Hike Riverbend Park to Great Falls Park and enjoy an easy 3-mile trip with beautiful Potomac River and waterfall views. This is one of our favorite family hikes in Northern Virginia, and it's easy to reach from Washington DC.
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. They all create a beautiful panorama to enjoy as you walk. Hike from the Visitor Center in Riverbend Park to waterfall overlooks in Great Falls Park and explore the many forms the historic Potomac River takes.
It is about 1.5 miles from the Riverbend Visitor Center to the Great Falls Visitor Center on a mostly level, easy path. The hike includes one short, rocky section that skirts the Aqueduct Dam. While the hike is easy, it can be muddy, waterlogged, and even flooded, after heavy rain.
It's easy to extend your trip on connecting trails in both Riverbend and Great Falls Parks.
Riverbend Park in Northern Virginia
Begin at the Riverbend Park Visitor Center, on Potomac Hills Street in Great Falls, VA. Entry to the park is free but a $2.00 parking donation is encouraged.
Step inside the Visitor Center to pick up a map. Exhibits explain 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 hike Riverbend trails.
At Riverbend Park, the Potomac River is wide and open. The current appears slow, though it's more powerful than it looks. In summer, you can rent kayaks or put your own boat in, but that's an activity for another visit.
Hike Riverbend Park to Great Falls Park
Head toward the river and turn right. The trailhead for your park-to-park hike is at the far end of the parking lot near the river. It would be pretty difficult to get lost on this trail; just keep the river on your left.
There are many places to stop and relax along the trail. There are several benches, and countless little paths lead to the water's edge. To start, the dirt trail is wide and flat, with almost continuous tree coverage and views of the river. This first section of the Riverbend hike is accessible to sturdy strollers, wheelchairs, and bikes. Eventually, the path narrows and becomes rockier, and bikes are not allowed.
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.
Dam and Waterfall Views in Great Falls National Park
As you start to hear the river's current, the trail enters Great Falls National Park. Markers in the water warn boats to turn around as you approach the Aqueduct Dam. Here, the only steep part of the trail climbs a short, rocky hill to avoid the dam and preserve rare plants.
Past the dam, the river narrows dramatically and gets much rockier. The trail now follows the historic Patowmack Canal. The canal was conceived of and built by George Washington and partners in an attempt to make the river navigable to the Ohio River Valley.
Just before the Great Falls Visitor Center is a section of canal wall, and it's fun to imagine George Washington studying the view you are enjoying. When the river floods, the canal fills, but water levels are usually low.
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. There are bathrooms on the lower level and a snack shop in season.
Just past the Visitor Center is the first of three overlooks offering dramatic views of Great Falls. Stop at any or all three 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.
You'll find more incredible photos and videos of Potomac River flooding in our guide: Visit Great Falls Park Virginia for Stunning Waterfalls and Outdoor Fun.
Ways to Extend Your Hike
This is a good spot to turn around for the return hike back to Riverbend Park. If you have a little more energy and time, you can 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. Hikers across the river are enjoying Great Falls Park in Maryland. The rocks along this trail are a lot of fun for kids but use caution, that drop is a doozy.
Return the way you came to complete the easy Riverbend Park hike to Great Falls. If you want an alternate longer route back to your car, turn left on Riverbend's Follow the Hollow trail and loop back to the Visitor Center. 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.
In spring, the trails at Riverbend Park are lined with beautiful Virginia bluebells, celebrated at the popular Bluebells at the Bend Festival. Woodland trails offer a break from the sun in summer. Explore more family-friendly Riverbend hikes here:
- Potomac Hike: Bluebells and Sycamores at Riverbend Park
- Woodland Loop Hike in Riverbend Park Virginia
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This article was published in 2014 and updated in 2019.