Hike the Potomac: 30 Best Places to Explore Along the C&O Canal and Potomac Heritage Trail

The original Potomac Heritage Trail extends for just 20 miles along the Virginia side of the Potomac River. The National Park Service has since expanded the definition to include over 800 miles of trail on both sides of the river, from the mouth of the Potomac to the Ohio River Basin. DC is the central node in this network connecting the C&O Trail, Mount Vernon Trail, Civil War Defenses of Washington Trail, and the Southern Maryland Potomac Heritage Trail Bicycling Route.

The first 20 miles of the Potomac River northwest of Washington, DC has more than 30 easy access points with connecting trails on both the Virginia (Potomac Heritage Trail) and Maryland (C&O Trail) sides.

For this guide, I’ll focus on the two banks of the river extending from Washington to less than an hour’s drive northwest of the city. This section of the river was the historical stomping ground of George Washington and a key passageway for the Underground Railroad.

Note for Cyclists: South of Key Bridge, Virginia trails are paved and well marked for cyclists all the way down to Mount Vernon. On the Virginia side, biking is prohibited (and unsafe) northwest of the Key Bridge except for the Great Falls segment from Difficult Run to the southeast border of Seneca Park and again from Elizabeth Mills Park through Loudon County [1]. The entire DC / Maryland side of the river — along the 193-mile C&O Canal — is flat and bike-accessible. Unlike Rock Creek Park and the Capital Crescent, the C&O trails are loose gravel paths best suited for mountain bikes and hybrids.

Note for Boaters: You can put in a kayak or canoe just about anywhere on the DC side — though there are safety issues as you get closer to Great Falls. The most popular DC put-ins include Jack’s Boathouse, Fletcher’s Cove, and East Potomac Day Dock (on Hains Point, directly across from The Wharf).

Most of the Kayakers I run into on the Virginia Side have put in at Roosevelt Island. Hauling a kayak down the Virginia palisades is nearly impossible, so the next proper boat launch is at Riverbend Park, with the lot just steps from the river. There’s also a good boat launch at Algonkian Park. I have seen kayaks put in at Chain Bridge, but I wouldn’t recommend it as there is a swift and dangerous undertow.

Virginia Access: Potomac Heritage

Jump to: Maryland Access

* Driving estimates are from central Arlington

The quiet side of the river (Virginia) is the one section you don't want to bike, but the hiking and fishing are superb.
The quiet side of the river (Virginia) is not bike-able everywhere, but the hiking and fishing are superb.

For a scenic view of the Washington Monuments, ride along the paved bike trail extending along the George Washington Parkway. The bike trail begins south of the city at Mount Vernon and extends north to the Key Bridge in Rosslyn.

Teddy Roosevelt Island

There are a number of parking areas along the GW Parkway, but the most popular is Teddy Roosevelt Island. Although technically in the District, it is only accessible from the Virginia side. From the (usually crowded) parking area on the GW parkway, cross the foot bridge to the loop around the island.

The Cold War Era statue of Teddy Roosevelt was designed by Paul Manship.
The Cold War Era statue of Teddy Roosevelt was designed by Paul Manship.

Although Eric Gugler’s Roosevelt memorial plaza on the Northern side of the island is the most common destination, there are a number of other interesting points to explore, including the ruins of a mansion owned by the family of Founding Father George Mason. Much of the natural scenery enjoyed by the island’s first inhabitants (Nacotchtank and Piscataway) remains, with particularly expansive views of DC on the eastern side. [4]

The view of Georgetown and the Key Bridge from Teddy Roosevelt Island.
The view of Georgetown and the Key Bridge from Teddy Roosevelt Island.

To access the Potomac Heritage Trail from Roosevelt Island, follow the trail that splits off from and goes under the concrete bike path overpass, immediately to the north of the parking lot. This part of the trail is wedged between busy traffic lanes and the river, so you’ll mostly hear engines as you step over detritus from past traffic accidents and homeless encampments.

Don’t give up! Continuing northwest takes you past the Key Bridge, then along an exposed shoulder of the GW parkway, and finally to a wooden pedestrian bridge beside the mouth of Spout Run. Here the trail transitions from wide-open spaces with expansive city views to a wilderness path along the base of high bluffs.

The view of Georgetown from the base of the Key Bridge, on the Virginia side.
The view of Georgetown from the base of the Key Bridge, on the Virginia side.

Take a last look at the houseboats and paddle-boards between the Georgetown skyline and the Three Sisters (small rocky islands that mark the turn-around point for most renters from Jacks). From here on out, the trail will be far more welcoming to those looking for a peaceful walk along the river and a taste of wilderness.

Adventure awaits! The area along the base of the bluffs are also thick with cormorants, Canada Geese, and more exotic water-fowl. Finally, you’ll come to the first of many waterfalls dumping into the Potomac from the Virginia bluffs. Just south of the steep waterfall at Windy Run is a series of narrow rock steps that will lead you back to civilization.

Windy Run

Windy Run is the closest access point from central Arlington, but the hike down to the river is difficult. In spite of this, Windy Run is relatively unknown, even by locals, so you can usually find some alone time here even on a Saturday afternoon.

After parking at the trailhead off a suburban cul-de-sac, follow the easy trail down Windy Run. As you approach the first crossing, the trail becomes a set of rock steps. There are two more crossings before passing under the GW Parkway and a final crossing at the top of the bluffs. Ignoring the usual accidental death and dismemberment sign, follow the handrail down the right side of the falls.

The waterfall near Windy Run.
The waterfall at Windy Run.

From the base of the falls, proceed either south along the river (to a series of popular fishing holes and hammock spots) or north to one of the most isolated patches of wilderness in the city. In the morning, Great Herons roost along the shore here and, if you tread softly, you will likely catch them before they flush.

Continuing on the river path towards Donaldson Run, your first landmark will be a rock slide with a large boulder that seems to be balancing on a small corner (38.908, -77.098). Next, you’ll come to a thin waterfall that drizzles over a sheer cliff face (38.911, -77.102).

Near there, you might also see the remains of a June, 2020 car accident. After careening off the 100′ bluffs, the driver somehow managed to extricate himself from the wreck and walk to the river, where he was picked up by a DC rescue boat.

An old steam boiler from a mining operation at the base of the bluffs along Potomac Overlook Park.
An old steam boiler from a mining operation at the base of the bluffs along Potomac Overlook Park.

Further along are a couple of old steam boilers that were part of a 19th Century mining operation near the southern corner of what is now Potomac Overlook Park.

The last landmark before you reach Donaldson Run is the Rope Swing. I’ve always been too chicken, but many of my friends have done it (including one nut-job who dives off from the top of the tree), and they’re all still with us.

Potomac River Gorge (Donaldson Run)

The thick woods at the base of the Potomac River Gorge are a cool respite from Washington, DC's summer heat.
The thick woods at the base of the Potomac River Gorge are a cool respite from Washington, DC’s summer heat.

Donaldson Run is a longer walk to the water, but this is one case of the journey being even greater than the destination. My kids call this “Parkour Gorge” because of the giant boulders and challenging river crossings, and it was once called Potomac Gorge by locals. It really is a gorge, with steep hills on either side and a wide open valley of giant trees by the river bottom.

The gorge also has a stunning history, dating back to the late nineteenth century, when Washingtonians kept a summer cabin in Arlington to cool off from the summer heat while remaining a short train ride from the city. Pola Negri (the silent film star) kept a house here, in what is now the Donaldson Run nature center. There was also a dam (long since washed out in a flood) that was used to form a swimming hole for the well-to-do.

The swimmer's changing room behind the old dam, which formed a Depression-era swimming hole for Washington's elite.
The swimmer’s changing room behind the old dam, which formed a Depression-era swimming hole for Washington’s elite.

The Gulf Branch “Precipice”

We call the access point at N Nelson “The Precipice” because it reminds us a little of the Precipice Trail in Acadia National Park. It is a difficult climb and especially hard to maneuver with fishing tackle or small children. A narrow trail with a handrail is hidden off to the left as you look down from the top of the falls.

Climbing up the Gulf Branch Falls from the hidden trail, which comes up from the right side of the falls if you are facing the bluffs from the Potomac Heritage Trail.
Climbing up the Gulf Branch Falls from the hidden trail, which comes up from the right side of the falls if you are facing the bluffs from the Potomac Heritage Trail.

Maybe skip the segment of trail from Gulf Branch to Chain Bridge. The fishermen dump their fish and trash here, so it’s a popular spot for vultures, and the stench can be strong on a summer day.

Chain Bridge

The base of the Chain Bridge is the most popular fishing hole in North Arlington, so arrive before 8a if you want to catch a fish. This is also where the fish begin to be safe to eat, as it is just above the city. Parking spots by the bridge are also scarce later in the day, but I’ve always been able to find a spot in the neighborhood at the top of the bluffs.

Fishing at the foot of the Chain Bridge is excellent just after dawn.  Most people park (perhaps illegally) at the lot on the Virginia side, but there is also ample parking at 4100 Randolph Street.
Fishing at the foot of the Chain Bridge is excellent just after dawn. Most people park (perhaps illegally) at the lot on the Virginia side, but there is also ample parking at 4100 Randolph Street.

Turkey Run

Turkey Run Park gets an A for accessibility. Directly off the GW Parkway (I recommend parking lot C1), you’ll find a gentle path down to the water. As the trail becomes steeper, you’ll descend well-maintained steps (thanks to the National Park Service).

As you near the river, the foliage becomes lush, almost reminiscent of a tropical rainforest. You might hear the call of a Carolina Wren or a Cardinal, and you are certain to find toads and dozens of tiny fish where the Potomac Heritage Trail crosses Turkey Run. The Potomac has a number of small, alluring islands along the shore here, so keep an eagle eye on your kids. The currents along this part of the Potomac are swift and deadly.

The wide delta of Turkey Run
The expansive delta of the Turkey Run River near the point where it blends its mighty waters with the Potomac

Scott’s Run

Stubblefield Falls at sunrise.  Access the falls from Scott's Run Regional Park.  Take the 20 minute hike down to the Stubblefield Falls Overlook and, if you're brave, descend down the steep bluffs to the shore.
Stubblefield Falls at sunrise. Access the falls from Scott’s Run Regional Park. Take the 20 minute hike down to the Stubblefield Falls Overlook and, if you’re brave, descend down the steep bluffs to the shore.

Scott’s Run was originally the home of an early 20th Century Washington DC lawyer named Edward Burling. Real Estate Developers planned a riverside community until a grass-roots movement of local citizens successfully lobbied to turn the land into a regional park and nature preserve.

Today the park’s wide trails provide an escape from the suburban sprawl of Northern Virginian. If you’re hoping for solace (and a parking spot), arrive before 9a.

Difficult Run

A heron fishes the Potomac from the Virginia shore, just south of Great Falls.
A heron fishes the Potomac from the Virginia shore, just south of Great Falls.

With wildflowers, bike trails, and rich history, Difficult Run offers something for everyone. The lot fills up early on weekends, but 4x4s and adventurous pinto drivers can also park on the muddy shoulder along Georgetown Pike.

There is much to see here. While the entire C&O Canal system is on the Maryland side of the river, George Washington’s Patowmack Company also planned a series of locks on the Virginia side to help boaters navigate around Great Falls. In 1793 Robert E. Lee’s father Lighthorse Harry Lee built a small town — which he called Matildaville, after his first wife — to provide housing for the canal builders. You can still see the locks and foundation of the Matildaville gristmill and iron foundry near the falls. [2]

Cyclists will appreciate the swoopy gravel trails which host the annual NoVa Epic Northern Tour race. Follow the trail southeast out of the parking lot to the Georgetown Pike crossing, where the trail turns north into Great Falls National Park. After the Great Falls overlook, head up through the North Lot to the Carriage Trail (closed to motorists) that connects to Riverbend Park. If you enjoy the riverside segment, you can continue on a spur that goes all the way to the southern border of Seneca Park and then track back and follow the loop to the right through the hills above Riverbend Park.

Virginia Side of Great Falls NP

The overlook at Great Falls National Park, from the Virginia side
The overlook at Great Falls National Park, from the Virginia side.

Although it is far less crowded than the Maryland side, the trails around Great Falls NP in Virginia can get pretty busy on weekends. Beyond the spectacular views of the falls, you’ll also enjoy watching climbers and kayakers challenging themselves on the cliffs below. Kids also love exploring the rock halls and boulders along the river path. Entry fee is $15 per vehicle, free for National Park pass-holders and some organized groups.

Riverbend Park

Shooting a blowgun at the annual Native American Festival at Riverbend Park
Shooting a blowgun at the annual Native American Festival at Riverbend Park.

Just up the river from Great Falls National Park is Riverbend Park. Unlike the entire river to the southeast, Riverbend is outside the DCA flight path, so it feels like real wilderness. With a parking lot that is just steps from the river walk and boat ramp, Riverbend is also one of the most accessible parks. The park is most popular in the Spring, when bluebells and other wildflowers crowd the banks of the river. In Summer, there is an American Indian Festival with drums, traditional dances, and demonstrations of early life along the Potomac River.

Seneca Park

Kayakers paddle through a hidden cove at Seneca Regional Park on the Potomac River
Kayakers paddle through a hidden cove at Seneca Regional Park on the Potomac River

First a word of caution: don’t attempt to park at Watermark Place (on the Trump Golf Course side of the park). You won’t get pepper sprayed (unless you sit on the grass), but Judge Smails will absolutely tow your car. And as we learned the hard way, the official Seneca lot (half a mile away as the crow flies) is a 20 minute drive — by some unfathomable feat of Civil (or was it Social?) Engineering.

Still, you can legally stomp your muddy feet directly through the Trump Course by following the Potomac Heritage Trail at the bottom of the road near the lot. I recommend bringing a shovel to build sand castles in the traps or, if you’re feeling especially bold, fishing equipment to see what giant koi you might be able to pull out of the meticulously landscaped water features on Lowes Island.

East along that same trail will take you into the heart of Seneca Park, where the Potomac winds its way through a dozen tiny islands on the Virginia side. The waterside is littered with beer bottles and other detritus, and the bluffs become treacherous if you wander off the main trail for a better view of the river. Not my favorite Potomac access point, but the forest is cool in the summer and you can sometimes find wild raspberries by the trail.

Algonkian Park

Deer at Algonkian Park
Deer graze at Algonkian Park

Algonkian Park is a major recreation area for Fairfax County, with a waterpark, golf course and boat ramp. It’s also meticulously manicured along the river, which makes it a great place to have a family cookout or just sling a hammock and watch the river go by.

Elizabeth Mills Park

Further up the Potomac is Elizabeth Mills Riverfront Park, an oasis squeezed between a golf course and a river. The parking lot is small, so plan to get there by 10a on weekends or just park in the neighborhood and walk down the hill.

Two man cubs spot riparian wildlife along the Potomac River at Elizabeth Mills Park.
Two man cubs spot riparian wildlife along the Potomac River at Elizabeth Mills Park.

Both the parking lot and the paved access trail are shared by the neighboring Landsdowne Golf Club, so be prepared to cavort with intoxicated bros in polos (maybe pack some bear spray?). When the paved golf cart trail turns left, continue straight onto the gravel path which winds gently down to the Potomac Heritage trail along the riverfront.

Aside from the occasional sound of screeching golf cart tires and burping men, the park is quite peaceful. Where the access trail meets the Potomac Heritage Trail, there is an excellent outcrop of rocks that forms a natural fishing pier. There are also plenty of good spots to toss a hammock and the trail is fine for easy mountain biking.

Further afield on the Virginia side

There are a number of other easy access points to the Potomac. Popular access points south of Teddy Roosevelt Island include Lady Bird Johnson Park, the Old Town Waterfront, and Mount Vernon. South of Mount Vernon, the river opens up substantially. If you’re looking for the feel of a beach within a 30 minute drive of DC, look no further than Leesylvania State Park.

Heading Northwest past the beltway, you won’t hit another bridge until Point of Rocks. At Harper’s Ferry, the Shenandoah merges with the Potomac. Northwest of there, it’s more of a mountain stream.

Maryland Access: C&O Canal Trail

Jump to: Virginia Access

  • Jack’s Boathouse ( 1m)
  • Fletcher’s Cove ( 12m)
  • Lock 6 ( 16m)
  • Sycamore Island ( 15m)
  • Lock 7 ( 15m)
  • Lock 8 ( 15m)
  • Lock 10 ( 15m)
  • Carderock ( 16m)

* Driving estimates are from Georgetown

Distance from Georgetown: Jack’s Boathouse | Fletcher’s Cove | Lock 6 | Sycamore Island | Lock 7 | Lock 8 | Lock 10 | Carderock | Angler’s Lot | Great Falls MD | Lock 21| Lock 22| Lock 23 | Seneca Mill | McKee-Beshers | Points Beyond

The easiest access for DC residents is Georgetown. You can park under the Whitehurst Freeway on K Street most days and hop on the C&O Trail. Nearby Jack’s Boathouse rents canoes for a modest fee. Just beyond Jack’s, the trail branches. To the right is the Capital Crescent Trail and to the left is the C&O Canal Trail, which extends for nearly 200 miles along the Maryland side of the Potomac River.

Carderock

With ample parking and wide open spaces, Carderock is where Washington goes for riverside concerts and al-fresco dining.

The Potomac currents are generally too dangerous for swimming, but parts of Carderock have shallow, calm tidepools where you can safely get your feet wet.
The Potomac currents are generally too dangerous for swimming, but parts of Carderock have shallow, calm tidepools where you can safely get your feet wet.

Angler’s Lot

The Angler’s Lot is the closest free lot to the Great Falls National Park, so it is often full. Plan on a good hour hike along the Billy Goat Trail if you want to see the falls from there (though you can bike it in about 15 minutes).

Great Falls National Park

The Great Falls overlook on the Maryland side.  This is where the piedmont meets the foothills and where the DCA flightpath ends.  From here, wilderness beckons!
The Great Falls overlook on the Maryland side. This is where the piedmont meets the foothills and where the DCA flightpath ends. From here, wilderness beckons!

There are a number of easy access points beyond Georgetown on the Maryland side. Those wishing to see Great Falls without a hike will have to pay an entrance fee to use the National Park Service lot, but there is a free (sometimes crowded) lot further south near the Angler’s Inn (see above).

Points Beyond

Mile Marker 101 along the C&O Trail is just above Williamsport.
Mile Marker 101 along the C&O Trail is just above Williamsport.

Continuing further out of the city on the DC side will take you along the C&O Canal Trail, which was built in the early 19th Century to connect Georgetown with the early coal towns along the far western edge of Maryland. First funded by George Washington, the venture was crushed when the railroad introduced a cheaper (though less energy-efficient) form of shipping and travel.

The Cushwa Basin is one of the many points of historical interest along the C&O trail.

It was along this great trail that Justice William O. Douglas — who was instrumental in the establishment of the C&O Canal National Park — found solace from the important decisions of his office. In 1968, he wrote:

Wherever one hikes in this area, his heart will be lifted by the flowering shrubs in the spring and the gold and red of the woods in the fall. Much of the way he walks in the steps of George Washington whose West Point training was in this valley, and with scouts and armies that fought the Indian wars and the Civil War. The valley is indeed rich in beauty and in history. [2]

– William O. Douglas

Explore More

  1. Potomac Heritage Trail: Riverbend Segment, MTB Project, 2020.
  2. Shosteck, Robert, Potomac Trail Book, Potomac Books, 1968.
  3. Fisher, Alan, Country Walks Near Washington, Rambler Books, 1996.
  4. Hedgepath, Dana, A Native American tribe once called D.C. home, The Washington Post, 2018.
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