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
- 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
- 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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Copyright 2007 by Robert Cantor