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, protecting 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. You could easily combine our segments for a longer trip. Hike are listed here from southeast to northwest.
Mount Vernon Trail to Theodore Roosevelt Island
The 18 mile paved Mount Vernon Trail extends from Mount Vernon in Alexandria to Theodore Roosevelt Island in Arlington, paralleling the river and the George Washington Parkway. There are numerous parking areas and parks along the trail that allow for segment hikes or biking. We like the section near Dyke Marsh, which includes a nice stretch of boardwalk and a side path out to the marsh. Use caution if you’re on foot, as the trail is fairly narrow and heavily used by cyclists.
The Windy Run hike offers nice river views and the payoff of 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
Similar to the Windy Run hike, this section of the PHT begins at a park, descends steeply to the river, then follows the banks to a turn-around point. The 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 to the turn-around point at Windy Run.
This 2 to 2.5 mile loop hike begins with a steep descent, follows the banks of the Potomac River east, then returns through Turkey Run 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, and is the headquarters of the George Washington Memorial Parkway.
This Scotts Run loop hike includes a cliffside view, a scenic waterfall, and a nice, moderately challenging stretch of the Potomac Heritage Trail in McLean, Virginia. The 3 mile loop begins at the eastern parking area, follows wooded trails down to the river, then turns left on an often steep, rocky, and narrow section of the PHT that can be tricky to navigate when the rocks are slippery. Make a stop at Scotts Run waterfall before climbing the hill and returning to the parking area.
This 3-mile Great Falls loop hike parallels Difficult Run on the Fairfax Cross County Trail, climbs to a ridge, and continues down to the Potomac River, on shady trails with gorgeous views. It’s a wonderful way to explore the less visited southeastern side of popular Great Falls Park and enjoy an incredible view of Mather Gorge. 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. The blue-blazed River Trail follows the Potomac east as the rock walls narrow to form beautiful Mather Gorge. The dirt path is mostly level, but there are rocky sections which gives kids some extra fun. Crowds can overwhelm the parking area on a summer weekend, so visit on a weekday if you can.
This PHT segment—from the Visitor Center in Riverbend Park to Mather Gorge in Great Falls Park—is an opportunity to enjoy the Potomac River as it transitions from the calm, wide Riverbend to the narrow turbulence of Great Falls. This is about a 2 mile hike each way, but you can easily make it shorter with an earlier turn-around, or make it longer by combining with other park trails.
A walk along the river at Riverbend Park is especially dramatic in spring when Virginia bluebells 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 generally turn back when we reach the western edge of the park for a 3 mile out-and-back, but you could continue 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 that can get steamy when the humidity is up. Head left to see a section of stone wall built in George Washington’s time, or right for a quiet walk along the river. At the western end of the park, the PHT turns inland at Sugarland Run, following a section of road before entering Algonkian Park, where it traverses 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 that follows a shady, dirt trail through the woods, down to the Potomac, and along a bluff with great river views. You can shorten your hike by taking one of several return trails, and there are 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, and the park has an excellent interpretive trail that explains how the battle unfolded. A sometimes steep, wooded trail leads to the Potomac River and a segment of the PHT. Combine Red Rock, Balls Bluff, and other Leesburg tops with this bike and hike exploration of the PHT in Loudoun County.
We’ll add more Potomac Heritage Trail hikes to our round-up as we continue to explore this National Scenic Trail in Northern Virginia. Visit the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail site for additional information about hiking the PHT.
[box type=”note”]Find more NoVA hikes and parks in our guide 20 Must See Northern Virginia Hidden Gems Rich in Nature and History[/box]
A Little US National Scenic Trail History
In August 2016, the US National Park Service celebrates 100 years of stewardship and conservation of public lands at parks across the country. A more recent addition to the National Park system are the National Scenic Trails (NST), first established in 1968 by the National Trails System Act. First to achieve protection under the act, and the most famous of the designated trails, are the Appalachian Trail in the east and the Pacific Crest Trail in the west.
[quote]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.[/quote]
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.
Have you tried any Potomac Heritage Trail hikes in Virginia? Let us know which segment is your favorite in the comments. Thanks and happy hiking!
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