Virginia bluebells cover the ground and sycamores stand out against a clear, blue sky on a spring hike by the Potomac River at Riverbend Park. This hike on the Potomac Heritage Trail in Great Falls VA immerses visitors in the beauty of spring. The mostly level, dirt path is a favorite place for hiking with kids near Washington DC.
Depending on weather patterns, bluebells start to emerge in late March and early April. Once the clusters of buds begin to open, riverside trails fill with green and purple.
The trail may be damp after spring rains, but the sandy soil generally doesn’t get muddy. In fact, this is one of our favorite spring hikes in Northern Virginia. The only negative you might encounter is the emergence of gnats on warm days. Hope for a slight breeze to keep them away.
Note: Riverbend hosts a popular annual Bluebells at the Bend Festival featuring live music, wildflower walks, live animals, face painting, wagon rides, and other family-friendly activities. The event is wonderful but it can get crowded so arrive early. Check our guide for a complete list of favorite Northern Virginia Festivals
The Potomac Heritage Trail
The Potomac Heritage Trail (PHT) is an expanding network of waterways and trails that follow the Potomac River all the way from the Chesapeake Bay to the upper Ohio river basins. The C&O Canal Towpath, on the Maryland side of the river, makes up the longest segment of the PHT, but there is a growing trail network on the Virginia side as well.
We previously wrote about the excellent hike south from Riverbend to Great Falls, which follows the PHT between the two park Visitor Centers. Continuing south, the River Trail through Great Falls Park follows the PHT along beautiful Mather Gorge. Here are more Virginia Potomac Trail Heritage hikes in Northern Virginia.
While both southbound trails are lovely hikes, we prefer to head north in spring to enjoy the explosion of Virginia bluebells in Riverbend Regional Park.
Bluebells Hike on the Potomac Heritage Trail in Riverbend Park
This 3-mile, out-and-back hike is mostly level and an easy walk. There is only one steep section where the trail cuts back over a bluff for about 600 yards. For most of the trail, the PHT at Riverbend is wide, flat, and sand or dirt covered. It’s easy on the knees and popular with runners, birders, fishermen, families, and just about anyone who likes to be outdoors.
Despite this popularity, it is usually much less crowded, and an excellent alternative to Great Falls Park, when entry lines are long. If parking lots fill at Riverbend, you can usually park near the entrance and hike in on the .7 mile Madison’s Escape Trail or the Bootlegger Trail.
If possible, begin your hike at the Riverbend Visitor Center to pick up a trail map and pay the suggested $2 parking fee. There is an upper parking area and another lot near the river.
Walk down to the river and take the trail to your left, heading north along the riverbank. The hike is marked with green blazes and stays close to the river most of the way.
In early spring—before the leaves open and summer haze arrives—you’ll have beautiful, clear views of American Sycamore trees lining the river. Look across the river for large nests in the bare trees. In 2017, Bald Eagles were nesting across the river from the Follow the Hollow trailhead.
As the weather warms, the Virginia bluebells return, covering the ground along with a host of other wildflowers. Check our handy Virginia Wildflowers Guide for a look at some of the other blooms you might see on the trail.
You’ll find benches along the way where you can stop and enjoy the bluebells on the ground, the birds in the air, and the river rushing by.
When you reach the uphill climb over Witch Hazel Bluff, take a moment to read about the unique plants growing along this protected area of the river. The trail heads steeply uphill for 300 yards before returning to the river. There are benches at the top of the bluff where you can recover from the climb and enjoy the views.
As you head back down to the river, we recommend a short detour to check out Carper’s Pond. The pond teems with noisy frogs during mating season, and it’s a nice spot for a rest or a picnic.
Further north, the trail veers inland a bit to cross a bridge over one of the streams emptying into the Potomac.
When you reach an open field, you are almost at the edge of the park boundary, and at our turn-around spot.
Return Trip and the Riverbend Visitor Center
The PHT continues north, so you could extend your hike by crossing the field and entering the Upper Potomac Regional Park lands. We met a gentleman hiking south who happily told us that he (75 years old) and his dog (9-year-old Spike) were hiking 8 miles of the PHT from Algonkian Park to Riverbend that day.
If you turn around like we did, you have three options for your return trip:
- Return the way you came (on the PHT) 1.5 miles back to the Visitor Center.
- Backtrack until you reach Carper’s Pond, then follow the Bootlegger Trail into the woods for a 2 mile trip to Great Falls (or cut it shorter when you reach Madison’s Escape Trail).
- Backtrack until you reach the Follow the Hollows Trail and take it back to the Visitor Center.
The trail by the water is so nice, we almost always return the way we came. Once you reach the Visitor Center, reward yourself with a rest in one of the comfy Adirondack chairs on the porch.
There are picnic tables and grills outside, and the interesting displays in the Visitor Center are worth a look before you leave. No matter how often we hike this trail we never tire of this lovely stretch along the Potomac River.
This article was published in 2015 and updated in 2020.