Updated on January 18, 2022 by Julie McCool
These Potomac Heritage Trail hikes in Northern Virginia offer shady trails with varied terrain, frequently following the banks of the Potomac River through land explored by George Washington. There are even sections of stone wall from Washington's days, and a portion of the Patowmack Canal that he spearheaded, along the trail.
Potomac Heritage Trail Hikes
The Potomac Heritage Trail was designated a National Scenic Trail in 1983. The designation protects a network of over 700 miles of pathways across four states. We've rounded up some nice 2 to 4-mile segment hikes below, covering a large section of the Northern Virginia PHT between Mount Vernon and Algonkian Regional Park.
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You can easily combine segments for a longer trip. Hike are listed here from southeast to northwest. Visit the PHT website for additional maps and info.
Mount Vernon Trail to Theodore Roosevelt Island
The 18 mile paved Mount Vernon Trail extends from George Washington's Mount Vernon in Alexandria to Theodore Roosevelt Island in Arlington. The trail parallels the river and the George Washington Parkway, and is one of the most popular long bike trails in Virginia.
There are many parking areas along the Mount Vernon Trail where you can start a segment hike. We like the section near Belle Haven. Here the trail includes a pretty boardwalk and a side trail out to Dyke Marsh. Use caution if you're on foot, as the trail is narrow and heavily used by cyclists.
The hike from Theodore Roosevelt Island to Windy Run offers nice river views. At Windy Run, you can check out a rock jumble and a small waterfall. This segment of the Potomac Heritage Trail is in Arlington, just outside Washington DC.
The 3.5 mile, out and back hike follows a level, mostly shady segment of the PHT as it passes between the George Washington Parkway and the Potomac River. Extend your trip with a walk around Theodore Roosevelt Island if time allows.
Potomac Overlook Regional Park to Windy Run
The hike to Donaldson Run begins at Potomac Overlook Park. The trail descends steeply to the river, then follows the banks of the Potomac until you turn back. This stretch of PHT has nearly continuous views of the river, and you'll pass some old and odd equipment along the trail.
For a 4 mile out-and-back route, park at Potomac Overlook Regional Park, descend to the river on the Donaldson Run Trail, and head east. When you reach the rock jumble at Windy Run, turn back and return on the same route.
Turkey Run Park is another good entry point to the Potomac Heritage Trail. Our 2 to 2.5-mile Turkey Run loop hike begins with a steep descent, follows the Potomac River east, then returns through the park.
The trail along the river is narrow and somewhat rugged, but mostly level. You’ll enjoy continuous views of the Potomac River and the birds that frequent it. Turkey Run Park has extensive parking and picnic areas. The George Washington Memorial Parkway headquarters is located at one end of the park.
This Scotts Run loop hike includes a cliffside view, a scenic waterfall, and a moderately challenging stretch of the Potomac Heritage Trail in McLean, Virginia. The 3-mile loop begins at the eastern parking area and follows wooded trails down to the river. Just before you reach the river, turn left and follow the often steep, rocky, and narrow section of the PHT.
The trail can be tricky to navigate when the rocks are slippery so use caution. Make a stop at Scotts Run waterfall before climbing the hill and returning to the parking area.
This 3-mile Great Falls loop hike begins at Difficult Run on the Fairfax Cross County Trail. Our route then climbs to a ridge with dramatic views of Mather Gorge. The trail continues down to the Potomac River on shady trails. It’s a wonderful way to explore the less-visited southeastern side of popular Great Falls Park. In late October and early November, fall foliage adds a beautiful dimension to the trails.
The River Trail through Great Falls Park is the most popular of our Potomac Heritage Trail hikes in Northern Virginia. Begin at the Visitor Center and follow the blue-blazed River Trail east. Here the rock walls narrow to form beautiful Mather Gorge. The dirt path is mostly level, but there are rocky sections that give kids some extra fun.
For a short, easy hike, turn back once you see the Mather Gorge Overlook. For a longer hike, continue on the River Trail until it ends then return on the Ridge and Mathildaville Trails. Crowds can overwhelm the parking area on a summer weekend, so visit on a weekday if you can.
This PHT segment is an opportunity to enjoy the Potomac River as it transitions from the calm, wide Riverbend to the turbulent waterfalls at Great Falls. Our roughly 4-mile out-and-back hike begins at the Riverbend Park Visitor Center and ends at Mather Gorge in Great Falls Park.
You can easily make the trip shorter with an earlier turn-around, or make it longer by combining with other park trails. Of course, you can also continue on the River Trail through Great Falls as described above.
The River Trail at Riverbend Park is an easy and mostly level path along the edge of the river. The walk is especially dramatic in spring when Virginia bluebells and other wildflowers cover both sides of the sandy path. Turn left from the Visitor Center for a mostly level hike along the river with one short, steep section.
We usually turn back when we reach the western edge of the park for a 3-mile out-and-back. You can extend your hike and continue on this trail all the way to Algonkian Park in Loudoun County.
Seneca Park offers several connector trails through the woods, leading gently down to the river and a 1.5 mile section of the Potomac Heritage Trail. We like the orange-blazed route, which follows a stream with a metal bridge crossing. Once you reach the river, the trail is a mostly shady and level dirt path.
Head left to see part of a stone wall built in George Washington's time. Or turn right for a quiet walk along the river. At the western end of the Seneca Park, the PHT turns inland at Sugarland Run. The trail then follows a section of road before entering Algonkian Park, where it borders the woods and the edge of the golf course.
Red Rock Wilderness Overlook Regional Park is part of the PHT system in Loudoun County. The primary trail at Red Rock is a 1.2-mile circuit. A shady, dirt trail through the woods heads down to the Potomac, and along a bluff with nice river views. You can shorten your hike by taking one of several return trails. There are also historic buildings to check out near the parking lot.
With mostly shady trails, varying terrain, and interesting, well-marked historic sites, Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Regional Park in Leesburg is a great spot for exploring. Ball’s Bluff was the site of the first Civil War engagement to take place in Loudoun County. An excellent interpretive trail explains how the battle unfolded.
A steep, wooded trail leads down to the Potomac River and a segment of the PHT. You could combine Red Rock, Balls Bluff, and other Leesburg tops with this bike and hike exploration of the PHT in Loudoun County.
Visit the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail site for additional information about hiking the PHT.
A Little US National Scenic Trail History
The U.S. National Scenic Trails (NST) were first established in 1968 by the National Trails System Act. This makes the trails a fairly recent addition to the National Park Service. The most famous of the designated trails are also the first in the system—the Appalachian Trail in the east and the Pacific Crest Trail in the west.
National Scenic Trails…[are] extended trails so located as to provide for maximum outdoor recreation potential and for the conservation and enjoyment of the… scenic, historic, natural, or cultural areas through which such trail may pass.
Since those first National Scenic Trails were established, nine additional trails have received the designation. The Potomac Heritage Trail was established in 1983 and it covers 700 miles of trail in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia. The largest section of the PHT is the C&O Canal Towpath in Maryland and Pennsylvania.
The Potomac Heritage Trail network is still expanding as new segments are added to the trail. We'll add more Potomac Heritage Trail hikes to our round-up as we continue to explore this National Scenic Trail in Northern Virginia. Happy hiking!
Find more great hikes in our complete list: Northern Virginia Hikes and Favorite Bike Trails Near DC or browse our Hike and Bike collection.
Published 2016, last updated 2021.