Catoctin Mountain Park in Thurmont, MD!

Catoctin Mountain Park in Thurmont, MD!

This is the start of our new series of Hiking parks near and around the DC Metro Area. The level of hiking will be aimed towards the older kids and adults. I would like to welcome Celeste Otsuka as our guest reviewer. Celeste does a lot of hiking, running and overall exploration of the best hiking spots that can be driven to over a weekend.

I live and work in Reston, VA, where I enjoy running on the many trails near my  neighborhood early in the morning with my obnoxious headlamp.  As a child, I fell in love with the idea of hiking after seeing the play “Into the Woods”, then quickly realized the two were not related.  Now, I largely solo hike on every type of trail – from those strenuous enough to include some difficult rock scrambling to what I term “nature walks”.  Seven backpacks later, I’m convinced I’m ready to start another big adventure. -Celeste Otsuka

First up in Celeste’s Hiking Series is Catoctin Mountain Park in Thurmont, MD. Not very far from the VA line and a beautiful drive through Lucketts, VA and Point of Rocks, MD.

Address: 6602 Foxville Road, Thurmont, MD 21788

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On New Year’s Day, I set off for a First Day Hike.  The park I selected was Catoctin Mountain Park, which is located in Thurmont, MD (about an hour and 15 minute drive from the Reston, VA area).  The drive itself is quite scenic and really lended itself to the experience.  One should note that Camp David (yes THAT Camp David) is located on the Catoctin Montain Park grounds, however, it is not marked, and I’m not sure how happy they are when visitors actively look for it.

As it was New Year’s Day, the park’s Visitor Center was closed (as were all the restroom facilities on site).  Visitors to the park should always check the website, facebook, or twitter prior to going for any updates (including closures due to presidential visits).  Prior to actually coming to the park, I had selected the 8 Mile Loop from the park’s website.  I kept trail map up on my phone while I was hiking.  I have Verizon cellular coverage, and I never experienced any issues with dead zones and had LTE for most of my visit.  While the Visitor Center is likely usually well stocked with maps, it was not that day – so I was glad to have the map on my phone.

8 Mile Loop Map

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Catoctin Mountain Park borders Cunningham Falls State Park (where Cunningham Falls is located).  The trail loop that I followed made a stop at the falls within the first two miles.  Note that Catoctin is a National Park and Cunningham Falls is a State Park – there are slight differences in park rules that visitors should be aware of.

As I went during winter and fairly early in the morning (I arrived to the park around 8:00am), there were very few other visitors, and I did not encounter other people on the trails until about 3 miles into my hike.  There are certain parts of the trail that offer a decent ascent/descent, but overall, if you hike the trail in a clockwise manner as I did, I found it to be a more moderate than strenuous hike.  However, the trail itself is very rocky, so I’d still suggest wearing hiking boots with good ankle support.

As far as scenery goes, the trail is heavily wooded with interesting rock formations that jut out over most of the trail.  There are several vistas and large rock formations of interest that are pointed out by the trail map.  Each location is well marked on the trail with distance markers.  The trail itself is fairly well worn, so even beginning hikers should have no problems navigating the trails.  The section of the trail that winds from the Park Headquarters back to the Visitor Center is both very rocky and somewhat underused.  However, that section is blazed with blue ties on the trees, so hikers can find their way through.

Prior to coming to the park, I did read reviews that the park is pretty riddled with ticks in the summer months, but in the winter, there were very few bugs in sight!  This is a great hike for a chilly fall/winter day.  I’d suggest going early to avoid crowds.

Shenandoah National Park in Luray, VA!

Shenandoah National Park in Luray, VA!

Shenandoah National Park is one of my favorite National Parks located in Virginia. My family and I head to Skyline Drive often to see the foliage and any animals that might be walking around. We’ve taken the boys on many hikes throughout the park but are waiting to camp with them until they get a little older.  The park has several activities for everyone from active to passive. When we frequent the park we hike one of the many trails throughout the park. But you can also horseback ride, bike, camp, backcountry camp, fish and observe wildlife

Address: 3655 E Highway 211, Luray, VA 22835

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The hiking in Shenandoah park includes 500 miles of trail with 100 of them being the Appalachian Trail. There are different skill levels of hiking trails available including the tougher Old Rag Mountain which I hiked about two years ago. This trail is not for young children or pets with its high drop offs and small waterfall crossings. In our last visit we headed out on the Elkwallow Trail which was just off the Elkwallow convenience store, restrooms and small parking lot. It was easy for the little guys and we even found a couple salamanders on our way.



 The other activity we love to do in Shenandoah National Park is driving along Skyline Drive to check out the awesome views and assorted wildlife along the drive. We’ve been fortunate enough to see a bear, turkeys and of course of tons of deer. If you’re not into hiking or camping, a drive along Skyline Drive is also a great option to getting close to nature without being in the middle of it. In addition to the Drive there are a couple visitor centers along the way to visit, Dickey Ridge and Harry F. Byrd, Sr. Visitor Center with exhibits and information desk. For food options, check out the several food stops along the Skyline Drive by clicking on this link.




As you can tell my family and I just love Shenandoah National Park. If you’re going to make a day of it you can also check out Luray Caverns which is not that far from the National Park. Luray Caverns is another spot we love to head with the boys with it’s great stalactites and stalagmites. If you’re looking for a fun family outing or just a great hike with friends check out Shenandoah National Park in Luray, VA!

Prince William Forest National Park in Triangle, VA!

Prince William Forest National Park in Triangle, VA!

My family and I love to hike and this National Park has 37-miles of wooded trails to explore! We have never camped at the park since my in-laws live close by but there are plenty of campsites for all the different types of camping, tent and RV. Indoor Restrooms are available near campsites and certain picnic shelters. If roughing it is not your thing cabins are available to rent as well.

Address: 18100 Park Headquarters Rd, Triangle, VA 22172

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If hiking and camping aren’t your interest you can take the 12-mile Scenic Drive around the park to see the beautiful foliage and wildlife. If you’re into bike riding there is 21-miles of bike path with 3-miles of paved bike path for beginners and the younger crowd. For the history buffs you can visit the Visitor Center to learn more about the parks wildlife, conservation efforts and history behind why the park was conserved as natural space. Picnic Shelters are also available for rental through the park service. The picnic shelter near the Visitor Center has indoor restrooms nearby and a large playground area for the kiddos. The play equipment has a great wildlife theme and different pieces of climbing equipment you don’t normally see at most parks.








As always beware of TICKS on the hiking trails as this is 15,000 acres of natural space with tons of wildlife. If you’re into geocaching this park is filled with caches just remember to mind the natural foliage around the caches. Just like any other National Park there is an admission fee per car. For more on the admission, camping and rental fees click here.

Great Falls National Park in Great Falls, VA!

Great Falls National Park in Great Falls, VA!

One of my favorite parks is in Fairfax County, Great Falls National Park in Great Falls, VA! The Potomac River runs over the steep rocks creating the falls. The falls can be seen from both VA or MD side of the Potomac River. My family loves to go and check out the falls at one of three overlooks and hike the trails near the river. The park has lots of history and tablets are all over the park showing the vistors why the park remains an attraction.

Address: 9200 Old Dominion Drive, McLean, VA

If you like being outside close to nature this is the park for you. The park has over 15 miles of trail with 5 of the miles of trail that can be used for horseback riding and bikes. If you head upstream the trail leads to the Riverbend Park trail system.  The trails around the Visitor Center, picnic area and overlooks can accomodate strollers and wagons. The hiking trails near the river can be rocky and narrow so if you’re taking the little ones just make sure you keep them close.

In addition to the hiking trails, avid kayakers and rock climbers can use the park. There are a couple drop in areas for the kayakers and two areas for repelling over the river. If the outdoors is not where you like to be then check out the Visitor Center. The Visitor Center has a small hands on area for the kids to check out what can be found in the park. The park also offers a Junior Ranger Program for children 5 years and up to learn about the park and earn badges. If you’re into history, the majority of the Visitor Center has many interactive exhibits showing the history of the area and conservation efforts to keep the park healthy.


My family and I enjoy taking all our out of town guests to this park for a picnic and hiking. There are restrooms in the Visitor Center and various places around the park. It’s a beautiful park year round and if you live in Northern Virginia you should check it out!







Wolf Trap’s Children’s Theatre in the Woods in Vienna, VA!

Wolf Trap’s Children’s Theatre in the Woods in Vienna, VA!

Today we checked out Wolf Trap’s Children’s Theatre in the Woods. Wolf Trap National Park is the only national park dedicated to presenting the performing arts. The park has multiple amphitheatres including the Children’s Theatre in the Woods with performances from May-September. Wolf Trap National Park is located in the suburbs of Vienna, VA in Fairfax County.

Address: 1551 Trap Rd, Vienna, VA 22182

The Children’s Theatre is located in the woods and seating is general admission. Parking is available at the entrance of the Filene Center. You walk up a small hill and down to the ticket kiosk. Tickets can be purchased either online or at the ticket kiosk. Restrooms are available outside the theatre near the ticket kiosk. Food is not allowed inside the theatre but they have many benches around to have a snack or lunch. In between shows people would walk out and grab a snack then return to watch the second show. I’m surpised at the lack of bugs in the venue even though we were sitting in the middle of the woods.

We were lucky enough to be in the third row from the stage but there really wasn’t a bad seat in the house. Strollers are allowed up to the entrance of the theatre and then parked near a fence. The shows were aimed more towards the Kindergarten level but my little boys loved the show.

We’ll be headed back to Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts!

White Oak Canyon Trail in Syria, VA

White Oak Canyon Trail in Syria, VA

This past weekend a few friends and I checked out Old Rag Mountain and the White Oak Canyon Trail in Syria, VA. This 8.8 mile trail takes you through some tough terrain. Lots of rocks and a few water crossings make the trail both adventurous and beautiful. This trail is not advisable for pets and small children.

Address: Old Rag Road, Syria, VA 22743

We started at the bottom of the mountain off of Old Rag Road and hiked up near the top which leads to Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park. Parking was a bit tight but if you have an SUV you can cross a small creek to get to additional parking, porta potties and the entrance to the trail. Next time we hit this trail we are going to pack a small backpack with water and snack. Make sure you bring a small camera because the waterfalls and small pools are beautiful.

Back in town and up next……Trailside Park in Ashburn, VA!