Difficult Run and Great Falls Loop Hike to Beautiful River Views

Updated on June 6, 2023 by Julie McCool

The Difficult Run and Great Falls loop hike includes shady riverside trails, a dramatic ridge, and gorgeous views of the Potomac River and Mather Gorge. This hike is a wonderful way to explore a quieter section of popular Great Falls Park.

The trail is pretty year-round, but fall foliage adds extra beauty in late October and early November. Summer foliage brings welcome shade in summer. And views from the Ridge Trail open up with the bare trees of winter.

Disclosure: This article may contain affiliate links. We will make a small commission from these links if you order something, at no additional cost to you.

This Great Falls loop hike follows portions of two fantastic local trails—the Fairfax Cross County Trail and the Potomac Heritage Trail—covering paths both outside and inside Great Falls Park. The trail begins and ends at the Difficult Run parking area, just east of the Great Falls Park entry road and outside the park boundaries.

Difficult Run Trail and a Quieter Area of Great Falls Park

Like many residents of the DMV (DC, Maryland, and Virginia), we are frequent visitors to Great Falls Park. It's an ideal destination to take out-of-town visitors for impressive views of the falls, George Washington history, and terrific hiking. For many of us, it's close enough for a quick escape from the office or a weekend get-together with friends and family.

To explore a different section of the park, head just east of the main Great Falls entrance to the parking lot for Difficult Run. The Difficult Run parking area, which is maintained by Fairfax County Parks, is small. Visit on a weekday or arrive early to ensure you get a space. If the lot is full, you can access these trails on a longer hike from Great Falls Park. Or return to this hike another day and check out one of these 10 Great Falls Park Alternative instead

Difficult Run parking on Georgetown Pike
Difficult Run parking lot

The trailhead is at the far end of the parking lot, with the river on your right. The trail detours into the woods for a bit before passing under Georgetown Pike, but quickly returns to the riverside.

Difficult Run begins as a level walk beside the stream, with many easy to reach rocks and small falls. On a hot day, you can stop and cool your feet in the stream or enjoy a picnic on the rocks.

Entrance to the Difficult Run trail on a snowy day
Snowy Difficult Run trail

Fall reflections make for great photos on this level section. Difficult Run is one of our favorite places to see fall foliage in the Northern Virginia area.

Fall foliage on Difficult Run Trail
Fall foliage on Difficult Run Trail

The trail was restored in 2015 to repair significant storm erosion. A section that had been nearly impassable is now a wide, level, easy walk, though you'll still encounter erosion when you pass under Georgetown Pike. You'll see a park map when you enter the boundaries of Great Falls Park.

Improved trail Difficult Run
Improved section of Difficult Run Trail

Eventually, the trail climbs until you are walking along a ridge above Difficult Run. It's a shady path with pretty views down to the stream.

Colorful waterfall view of Difficult Run on the Great Falls loop hike
View from trail above Difficult Run

When you reach a junction with the Ridge Trail, continue straight on a short spur to the river. You'll reach a steep, rocky section just as Difficult Run empties into the Potomac. Once past the rocks, you'll be at a small beach with open views of the Potomac as it curves around Sherwin Island.

Potomac River view Difficult Run
Potomac River view from the end of Difficult Run

We often see kayaks in this area of the river and it's a nice spot as long as you don't enter the water without a boat. The current is treacherous, and swimming and wading are prohibited and dangerous. The spur trail is sometimes blocked by flooding.

Flooded section of Difficult Run trail
Flooded Difficult Run

Impressive Views on the Great Falls Loop Hike

When you're ready, backtrack to the park's trail sign and turn onto the Ridge Trail. It's a very steep climb to the ridge, but not for long. The trail here is shady with nice views back down to the river (depending on foliage). The Ridge Trail is quiet and we rarely encounter other hikers on this section.

Atop the Ridge Trail in Great Falls Park
Ridge Trail in Great Falls Park

Eventually, you'll reach a trail junction, where you turn right onto the River Trail. The River Trail is part of the Potomac Heritage Trail network, and you could hike it all the way north to Riverbend Park and then on to Seneca Park.

Potomac Heritage Trail marker in Great Falls Park
Potomac Heritage Trail marker in Great Falls Park

The River Trail descends steeply toward the Potomac over rocky terrain and log “steps” until you reach a beautiful viewpoint from Cow Hoof Rock. This ledge makes a perfect stop for a picnic, as long as you're not afraid of heights.

Cow Hoof Rock, on the River Trail at Great Falls Park
Cow Hoof Rock, Great Falls Park

There is another nice spot just a bit further down if Cow Hoof is occupied. The view and solitude make this one of our favorite romantic hiking spots in Northern VA.

Mather Gorge view from Great Falls loop hike
Fall view of Mather Gorge from River Trail

From this height, you can see all the way up the river to the steep walls of Mather Gorge, and you may spy kayakers passing far below you. It's a breathtaking spot to take in the beauty of the Potomac River.

When you're ready to move on, the trail continues its steep descent until you are close to the river again.

Steep River Trail at Great Falls Park VA
Steep River Trail, Great Falls Park

The trail passes near a small beach and a strangely out of place brick fireplace. Views of the river and the reflections of the rocks are beautiful here but stay out of the water. Wading and swimming in the Potomac River is extremely dangerous and not allowed.

Across the river, you will often see people hiking on the Billy Goat Trail. This fun trail has a challenging rock scramble and awesome river views.

Billy Goat Trail view from Sandy Landing
Maryland Billy Goat Trail view

At Sandy Landing you have a choice of route. You could continue on the River Trail another mile to the Great Falls overlooks and the Visitor Center. You'll enjoy a somewhat exposed rocky trail with fantastic views of Mather Gorge.

Or you can turn left at the junction with the Matildaville Trail. This trail climbs back uphill and ends at a junction with the Ridge Trail and the Old Carriage Road. Some hikers follow the Old Carriage Road downhill and walk across Georgetown Pike back to the Difficult Run Trail. The National Park Service asked us to warn against crossing Georgetown Pike on foot as it is too dangerous.

Instead, go left on the Ridge Trail and follow it to the end, turning right at Difficult Run. You'll backtrack over a portion of your route and get to enjoy more lovely views of Difficult Run.

Great Falls loop hike map showing Difficult Run
Great Falls Park map

The Difficult Run, Ridge, and River Great Falls loop hike is beautiful, moderately difficult, and usually quiet except on busy summer weekends. It's a nice hike year-round, but the steep hills are muddy and slippery after heavy rain and in winter.

Here are more of our favorite hikes in and near Great Falls Park:

Find more great hikes in our complete list: Northern Virginia Hikes and Favorite Bike Trails Near DC or browse our Hike and Bike collection.

Follow Fun in Fairfax VA on FacebookPinterestInstagram | Threads | Twitter 

Thanks for visiting and happy hiking!

This 3-mile Great Falls loop hike takes you beside Difficult Run, along the ridge, and past the Potomac River, on shady trails with gorgeous views.
Great Falls VA Loop Hike