Northern Virginia Dayhikes

Some comments about the climate...
Northern Virginia has a classic, 4-season temperate climate without any wet or dry season. Within DC, the temperatures are about 5 degrees warmer than the outlying suburbs west of the city. Along the high points of the Skyline Drive, it's about 5 to 10 degrees cooler than in those suburbs (all temperatures are given in Fahrenheit).

The weather report for DC will normally give you a good idea of what the entire area is experiencing. Snow and ice-storms are more likely to occur north and west of the city. The mountains get a bit more precipitation and often experience localized fog not found elsewhere.

View from the base of Lewis Spring Falls
Although the seasons are predictable, there can be a great deal of variation from "typical" conditions. Nevertheless, the local short-term weather forecasts are usually reliable and can give you a good idea of what to expect for up to a week into the future.

The mountains receive an average of 3 to 4 feet of snow a year. They can get significant snow falls any time from mid-November through early April, but most of it falls during January and February. January is the coldest month, with an average high of 36 and low of 19. Areas which get any sun at all will typically be free of snow and ice through most of the winter, but shaded areas may stay covered through the end of March. Closings of the Skyline Drive are not uncommon, but they don't last very long.

The DC suburbs get an average of just under 17" of snow a year, so it usually isn't an issue but still something you need to be aware of. In January, areas just west of DC have an average high temperature of 41 and low of 22.

Spring brings us wildflowers, moderate temperatures and lots of tree pollen. Wildflowers in the mountains tend to peak throughout the month of May, with the mountain laurel blooming in early June. Down near DC, mid-April is the best time for seeing the greatest variety of forest wildflowers.

I personally think that April is the best time for viewing waterfalls in the mountains. The water levels are consistently high and the trees have not yet filled in with leaves to block your views. They have started to bud, however, decorating the forest with pleasing pastel colors. Because of the water levels, this is also the time of year in which you need to be most concerned about the conditions of unimproved stream crossings.

Summer is my least favorite time of year for hiking because of the heat, humidity, haze and bugs. Vegetation often chokes the trails and you always have to be on the lookout for stinging nettles and poison ivy. Waterfalls can become nothing more than a trickle as the trees suck up most of the moisture. Although the July average high temperature on the Skyline Drive is only 75 degrees, it can often seem hotter and it heats up quickly as you lose elevation. Closer to DC, the average July high temperature is 87.

From mid-June to late August, it's usually best to assume a hot, humid day with the possibility of an afternoon thundershower. From late August to late September, cooler and drier days gradually become more typical. This is also the most likely time to have to deal with the fallout from a tropical storm, but they aren't very common here and rarely strong enough to cause anything worse than 1 or 2 days of steady rain.

The crisp, clear days of fall along with the changing colors of the trees makes for some of the best hiking of the year. On the Skyline Drive, the colors usually peak during the 2nd week of October or near the beginning of the 3rd week. Closer to DC, the peak is around the last week of October or first week of November.

After the summer lows, water levels typically rise some in September and October, although this can be quite variable. They usually start going down again in November and won't come back up until the spring thaw. Late fall is an excellent time for bushwhacking - the weather is nice, the underbrush is gone and the low water levels make it easy to follow streambeds.

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