April 20, 2016

Potomac Heritage Trail (VA) - Theodore Roosevelt Island to Chain Bridge (Apr. 2016)


Potomac Heritage Trail Marker

Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail: Theodore Roosevelt Island (DC) to Chain Bridge (VA)
April 11, 2016

Start point: 38.898110, -77.067528

End Point: 38.928868, -77.117999
Washington, D.C. & Arlington/Fairfax, VA
70° F - it was beautiful outside!
All photos made on my OnePlus One phone


The Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail stretches across multiple states. Managed by the National Park Service, its 710 miles network along the Potomac River and gives hikers wonderful views of the river, the plant life, and its various wild inhabitants.

This is the first post of my DC Week of Hikes from April 2016. I was in DC for a week after a work conference, with the plan to visit Shenandoah National Park the following weekend. I was wanting to make the most of my trip, so this hike was the first I did in the DC area. I had never done this hike before, so it ended up being a real treat. I deeply regret not doing this stretch while I lived in DC, but am glad to have had the opportunity now.


Potomac Heritage Trail Marker

I started at Theodore Roosevelt Island in DC. You can get there easily from the Rosslyn Metro stop in Arlington, just across the river from DC. The Mount Vernon Trail and Potomac Heritage meet up there at the entrance to the island. If you have the time, visit the island as well! TR Island is a miniature forest embedded between Virginia and The District, making it a nice escape from urban life.

The trek began down a narrow path on the edge of the T.R. Island parking lot. Trail markers at T.R. Island indicated that the Chain Bridge was 4.0 miles from that point (but it felt longer!). After navigating under the Key Bridge that connects DC to VA, you get to familiar scenic trail terrain that lasts for about 2 miles. After that, things get a bit trickier, but are very entertaining!

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Under the Key Bridge

For a while at the beginning, the trail hugged the George Washington Memorial Parkway, a scenic drive that provides beautiful views of the Potomac from the edge of Virginia. This is a fun drive if you ever get the chance. When it did run parallel to the parkway, the path was usually on the other side of the rock wall. Only for a small portion (~200 feet) did the trail run right beside the road.

George Washington Memorial Parkway Entrance

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As the parkway ascended, I decended down to the river. The trail stays close to the water. After you separate from the road, trees begin to form a canopy over the path, letting flickers of sunlight through to illuminate the shoreline.

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Blue blazes guided the way. This proved to be helpful later on as the trail became more challenging.

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The views of DC, downstream the Potomac, and the Maryland side of the river were spectacular. This is the defining characteristic of the hike.

Georgetown from the Potomac Heritage Trail

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With the sun out, the water's blues and the flora's greens were vivid. It was the first real nice day I've seen all year.

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There were many ducks, blue jays, cardinals, and other birds around.

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I could also see an island of birds that appeared to be cormorants, but I couldn't be sure.

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Some deer friends also trod this trail recently.

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Of particular note, I happened to hike in April. As such, there was a complete herbarium of wildflowers blooming on the edges of the trail. Flowers of all colors dappled the newly-formed green along the trail's boundaries. I have assembled an album of the flowers I saw, and will likely write up a post later on what I found (link to be included here later). This is an area managed by the National Park Service, so no picking the pretty flowers...

Note: The image below is a slideshow. Hover over or click to get controls to see the wildflower photos.

Wildflowers of the Potomac Heritage Trail (VA)

I encountered many runs and creeks that came down from the hillside. I'm very fond of falling water, so this was a treat. Small bridges provided safe navigation for a while, but runs became more challenging about halfway through my hike. The blazes of the trail were well placed, likely thanks to the Potomac Heritage Trail Association. However, some runs required me to rock jump in order to cross. The trail is very well maintained, but can get tricky as you navigate the rocks.

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About halfway into this hike, I encountered some signs of industry from years past. A large tank, a wheel, and an iron cube reminded us of the commercial history of this river.

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I mentioned above that after the first two miles the navigation gets a bit tougher. The grade started to fluctuate. Rock outcroppings became more common as you move upstream and the trail eluded me at times. Some walking sticks could have been helpful for this part, as well as good balance. I started to do more ups and downs than I was expecting, but it was welcome. It really showed that the edge of the Potomac is more rugged and less organized than the urban world would have it. I liked this. At 70 degrees out with shade provided by the tree canopy, this was a wonderful day to hop rocks!

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At some points, it was straight down 45 degrees on sheer rock.

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It appeared that some giant quartz and marble formations lined the trail as well, which added to the geologic diversity of this experience.

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As I hiked from D.C., I had to consider my return route. I turned around at the Chain Bridge, as the next closest waypoint would be Turkey Run Park. My original intent was to get to Turkey Run Park, but the trek took longer than I expected to shoot photos and hop rocks. I am glad I brought enough water!

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The view from Chain Bridge was outstanding!

View of the Potomac from Chain Bridge (VA/MD)

Both Turkey Run and Chain Bridge are nowhere near reliable transportation back to the city, so I crossed the Chain Bridge into Maryland and took the C&O Canal Trail back to Georgetown. Both Turkey Run and Chain Bridge are nowhere near reliable transportation back to the city, so I crossed the Chain Bridge into Maryland and took the C&O Canal Trail back. This trek ended up being around 8-10 miles with some moderately strenuous activity around the last two miles of the Potomac Heritage section. This ended up being a really fun route. I am grateful that I ended up getting both trails in, as they both have different views to offer. The C&O also is flat, so this is a nice reprieve from the ups and downs of the final couple miles of the Potomac Heritage that I did. There is also a water refill station down the canal at Fletcher's Cove.

At the GW Parkway Headquarters, I acquired the national park passport stamps for this stretch of the trail.

Theodore Roosevelt Island Passport StampPotomac Heritage Trail Passport StampGeorge Washington Parkway Passport Stamp

I also managed to find a trail patch, but only after scouring every store in the DC network of monuments. The only place I found a patch was the F.D.R. Memorial on the Tidal Basin. I am sure there are more, but if you're looking to collect a patch for your DC hike, this is a good place. Adding this one to the patch collection!

Potomac Heritage Trail Patch

Photo Album

This was only a portion of the photos from the trip. To see the whole album, visit my Flickr page for this trip or cycle through them below.

Potomac Heritage Trail - T.R. Island to Chain Br. (VA)


Trail Map

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