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Amtrak makes for a scenic fall journey into portions of western Maryland and West Virginia. (Image: Courtesy Amtrak)
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Rails to trails: D.C. hikes reachable by train

The weather finally feels like fall, which probably means you’re eyeing some time outdoors beyond the beltway. A first and obvious choice for an escape would be to the mountains. Both the Appalachian and Shenandoah regions make for picturesque backdrops on a day-long hike. But don't count out the Chesapeake or Potomac watershed either.

To get to any of these destinations it usually means owning a car, or at the very least having a friend who might be willing to drive you there. Fortunately, there are several railways that can take you to prime-time hiking.

On these trips, the journey requires only a passenger ticket aboard Amtrak, MARC or VRE trains. Here are the top-four rail-to-trail trips departing out of Union Station this fall.

Patuxent River State Park

Odenton, Maryland
Transit time: 1 hour round trip
Trail rating: Easy

From Union Station on MARC Train’s Penn line it’s only a half-hour trip north to the small town of Odenton, which borders Maryland’s Patuxent River State Park, a natural habitat and campground with more than 6,700 acres of natural areas and farmlands. From the train station, you’ll want to head east past The Hideaway, a local barbecue restaurant that’s also the perfect spot for a post-hike meal. Take Rock Avenue to the Magnolia Road entrance of the park, where you can immediately connect onto a wildlife loop that runs past Lake Allen and the Little Patuxent River.

Appalachian Trail

Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
Transit time: 2 hours 30 minutes round trip
Trail rating: Moderate

From Harpers Ferry it's an uphill climb into the foothills of the Shenandoah mountains. But once you reach the top of the Appalachian Trail, the views at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers can’t be beat. To get here, you’ll need to reserve an Amtrak ticket, which costs $26 round trip. It’s a scenic ride north that takes you into the heart of historic Harpers Ferry, filled with Civil War history, charming inns and plenty of restaurants to pit stop at before a mid-day hike. Upon arrival, you’ll want to ask a local to direct you to Public Way, where the Appalachian Trail resumes southward near St. Peter's Church. From there it’s a climb to Jefferson Rock, a scenic overlook. Then cross the bridge for another scenic view of the Shenandoah River. By the time your each Chestnut Hill Road, you’ll hit 1.5 miles, head back in time to catch the train home.

Rappahannock River Heritage Trail and Canal Path

Fredericksburg, Virginia
Transit time: 2 hours 30 minutes round trip
Trail rating: Easy

Before you depart for your hike, keep in mind that VRE service is only offered weekdays, or you can opt for Amtrak service to Fredericksburg on weekends. Either way it’s a scenic and traffic-free ride down the I-95 corridor. And by the time you arrive to Fredericksburg, plan for a leisurely lunch. Chef Joy Crump from Top Chef fame has two restaurants here. The easier and most casual option is Foode, an organic cafe and bar located on Princess Anne Street. After fueling up for the hike, find your way to the Rappahannock River. That’s where you can start hiking on a mostly flat, 3.1 mile paved trail that winds along the canal and up the river in a giant loop.

Prince William Forest

Triangle, Virginia
Transit time: 1 hour 45 minutes round trip
Trail rating: Moderate

Directly adjacent to the Marine Corps Base Quantico is the largest protected natural area in the DC metro region. There are more than 16,000 acres to explore here, including 37 miles of hiking. The longest trail stretches nine miles. To get here, you’ll need to take VRE rail or Amtrak service to Quantico Station. From there, you’ll either either want to take a 15-minute bus or Uber to the park’s main entrance, located at Joplin and Park Entrance Road. The Laurel Loop trail is a great jumping off point. It’s a 1.4 mile trail that can take you to other more strenuous trails, like Birch Bluff Trail, the Crossing Trail and South Valley Trail.

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