Q&A with co-author Renee Sklarew.
The new book, 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Washington, D.C. Including Suburban and Outlying Areas of Maryland and Virginia, is the result of 12 months of energetic research by hiking enthusiasts Renee Sklarew and Rachel Cooper. The new guidebook includes narratives, photographs, and detailed maps, reveals the most scenic overlooks, wildlife hotspots, and historical settings, and also details what gear to take, situations to avoid, and recommendations about the best times to visit each trail. Authors Renee Sklarew and Rachel Cooper spent one year traversing the many National and State Parks in the region, choosing to feature hikes that can be accomplished in one day.
Renee Sklarew is a native Washingtonian who has written multiple guidebooks about her hometown including The Unofficial Guide to Washington DC and Fodor’s Washington DC Guidebook. Her love for exploring the great outdoors made it a natural fit when asked to write a book about hiking in the region. She specializes in travel, food and recreation. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Boston Globe, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Washingtonian, Northern Virginia Magazine, ForbesTravel.com and the adventure-focused website RootsRated.com. She currently serves as the dining editor of VivaTysons Magazine.
What inspired you and Rachel to write this book? Had you worked together before? Were you hiking buddies?
Both Rachel and I write about travel in the MidAtlantic. We had gone on several travel research trips together when Adventure/Keen, the publisher of the 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles series, asked me to write the book. They knew my work from writing their Unofficial Guide series about Washington, D.C. I immediately asked Rachel to be my partner, because I believe adventures are always better when you do them with a friend! Rachel’s husband Brian is a tech-expert, so he helped us develop our maps. We brought him in as a partner. My husband contributed by teaching us about the local flora and fauna. The four of us enjoy socializing, so the whole project turned out to be a lot of fun.
What considerations went into selecting which hiking trails to include in the book?
Our goal was to provide a wide range of options for hikers, whether they were looking for something super challenging or an easy stroll through a forest thriving with wildlife. First, the trails had to be within 60 miles of the U.S. Capitol. Next, we identified the most scenic trails around Washington, D.C. Some had to be accessible by public transportation. Every trail had to be a day trip; not require backpacking or an overnight. We also focused on trails that are better by foot rather than by bicycle. Lastly, we tried to find trails with interesting histories. Lots of analysis, but we think we picked the best in the region.
What are some highlights from this book?
Some highlights include trails by the National Mall, and of course, the Appalachian Trail in the heart of Virginia’s wine country. As I mentioned, trails like Rock Creek Park are accessible by MetroRail, while others lead you far into Southern Maryland by the shores of Chesapeake Bay. Most trails feature picturesque bodies of water, while others challenge you to scramble over boulders near the region’s biggest cascade, Great Falls. The Anacostia Riverwalk near Nationals Stadium opened last year and follows the shoreline to the magnificent wetlands of Kenilworth Aquatic Garden.
What is your personal favorite hiking trail near Washington, D.C. and why?
I have a few, but if I have to choose, it would be Mason Neck State Park and National Wildlife Refuge. The park is featured on the cover of our book. Besides being an enchanting combination of wetlands, river scenes and woods, it’s also the place where the bald eagle first made a comeback in our region. The park covers more than 9,000 acres of public lands on a peninsula that juts out into the Potomac River. The area was first written about by John Smith’s exploration party in 1608. Later it was home to Virginia’s founding father George Mason, and then became the site of a major skirmish between the British and Americans during the War of 1812. All this incredible history, mixed with breathtaking natural beauty. And, when I was there, I saw bald eagles flying overhead. Considering this American symbol almost became extinct, I still get pretty excited when I see them.
What was the biggest unexpected discovery you made while researching this book?
I think for me it was discovering that our national battlefields are also satisfying places to hike. Most people go there to learn about the Civil War, but both Manassas and Monocacy National Battlefields are ideal places to experience a wide range of landscapes. Within their communities, they’ve become neighborhood centers enjoyed by local dog walkers, teens, families, meetup groups, and of course, hikers. It’s easy to park there, and they have public restrooms. As part of the National Park system, they belong to us and are meant to provide multiple uses beyond their historical importance.
Is there any one trail you think is best for adults? Why that trail?
When I was at Huntley Meadows Park, I witnessed an endearing marriage proposal. Hiking along the boardwalks over that mystical swampland is truly magical. You can see a variety of thriving wildlife, and it has places to sit and contemplate. But for adults seeking a serious challenge, I recommend Difficult Run. The name gives you a clue, but this trail is a combination of rock climbing, cliff surveying and elevations where you will “feel the burn.” Difficult Run is part of the Potomac Heritage Trail and is an alternative hike to the overcrowded Great Falls, though it provides access to this famous waterfall and gorge from the side less traveled.
What is the one thing that no hiker should ever hit a trail without?
Water. I don’t care what time of year or how short a time you plan to be out, just bring water. Bring enough to keep you going. Also, don’t forget to actually drink it. A good rule to remember is that you need, at minimum, one quart for every five miles covered, and much more during the summer months. I also suggest you wear proper hiking shoes to keep from turning an ankle, and bring a charged-up cell phone for photos and emergencies if you get lost or injured.
What is your favorite hiking destination outside of the Washington, D.C. area?
I spend the most time hiking in Shenandoah National Park. It’s only 90 minutes from Washington, D.C., but it feels so far away. On your way are dozens of orchard, farms and vineyards. I recommend staying overnight at the rustic Skyland Resort at the top of Skyline Drive. During the day you can join a naturalist on a hike, ride horses and scale some serious peaks. Then, seeing the sunset over the valley is literally mind blowing. They aren’t called the “Blue Ridge” for nothing.
Do you think it’s safe for a woman to hike alone?
Yes, I do, and often. I take a cell phone and pepper spray to be safe, but after hiking more than 30 hikes, many alone, I never felt worried. I was able to hike midday during the week and rarely saw people. First, let someone know where and when you’re going. I also recommend checking in with a ranger or at the visitor center to let them know you’re heading out and for approximately how long. I usually go back after I’m finished to let them know all is well. I really enjoy hiking alone. It’s a great time to think and really see what’s around you. You also choose your own pace, stop when you want, and shoot photos when you want. Scientists have studied the phenomenon of nature’s positive effects on the human psyche. They call it eco-therapy, and being alone is the best way to get it.
The book retails for $18.95 in bookstores, and $15.06 on Amazon. Click here to order a copy for yourself and/or as a gift for any hiker on your list.