scott to McLean.

DC Distance: 12 miles.

Duration of the hike: 2 to 4 miles.

Difficulty: Easy to moderate.

This beautiful little waterfall adjacent to the Potomac River is easily accessible via a simple one mile trail. Several longer loop hikes can also be created by connecting various trails, all well marked, in the nature reserve. On the way to the waterfall, you will cross a stream by walking on a row of round concrete pads. But once you reach the falls, you’ll need to stay out of the water: the current on the Potomac here can be very strong and dangerous. The hike is popular year-round, so you’ll want to get there early to find a spot for your car. There are two parking areas; the second lot you come to when heading west on Georgetown Pike is closest to the trailhead.

After the hike: Try the brick-oven pizza at Rocco’s Italian Restaurant in McLean.

Great falls. Photograph by Rob Bole/@bolevasse/Flickr.com.

The biggest: the big falls

Where: Great Falls at McLean.

DC Distance: 20 miles.

Duration of the hike: 3 miles.

Difficulty: Easy to moderate.

No list of waterfalls in the area would be complete without Great Falls. The raging torrent drops 47 feet over a series of sloping rock faces. There are vantage points on the Maryland and Virginia sides of the Potomac; the Virginia Overlook at Great Falls Park (a National Park Service site) offers a better view of the falls in their entirety. To avoid entrance fees ($20 per car) and a sometimes long line, you can leave your car at Riverbend Park in Virginia, about two and a half miles north of the entrance to Great Falls Park ( suggested donation: $2) . The three-mile round-trip hike in Riverbend Park follows easy wooded trails along the river to the two lookouts in the national park.

After the hike: Enjoy a leisurely lunch of French dishes on the terrace of L’Auberge Chez François.

Two just in Arlington

Where: Tributary of the Potomac and Gulf Branch, on the Potomac Heritage Trail in Arlington.

DC Distance: 6 miles.

Duration of the hike: 5 miles.

Difficulty: Easy to moderate.

Enjoy two little-known waterfalls just across from DC. From the Potomac Overlook Regional Park in Arlington, follow the Donaldson Run Trail approximately 1 mile to the Potomac Heritage Trail. Turn right and walk along the Potomac River another mile to the Potomac Tributary Waterfall, which has several small waterfalls. Return north along the trail and continue past the Donaldson Run trail intersection for half a mile to another cascading waterfall where Gulf Branch meets the Potomac River. Both work best after a few rains. You can backtrack along the Potomac River and back up the Donaldson Run Trail to complete the hike.

After the hike: Sample Thai rolled ice cream at La Moo Creamery in Arlington.

Dark Hollow Falls. Photography by Shenandoah NPS/Flickr.com.

Descend into cool darkness

Where: Rose River Falls and Dark Hollow Falls in Shenandoah National Park.

DC Distance: 100 miles.

Duration of the hike: 4.5 miles.

Difficulty: Moderate to intense.

Starting at the top of Skyline Drive in the Fishers Gap Overlook parking lot at mile 49, descend deep into the woods to the 67-foot Rose River Falls, which split into two separate cascades. From there you can continue on the trail and cross a bridge over the creek. As the trail begins to climb you will find additional waterfalls and wading pools. A short distance after the trail intersection with a fire road, you will come across the Dark Hollow Falls trail and its 70 foot waterfall. You probably won’t have this waterfall all to yourself. It can get crowded as it is also easily accessible by a short hike from another parking lot along Skyline Drive. Return to Fire Road and follow it back to your starting point.

After the hike: Grab a cup of coffee at the Off the Grid Solar Cafe in Sperryville.

Kilgore Falls. Photograph by Bart/@cayusa/Flickr.com.

A short and easy walk

Where: Kilgore Falls in Pylesville, Maryland.

DC Distance: 81 miles.

Duration of the hike: A mile.

Difficulty: Easy.

If you’re looking for a pleasant walk to a tranquil waterfall, this north Baltimore gem in Rocks State Park is for you: seeing the falls involves a stroll just half a mile from the rest area. parking on easy ground. The tricky part? A reservation is required to visit the falls on weekends and holidays. Once there, look for the Kilgore Falls Trail, where hikers will find a section of boardwalk, a wooden bridge, a small stream crossed by well-placed rocks, and a side trail that leads to a view from the top of the waterfall. The recovery pool at the bottom of the falls includes a shallow area where children can splash around. A deeper area closer to the 17-foot waterfall allows for wading, swimming, or standing under the flowing water. On a busy weekend day, you might see visitors jumping off rocks in the recovery pool. Not recommended – the waterfall is lined with blunt rock faces.

After the hike: Try the delicious desserts at nearby Eats & Sweets. It also offers an extensive menu.

This article appears in the July 2022 issue of The Washingtonian.

Matthew Graham

Leave a Comment