By Carol Brooks

When I saw a park I’d never heard of, Windy Run Park, listed as a top vote-getter in the Arlington Magazine “Best Hiking Trail of 2016,” I wanted to find out more. I love exploring neighborhood parks and trails and wanted to know why this one got the votes. I checked the park’s website (www.parks.arlingtonva.us/locations/windy-run-park) for more information and then visited it on a warm weekday afternoon.

I wasn’t immediately impressed, so my later discoveries came as a pleasant surprise. The park offers limited parking on a cul-de-sac, and the trailhead is a hard surface and gravel path leading past a brick building. Fortunately, I found an informative kiosk with a detailed trail map and planned to hike what looked like an easy loop. This was not a good idea after all.

I followed the single trail for a short distance where it forks at a stream crossing. At the fork, I followed the trail to the right and over a bridge. This turned out to be a somewhat precarious and challenging climb to a high cliff. Although it offered stunning views of the Potomac River at its endpoint, there were no barriers to keep hikers and dogs from tumbling down a steep cliff. The rocky path leading downhill to meet up with the rest of the loop required me to crab-crawl on all fours. I couldn’t imagine any scenario where this was a safe option for hikers with dogs. Do not take this trail!

For a safe hike, take the left fork that crosses the stream, stay level with the creek, and follow this trail as it winds along and over Windy Run several times. This part of the trail, and what soon followed, must be what got those “Best Hiking Trail” votes! You and your dog will appreciate the cooler park temperatures on a hot summer day, and your dog will have many opportunities to cool off in the stream. The trail pauses at a rocky outcropping overlooking the Potomac River. If you’re just looking for a quick out-and-back with some fun stream crossings, turn around at this overlook. If you’re interested in a more robust hike, keep going. The best is yet to come, and well worth the extra steps.

To continue, go right from the overlook and cross the stream. Then go left down some steep rock steps. This section is a little challenging, but with the help of a wobbly pipe handrail, hikers of all levels—even children—should be able to make it down safely. Stay on the trail to the Potomac River and Potomac Heritage Trail, and then go right. Take a moment as you reach the river to take in the picturesque views from all directions. Continue on the Potomac Heritage Trail as long as you want. Roosevelt Island is about 1.7 miles away, a total of about 5 miles from your car if you go all the way out and back.

You’ll find a surprising variety of landscape features along this trail: marshland, trickling streams, woods, cliffs, and sandy beaches. You’re also likely to see waterfowl, boaters, and turtles. Key Bridge and Georgetown are always visible in the distance, providing an unusual contrast of worlds. The trail is very flat and easy to hike, with lots of off-trail options for you and your dog to take a break.

This is an out-and-back hike with only a few trail markers. Pay attention to your route so you can return to the starting point without a problem. The Windy Run Nature Trail follows Windy Run, so as long as you keep the stream in view, you’ll find your way back. The Potomac Heritage Trail is sandwiched between the Potomac River on one side and the George Washington Parkway on the other, so there are not too many opportunities to get lost.

Getting There
Windy Run Park and Nature Trail
2420 N Kenmore St
Arlington, VA 22207
Open: Daily Dawn to Dusk.

What To Bring
Be sure your dog has adequate tick protection. Wear sturdy waterproof shoes—the trail is muddy in areas. Bring water for you and your dog, poop bags, and blankets and towels for the after-hike clean-up. Bring chairs if you want to sit outside at the winery.

Trail Specifics
Distance: 1.0 mile or more (out and back)
Time: 60 minutes or more
Fido-Friendly Features: Off-street parking,  fun dog-safe trails, water access, trash containers at the trailhead.
Use: Hikers, runners, on-leash dogs.
Best Time to Go: Anytime.
Rated: 2 paws (hilly in places