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This 3-mile Great Falls loop hike takes you beside Difficult Run, up along a ridge, and down to the Potomac River, on shady trails with gorgeous views. It’s a wonderful way to explore a section of the Fairfax County Trail and the less visited southeastern side of popular Great Falls Park, and enjoy this incredible view. In late October and early November, fall foliage adds a beautiful dimension to the trails.
This loop hike also puts you on 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.
Difficult Run Trail: Access to a Quieter Portion 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, a little George Washington history, and plenty of 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.
This hike begins and ends at the Difficult Run parking area, just east of the Great Falls Park entry road and outside the park boundaries.
The Difficult Run parking area, which is maintained by Fairfax County Parks, is small. If you visit on a weekday, or arrive in the morning, you should be able to find a space. If the lot is full, the next best access is from Great Falls Park, or come back when it’s not so crowded.
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.
On a fall day the foliage makes for great photos.
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 encounter a park map when you enter the boundaries of Great Falls Park.
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.
When you reach the 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.
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.
Impressive Views from the Ridge and River Trails
When you’re ready, backtrack to the trail sign and turn right onto the Ridge Trail. It’s a steep climb to the ridge, but the trail 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.
Eventually you’ll reach a trail junction with the River Trail. Turn right onto the River Trail, part of the Potomac Heritage Trail network.
The River Trail descends steeply toward the Potomac over rocky terrain and log “steps” until you reach an incredible viewpoint from Cow Hoof Rock. This ledge makes a perfect stop for a picnic, as long as you’re not afraid of heights. There is another nice spot just a bit further down if Cow Hoof is occupied.
From this height you can see all the way up the river to the steep walls of Mather Gorge. You’ll also likely see people hiking the Billy Goat Trail on the Maryland side of the river, and you may catch kayakers passing far below you. It’s a breathtaking spot to take in the beauty of the Potomac.
When you’re ready to move on, the trail continues it’s steep descent until you are close to the river again. You’ll pass Sandy Landing, a popular but illegal swimming spot near the remains of a strangely out of place brick fireplace.
Views of the river and the reflections of the rocks are beautiful here.
A bit further you’ll reach the trail junction with the Matildaville Trail, which climbs back up to the ridge. (If you want a longer hike, you could continue on the River Trail another mile to the falls overlooks and the Visitor Center.)
At the junction with the Old Carriage Road, turn left onto the dirt road and continue to the next juncture, turning left on the Ridge Trail. [We used to take the Old Carriage Road and walk across Georgetown Pike, but have been warned that the crossing is too dangerous.] Follow the Ridge Trail to the end then turn right at Difficult Run, backtracking over a portion of your route and more lovely views of Difficult Run.
The Run, Ridge, and River Great Falls loop hike is beautiful, challenging, and quiet except on a busy summer weekend. It’s a nice hike year-round, but the steep hills are muddy and slippery after a heavy rain and in winter.
Here are more of our favorite hikes in and near Great Falls Park:
Thanks for visiting and happy hiking!