Updated on May 9, 2023 by Julie McCool
The Windy Run hike offers nice river views and the payoff of a rock jumble and a small waterfall, on a segment of the Potomac Heritage Trail close to Washington DC. This easy hike in Arlington Virginia is tucked between the George Washington Parkway and the Potomac River.
The Windy Run hike is 3.5 miles, out and back, on a level, and mostly shady dirt trail. There are some rocky areas and the trail can be soggy after heavy rains. Generally, a little mud on the trail means a better flow at the waterfall.
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Windy Run Hike from Theodore Roosevelt Island
Convenient, free parking at Theodore Roosevelt Island puts hikers right at the trailhead for this segment of the PHT. The lot fills up on weekends, so arrive early if you're hiking on a Saturday. You'll find the trailhead at the northern end of the parking lot, to the right of the paved Mount Vernon Trail.
This portion of the Potomac Heritage Trail follows a narrow strip of land along the banks of the Potomac River. The Windy Run hike is mostly shady, with frequent views of the river and Georgetown on the opposite bank.
The trail passes under the Key Bridge then exits the woods for a short exposed stretch right along the side of the George Washington Parkway. Soon, the trail dips back to the wooded riverbank, and stone walls block the open view of the parkway.
The narrow space between the river and the parkway wall makes for some interesting stretches of trail, but the path is well-marked and easy to follow.
A short bridge passes over the end of Spout Run, and you can peek under the parkway to the stream beyond.
This section of the Potomac River is popular for boating, and we saw stand-up paddleboards, sculls, kayaks, and johnboats during our hike. Openings in the trees offer nice views of Georgetown University and its boathouse across the river. This is also a good hike for birding, and we saw one bunny on the trail.
In just under two miles of hiking the trail reaches Windy Run. A large rock jumble creates a nice waterfall and cascade, which varies a lot depending on recent rain and snowmelt. The rocks invite careful exploration and are a good spot for a break before returning to the parking area.
Once you've finished exploring and relaxing, return the way you came, or extend your hike with one of the suggestions below.
This trail parallels the George Washington Parkway and the Potomac River, so road noise is constant and low-flying planes and helicopters are frequent. The Windy Run hike won't give you a complete escape into nature, but it is a surprisingly nice stretch of trail considering it's so close to Washington DC, Georgetown, and Arlington, Virginia.
Extending the Windy Run Hike
Another way to reach the rock jumble and waterfall is from Windy Run Park on North Kenmore Street in Arlington. From the park, follow the nature trail along Windy Run, descending half a mile to the rocks. You'll pass under the George Washington Parkway before reaching a very steep downhill climb. Fortunately, there is a metal rail to help with the descent, but be especially careful if the rocks are wet.
To easily create a longer hike, cross Windy Run and continue on the Potomac Heritage Trail. One option is to continue another 1.5 miles to Donaldson Run and then turn back. The trail continues further gets rockier and more challenging beyond Donaldson Run.
Normally, you can create a longer loop hike by continuing to Chain Bridge, crossing over to Maryland, and returning on the C&O Canal Towpath. However, as of summer 2021, the PHT is closed at Chain Bridge.
A final option for a longer outing is to combine the Windy Run hike with a visit to Theodore Roosevelt Island. The boardwalk trail and monument at the top of the island are well worth exploring.
Windy Run is just one of the great Potomac Heritage Trail hikes in Northern Virginia. Portions of the trail can be muddy, especially after rainstorms, so be prepared. Happy hiking!
Learn more about the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail on the park website. The PHT was established as a National Scenic Trail in 1983, and it covers over 700 miles from DC to Pennsylvania.