Here are 10 Great Falls Park alternatives worth visiting when park entry lines back up with crowds clamoring for scenery, picnic spots, ...
This 2.5 mile woodland loop hike follows shady dirt paths to the Potomac River, returning through hollows and upland forest at Riverbend Regional Park in Great Falls, Virginia. The wooded trails offer a nice alternative to the busiest sections of the Potomac Heritage Trail, while still including a stretch of river views.
Like most visitors to Riverbend, we generally drive to the main parking area and hike the Potomac Heritage Trail, following the river east to Great Falls Park or west to the park boundary. Our woodland loop hike avoids the busier areas of the park, which can be crowded when the riverside is popular with warm weather hikers. The terrain is mostly level, though there are a few short hills involved, and you can easily adjust your route for a shorter or longer outing.
Here is a close-up of the Riverbend Park trail map, and the suggested route of our woodland loop hike:
Riverbend Park Woodland Loop Hike
Park near the entrance, in a small lot on the left side of the road as you enter Riverbend. The trailhead begins right at the parking area, and there’s a convenient map display so you can snap a picture of the trail system. Follow the red blazed Bootlegger Trail into the quiet woods. We were intrigued with the open field and rustic wood building in Conn’s Farm Meadow, so took the connector trail through the field and across Jeffrey Road to the Riverbend Nature Center.
The Nature Center is used for classes and special events, and is not generally open to the public. Continue to the end of the parking lot and onto the Nature Loop, turning left at the connector trail back to the Bootlegger Trail.
The Bootlegger Trail descends toward the river, passing the small Carper’s Pond. If you hike in spring you may find the pond alive with hundreds (thousands?) of peeping frogs.
The pond is also a favorite spot for pretty reflection pictures.
The Bootlegger Trail is a popular route for horseback riders, and we have encountered horses here on more than one occasion.
To follow our woodland loop hike, turn right onto the Potomac Heritage Trail, climbing the hill known as Witch Hazel Bluff. In winter you’ll have views of the river from the bluff, but the view is mostly obstructed once foliage fills in. There is a picnic table at the top of the bluff that makes a nice lunch spot.
The trail continues steeply downhill to the Potomac River. This is a great spot for bird watching, and we saw huge flocks of geese and smaller birds in flight on a winter visit. Bald eagles, osprey, and red-tailed hawks are also frequent visitors to the river. Park naturalists have created a checklist of 119 bird species seen in the park that you can print and take along on your hikes.
If you want to stick to the river, the trail continues on to the Riverbend Visitor Center, but our woodland loop hike route turns right onto the Follow the Hollow Trail. In spring, the woods here are filled with bluebells and other spring wildflowers. Keep an eye out for trillium, bloodroot, Dutchman’s breeches, and other spring beauties as you traverse hollows and gentle hills through the woods.
The orange blazed trail turns left and follows a dirt access road for a short distance before heading back into the woods. If you need a restroom or want to check out the exhibits you can make a short side trip to the park Visitor Center.
To complete the woodland loop hike, continue on the Follow the Hollows Trail, crossing the park access road and Conn’s Creek until you reach the Madison’s Escape Trail. Turn right on this yellow blazed trail to return to your car. The trail is named for President Madison, who took Conn’s Ferry from the park’s current site across the river to Maryland when British invaded Washington DC during the War of 1812.
Riverbend Park is a real gem in the Fairfax County Park system, and it’s an excellent alternative to Great Falls Park when the lines entering the national park are long. We love the trail along the river, but it’s fun to experience a different terrain on a woodland loop hike through the park’s hollows and ridges.
You’ll find more fun hikes in Northern Virginia and surrounding areas in our extensive Hike and Bike collection. What’s your favorite area hike?