There’s something nourishing about hiking next to a river. The continual movement of the water, the shimmer of the sun, the trees leaning over the side, all create a beautiful panorama to enjoy as you walk. This Potomac hike—from the Visitor Center in Riverbend Park to Mather Gorge in Great Falls Park—is an opportunity to enjoy the many forms this historic river takes.
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.
It’s about 1.5 miles from the Riverbend Visitor Center to the Great Falls Visitor Center on a level, easy path except for a short, rocky section that skirts the Aqueduct Dam. Avoid this hike after a heavy rain or snow melt because it will be flooded or very muddy.
Begin at the Riverbend Park Visitor Center—park entry is free but a $2.00 parking donation is encouraged.
Step inside for a look at exhibits about the park’s early inhabitants, wildlife, and geology. There were live snakes, frogs, fish, and a couple of bunnies when we last visited. A wall of stone lets kids feel variations in the rocks that you’ll find in the park. Bathrooms and snacks are also available.
Fight the urge to claim one of the adirondack chairs on the porch overlooking the river. If you take a seat now you might never get to your hike.
At Riverbend, the Potomac is wide and open. The current appears slow, though it’s more powerful than it looks. In season, kayaks are available for rent or you can put your own boat in, but that’s for another visit.
The Potomac Heritage Trail follows the riverside through the length of the park. You can pick up the trailhead at the far end of the lower parking lot. It would be pretty difficult to get lost on this trail; you just stay next to the river.
If you’re taking your time, you’ll find many places to stop along the way. There are a couple of benches, and countless little paths leading to the water’s edge. The dirt trail is flat and an easy walk with almost continuous tree coverage and views of the river.
You’ll see some beautiful sycamores and oaks stretching overhead or leaning out over the water. Watch for songbirds, ducks, herons, and an occasional eagle.
Great Falls National Park
When you start to hear the river’s current, you’re getting close to the Aqueduct Dam and the beginning of Great Falls National Park land. This is the only steep part of the trail, climbing a short, rocky hill to avoid the dam.
Past the dam, the river narrows dramatically and gets much rockier. The trail now follows the Patowmack Canal, conceived of and built by George Washington and partners in an attempt to make the river navigable to the Ohio River Valley. When the water level is high, the canal fills and it’s fun to imagine George Washington studying the same view you are enjoying.
If you’ve never been inside the Great Falls Visitor Center it is definitely worth a stop. There are interesting displays, a children’s activity area, and an excellent movie about the park’s history.
As you continue on your hike, stop at any or all three Great Falls overlooks for a view of the river falling over a series of steep and jagged rocks. The river has changed so dramatically from the wide, placid water you walked next to one and a half miles ago.
If you’re getting tired, this is a good spot to turn around for the return trip to Riverbend. If you have a little more energy and time, you really should continue on the River Trail to Mather Gorge.
The River Trail heads off to the left after the overlooks. The trail is rocky and uneven but not difficult, and the views from the cliffs are worth the effort. After rushing down the falls, the Potomac is dramatically squeezed by narrow Mather Gorge.
Walk at least as far as the Mather Gorge marker for amazing views up and down the river. Across the way, you’ll usually see vultures in the air and hikers on the trails and bridges on the Maryland side of the Potomac. The rocks along this trail are a lot of fun for kids but use caution, that drop is a doozy.
If you want an alternate (longer) route back to your car, there are many inland trails through both Great Falls and Riverband parks. But we love walking next to the river so much we usually just go back the way we came. Once you arrive back at the Riverbend Visitor Center, it’s time to claim your chair on the porch.
8700 Potomac Hills Stree
Great Falls, VA 22066
9200 Old Dominion Drive
Great Falls, VA 22102