Difficult Run Hike to the Potomac River on the Fairfax Cross County Trail

Updated on April 6, 2024 by Julie McCool

Enjoy an easy, woodland, stream-side hike to the Potomac River along Difficult Run on the northernmost portion of the Fairfax Cross County Trail. Segment 10 of the Cross County Trail is the northern end of the CCT,  extending 2.5 miles from Leigh Mill Road to the Potomac River. You can begin the Difficult Run hike from two starting locations, depending on how long you want to hike:

  1. Begin at the Difficult Run parking lot on Georgetown Pike for a 2-mile out-and-back hike to the Potomac River.
  2. Begin at Leigh Mill Road for a 5-mile out-and-back hike.

Option 1, beginning at Georgetown Pike, is more scenic, but the small parking area is sometimes full. Option 2 is less crowded but longer, and the trail can be muddy after heavy rain. Here is what to expect on each segment of the Difficult Run hike.

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The Cross County Trail follows Difficult Run in Great Falls Virginia
The Cross County Trail follows Difficult Run in Great Falls Virginia

1. Difficult Run Hike from Georgetown Pike to the Potomac River

The Difficult Run trail is one of our favorite short hikes close to Washington DC. The hike follows a beautiful, shady stream and passes through the eastern side of Great Falls Park. The trail is mostly wide and level, but there are steep sections once you enter Great Falls Park. There are also eroded sections near the river that may be challenging, so be prepared to turn back early.

Park at the Difficult Run parking lot, on historic Georgetown Pike, east of Great Falls Park. Enter the trail to the left as you face the water. The dirt trail navigates through a section of trees, then widens and parallels the stream. Rocks at the rivers edge offer lovely places to take photos and relax. On a hot day you can cool your toes in the stream. But use caution—the current is fast and the rocks are slippery.

The trail rises above the river as you enter Great Falls parkland. . You'll pass signs for the Ridge Trail, which heads west into the park on a steep trail. Be aware that it's a couple of miles to the Visitor Center so this isn't a quick side trip. If you do hike up the River Trail Erosion has damaged the area under Georgetown Pike, and it can be difficult to navigate when water levels are high.

The last portion of the trail, just before you reach the river, is steep, rocky, and narrow. This is a good spot to turn back, or use caution if you proceed. Once you near the Potomac, stay out of the water! You don't want to add to the count of people who drown in the Potomac River every year.

Difficult Run lot on Georgetown Pike
Difficult Run lot on Georgetown Pike
Cross County Trail by Difficult Run, Great Falls Virginia
Cross County Trail along Difficult Run, Great Falls Virginia
Rocks and cascades on the Difficult Run hike in Northern Virginia
Rocks and cascades on the Difficult Run hike in Northern Virginia

Difficult Run Hike: Leigh Mill Road to Georgetown Pike and the Potomac River

The trail between Leigh Mill Road and Georgetown Pike follows a pretty dirt path through the woods before joining the segment described above. along Difficult Run. Park on Leigh Mill Road and enter the trail on the wooded side of the road (there are horses and a field on the other side). The dirt trail follows the stream through the woods, heading north.

There are pretty views of horse fields across the stream. Kids will like navigating the large stone crossing and looking up at the road as you cross under Old Dominion Drive. A little further on, the trail passes through a short segment of bamboo. On one trip, we saw the remains of a deer just before reaching the parking area on Georgetown Pike. This section is an easy, level hike, though it gets muddy after a big rain.

Flowers on the Fairfax Cross County Trail Segment 10
Flowers on the Fairfax Cross County Trail Segment 10
Stone crossing on the CCT from Leigh Mill Road in Northern VA
Stone crossing on the CCT from Leigh Mill Road in Northern VA
Passing under Old Dominion Dr on the Fairfax CCT
Passing under Old Dominion Dr on the Fairfax CCT

If you begin at Leigh Mill Road, you'll hike a mostly shady, mostly level, 5-mile roundtrip. Note that there are some steep sections once you enter Great Falls Park property, as described above.

This Fairfax County trail map for segment 10 of the Cross County Trail highlights the Difficult Run hike described here. This pretty hike is one of our the beautiful hidden gems in Northern VA that we return to often.

[box type=”note”]Find more NoVA fun in our guide 20 Must See Northern Virginia Hidden Gems Rich in Nature and History[/box]

More About the Fairfax Cross County Trail

The Fairfax Cross County Trail, aka the CCT, connects over 40 miles of county parks and trails in Northern Virginia. It begins at Occoquan Regional Park in the south, and ends at the Potomac River in the north.

Nearly every section of the Fairfax CCT is worth a hike. We have written trail guides like this one for several segments of the CCT. Find links to those hikes plus general tips and links in our article: 5 Tips for Hiking the Fairfax Cross County Trail.

Fairfax Cross County Trail map
Fairfax Cross County Trail Map

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