In the fall 2014 issue of NOVADog, our publisher Angela reviewed her hike of the Potomac Heritage Trail. The details of navigating this hike were so extensive that we moved them to the blog. Please read the article, review Angela’s directions below, and then feel free to email her with questions at ahazuda[at]yahoo[dot]com.
Hidden alongside one of the most popular trails in the DC Metro, the Mount Vernon Trail, exists an amazing trail that offers spectacular views, seclusion and serenity. I have lived and worked within walking distance of the Mount Vernon Trail for 15 years. In that time I have walked and biked it literally thousands of times. In all of those excursions, I have never ventured down any of the trail head markers for the Potomac Heritage Trail. For the Hit the Trail article I spent 8 hours on this trail, hiking over 20 miles. I am completely enamored, amazed and awe-struck. I discovered waterfalls, 50+-foot high rock wall faces, boulder outcroppings, gorgeous water views, beautiful rocky streams, wildlife and more. How could a path I have enjoyed countless times hold so many treasures just a few feet away from the very steps I have taken? In the entire time I was on the trail, I encountered maybe 30 or 40 people. I pass that many people on the Mount Vernon trail in 5 minutes. It was one of the most eye-opening 8 hours I have spent in a long time.
According to the Potomac Heritage Trail Association, the 10.8-mile segment from Theodore Roosevelt Island to the American Legion Bridge is the original segment of the much larger Potomac Heritage Trail Project, which is developing an interconnected pathways of trails (similar to that of the Appalachian Trail) that will be 804 miles long, stretching from the Chesapeake Bay to the Laurel Highlands (near Pittsburgh, Pa.) when complete.
Overall, the trail is very well marked with small, brown wooden signs with yellow lettering, as well as with green blazes. There were two confusing areas where I got lost, so I have provided extra details. When starting out at Theodore Roosevelt Island Parking Area, head north towards the Key Bridge; immediately before the bridge ramp, take the small trail to the right labeled Potomac Heritage Trail. You’ll head down along the river on a narrow dirt path. The path starts out level and easy for about 1 mile, then it becomes rocky and rugged and has significant elevation changes. You’ll pass under Key Bridge. At about Mile 1.5 there is a very nice waterfall and stream view from a wooden bridge. This is followed by two fantastic waterfalls, and then at Mile 3, if you’re feeling adventurous, there is a rope swing!
Around Mile 4 you’ll encounter Donaldson Run. This was a challenging climb for Maggie. She needed a lot of help to navigate the rock climb. But it was well worth it: at the top was a gorgeous view and a great stream to relax and cool off in after the climb. This is where it gets tricky – honestly I got lost here and took a giant loop for about an hour and finally broke out Google maps! After the rock climb there is a sign to the right: you want to take the trail directly up over the hill. It is marked, but watch closely for the green blazes to ensure you are on the proper trail. You will travel about .5 mile and come to the Chain Bridge. Turn right as you get to the bridge and walk alongside the bridge down towards the road. Do not go straight under the bridge and out the other side. Walk under the bridge long ways, on the dirt, almost to the road at the bottom. The trail continues down towards the water, then left and under another bridge. Walk along the water for another .25-.5 miles and you’ll see a sign to Fort Marcy. Go across the stream and up the rock stairs into Fort Marcy. After about .25 miles, cross the parking lot, head to the brown sign and turn left immediately after the sign, through the park and following the blazes. Here the blazes are light blue/green for about .5 miles then they turn back to darker green. This part of the trail runs inland for about 2.5 miles. It’s well marked and pops in and out alongside the GW Parkway. At about mile 5.5/6 you will come out along the Parkway near a bridge. Do not go up over the bridge. Go down under the bridge, then cross the exit ramps two times to continue the trail back into the woods. After about another mile, you’ll find yourself back down at the Potomac. There is a large pawpaw grove along the river bank in the area. The pawpaw tree is indigenous to 26 states including Virginia, grows along rivers, and produces pawpaw fruit, which tastes like a cross between a banana and a mango.
Continuing along the river you’ll be treated to beautiful, serene views of the Potomac, which along this segment has lovely rock and grass “islands” emerging from the calm surface. You’ll see a small sign for the Parkway Headquarters at about Mile 6.5. There are restrooms here and just a bit further up at Turkey Run Park. Then you’ll travel a bit further to Turkey Run, a lovely little stream at Mile 8. At Mile 9, you’ll find big, bold Dead Run, a breathtaking stream filled with giant boulders. Just one more mile and you’ll pass under the American Legion Bridge. After the bridge you’ll come to a foot bridge; take a left after crossing it and go up the hill. You’ll come out on Live Oak Drive in a residential area. Turn left on Live Oak Drive and follow it to Scott’s Run Nature Preserve, accessible at Langley Swim Club. Follow Woodland Trail, bearing right at the two junctions. Turn right onto Loop Trail and follow it to Swinks Mill Trailhead Parking Area.
The hike is isolated, so please hike with a friend, and if you do not have an entire day to hike, split it up by arranging for a pick-up and parking a car at one end. There is parking and trail access at: Theodore Roosevelt Island Parking Area (arrive early on the weekends, it fills up fast), the Gulf Branch Nature Center, intersection of N. Glebe and Chain Bridge Rd., Fort Marcy, Parkway Headquarters, Turkey Run and Swinks Mill Road. If you have to split the hike into segments, I most recommend the segment from Roosevelt Island to Fort Marcy, and the segment from just before Turkey Run to the American Legion Bridge. Most active dogs will do fine on this trail, but older and smaller dogs may need some help or to be carried.
Please let us know if you plan to hike the Potomac Heritage Trail. We’d love to hear feedback from you and your dogs!