The Ira Gabrielson Trail Hike
Situated along the headlands of the Potomac River Gorge, the Gabrielson Trail links over 1,500 acres of Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority (NVRPA) lands along the Potomac River. Retrace ancient paths through pristine natural areas on foot or horseback. The Gabrielson Trail is a 12-mile long segment of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, and links to other nearby trails, parks and attractions. Begin your journey at Algonkian Regional Park near Sterling, where you’ll find ample parking in a lush, green, shaded environment–a perfect place to begin your hike.
Featuring a waterpark, a golf course and club house, vast picnic areas and a boat launch, 850-acre Algonkian Regional Park is bordered on one side by the Potomac River and open year round. The official start to the Ira Gabrielson Trail can be found near the middle of the park itself, just beyond the open picnic shelter area before the park’s Riverfront Cottages. Hiking here is mostly flat on a blazed and well-used footpath. Your pace will likely be brisk considering the conditions. Continue east through and out of the park on to the Lowe’s Island segment of the trail for about a mile. Lowe’s Island is a private golf course and housing development, and some distance the River along Old Sugarland Run. The Seneca Tract Once you pass through Lowe’s Island, you will be on the Seneca Tract, another part of the NVRPA system. The trail takes a few twists and turns here but stays largely near the water, especially along the Seneca Breaks–one the of the famous five falls of the Potomac River. Visible are remnants of the Pawtomack Canal and Metagraywacke rock formations common to the area. Over time, the rocks were worn down by the flow of water, though resistant rock outcroppings, ledges and boulders remain prominent above the waterline and throughout along this section of trail. Considerably rockier and somewhat narrower than at Algonkian, hikers should use considerable caution here; in addition, it’s not unusual for the area to be muddy after wet weather. After 1.5 miles the trail moves to the left and just along the river to the banks of Nichols Run.
Protected by undisturbed forest, Nichols Run remains one of the most pristine watersheds in Fairfax County today. Along with Jefferson Branch, this outstanding wetland complex is home to several rare plant and animal species, including purple fringeless orchids and wood turtles. The trail here runs for a half mile or so entirely along the water’s edge through exceptional scenery.
Upper Potomac Parklands
Another NVRPA property, the Upper Potomac Parklands is a series of parcels that run along the Potomac East of Nichols Run. The trail here is approximately three miles along the water’s edge. Primary sites during this leg of the trip include an excellent view of some of the more significant islands of the Potomac. These are formed by water cutting into stone upstream as far northwest as Harper’s Ferry, and carrying the resulting stone and silt downstream, where it’s deposited here forming soft gravel islands. These island ecosystems support many globally rare natural communities. Also along this portion of the trail, hikers may spot several examples of the area’s native birds of prey – hawks, falcons, owls and bald eagles – that hunt the area for small birds, mammals and fish. This final leg brings hikers into Riverbend Park, and the end of the Ira Gabrielson Trail. Restrooms and parking are available on the up- and downstream ends of this hike, at both Algonkian Regional Park and Riverbend Park, and the latter includes a visitor center with exhibits that portray the history and natural features of the area. For more information on parks in this area, please visit the NVRPA web site.