By Angela Hazuda Meyers
Hidden alongside one of the most popular trails in the DC Metro, the Mount Vernon Trail, sits an amazing trail with spectacular views, seclusion and serenity. For the past 15 years, I have walked and biked the Mount Vernon Trail thousands of times, but in all of those excursions, I never ventured down any of the trailhead markers for the Potomac Heritage Trail. For my research, I spent eight hours on this trail, hiking over 20 miles. I was 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 I have never explored so many nearby treasures? In all my time on the Potomac Heritage Trail, I encountered maybe 30 or 40 people; I pass that many people on the Mount Vernon trail in five minutes. I feel like I’ve discovered a hidden paradise.
The 10.8-mile (one-way) Potomac Heritage Trail runs from Roosevelt Island to the American Legion Bridge and stands as a testament to the beauty of our local landscape. This hidden, natural trail winds alongside the Potomac River for roughly 8 miles, providing a constant supply of eye-candy with each step. This hike starts at Theodore Roosevelt Island Parking Area and passes by Windy Run, the Gulf Branch Nature Center, Donaldson Run, Fort Marcy, The Parkway Headquarters, Turkey Run, Dead Run, Scott’s Run Nature Preserve and the American Legion Bridge. The hike is isolated, so 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.
Due to the detailed directions needed to properly navigate this hike, complete instructions are listed on our blog, available at https://novadogmagazine.com/blog/?p=3089. Please consult the blog before following the brief overview below.
Though some areas are confusing, overall the trail is very well marked with small, brown wooden signs with yellow lettering, as well as with green blazes. From the start 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 one mile, then it becomes rocky and rugged and has significant elevation changes. You’ll pass under Key Bridge, see several waterfalls, and even encounter a rope swing! Donaldson Run provides a gorgeous view and a great stream to cool off in after the climb. Walk alongside Chain Bridge (see blog for this tricky section), then follow signs to Fort Marcy. The trail then becomes well marked as it travels along the GW Parkway. Look for a grove of native pawpaw trees, as well as 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 a bit further up at Turkey Run Park. You’ll then pass Turkey Run, a lovely little stream, at Mile 8, and big, bold Dead Run, a breathtaking stream filled with giant boulders, at Mile 9. One mile further, 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 and follow it to Scott’s Run Nature Preserve, accessible at Langley Swim Club. Follow Woodland Trail, bearing right at the two junctions, then turn right onto Loop Trail and follow it to Swinks Mill Trailhead Parking Area.
Park Hours: Most of the parking areas listed are open dawn to dusk.
Hike Distance: 10.8 miles one way. 21.6 out and back.
Time: 4 hours one-way (10.8 miles)
Fido-Friendly Features: Tons of water access and streams. Lots of easily accessible sandy beach areas along the Potomac for swimming and fetching sticks. Very secluded. 80% shaded.
Use: Hikers, runners, on-leash dogs.
Best time to go: Anytime. Very secluded trail, low traffic. Parking areas are multi-use however and fill quickly on weekends.
Rated: 3-4 paws. Parts are strenuous. Some areas require scrambling over rocks and roots, and there are some steep ascents.
Did you hike it? Please tell us about your hike in the comments below, or stop by our Facebook page to leave some of your own feedback, www.facebook.com/novadog.