On the Road: The Best Long Distance Rides From DC

C&O Canal Towpath east of Harper's Ferry
C&O Canal Towpath east of Harper's Ferry Wikimedia Commons
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A bicycle is a need-to-have in Washington, DC. Not only does a bike provide a smart mode of transport to get around the city, it's a vehicle to areas beyond the day-to-day city routes—to the countryside trails of Maryland, the rolling hills of Virginia, and even as far as the scenic farmlands of Pennsylvania. If you're a dedicated cyclist you know that hitting the road for a long-distance ride is bliss. Widely regarded as one of the best low-impact, full-body endurance workouts, the calories burned—500-ish per hour, depending on incline and speed—is just frosting on the cake. Riding feels great and leads you into various states of meditation. While working countless muscle groups—core, quads, hamstrings, and calves—you can put in your ear buds and get lost in thought while exploring DC and beyond.

Check out these four long-distance rides from DC to far outside city limits. Taking you along steep incline trails, down long roads, and at points, among high-speed city traffic, these are not for the faint of cycling heart. If you're up for the challenge, grab your gear: these rides can't be missed.

1. DC to George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate

Plenty of solitude to be found on the path along Dyke Marsh on the Mount Vernon Trail
Plenty of solitude to be found on the path along Dyke Marsh on the Mount Vernon Trail Wikimedia Commons

Approximately 18 Miles Each Way

Across the river from downtown DC winds the 18-mile long Mt. Vernon Trail along the banks of the storied Potomac River. The destination at the end of the path is, of course, our nation’s first President's sprawling estate at Mt. Vernon. While crossing bridge paths, paved and gravel roads, and fertile marshland, you'll be surrounded by unadulterated views of the Potomac dressed with statuesque monuments that shape the city skyline. Ride hard or take your time, either way there are plenty of points of interest to stop at for a breather along the way.

You'll first come across Gravelly Point Park, a great spot where you can watch planes departing from Reagan National Airport fly overhead. After Gravelly comes Old Town Alexandria, where the path splits providing two route options—Union Street to the popular Kings Street area for lunch, or North Royal Street for a direct route to George Washington's house.

2. DC to Great Falls

Views along the C&O Canal towpath in DC
Views along the C&O Canal towpath in DC Wikimedia Commons, Mdy66

Approximately 27 Miles Each Way  

This ride is a local favorite and usually finds itself listed as one of the best routes in the DC area. It is also the starting off point to the meanest ride around (see next entry, DC to Baltimore.) One of the reasons the path to Great Falls is a perennial favorite is because it enables a fulfilling ride that's doable in a long afternoon, but close enough to the city lifeblood that you can still have an evening out when you're done.

This 27-mile ride starts in DC and heads along the C&O Canal towpath into Maryland. The trail is flat but rugged, and surrounded by wildlife and beautiful scenery. The main attraction, and the ride's conclusion—Great Falls—is where the Potomac River feeds into the mid-Atlantic Piedmont area. Here, you can stop for a break along the banks of the falls and enjoy watching the rapids as they rush through the rocks. You may even spot a kayaker or two trying to navigate the white water.

3. DC to Baltimore

For history buffs on bikes: Dalecarlia Tunnel was built in 1910 by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad
For history buffs on bikes: Dalecarlia Tunnel was built in 1910 by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Wikimedia Commons

Approximately 47 Miles Each Way  

Looking for a weekend getaway by bike? This route between DC and Baltimore takes you from one urban landscape to the next, where you can stop to explore two of the most prized cities on the east coast. The 30-mile Baltimore/Washington Corridor is mostly bike-friendly (there are some tough spots but creativity will get you through). The ride is covered by hills, though they are not too difficult, and crosses countless paved streets, which are not wildly trafficked. What makes this route great is the solitude on the trail and the historic landscape you will encounter. Shared roads with traffic can be snug, so as always, wear your urban cycling armor.

4. DC to Pittsburgh

C&O Canal Towpath east of Harper's Ferry
C&O Canal Towpath east of Harper's Ferry Wikimedia Commons

Approximatley 330+ Miles   Each Way

The C&O Canal towpath from the Georgetown Waterfront to Great Falls is beloved by locals and travelers wishing to cycle, hike, speed-walk, paddle, or jog along 20 miles of beautiful swampy solitude. What makes this trail legendary to area cyclists is what lies beyond the Falls where the casual path-goer drops off—184.5 miles of trail ending in Cumberland, Maryland. If reaching Cumberland still isn't enough for you, the second leg of this epic ride begins along the Great Allegheny Passage Trail, which crosses 150 traffic-free miles all the way to Pittsburgh, PA. This is not a technical ride, but the duration of it makes it a huge undertaking and worth training up for with some shorter runs in advance—it’s more of a bike adventure, than a bike ride.

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