The historic port town of Alexandria is one of the Potomac Heritage Trail’s most vibrant, happening places. There are shops, watering holes, and all variety of eateries. Alexandria also has the distinction of being an archaeological treasure. It’s one of the most studied towns in America. There’s an Alexandria Archaeology Museum in theTorpedo Factory Art Center, as well as several self-guided walking tours along The Alexandria Archaeology Trail.
Through this short walk or bike ride along the Canal Trail, you’ll discover what Alexandria was like when the city was first settled. It’s only a 20-minute walk, and by parking at the marina, you don’t have to look for parking downtown! Or you can public transportation into Alexandria to take the walk beginning on the downstream end.
The waterfront here has undergone continual change since the city was founded. The natural shoreline has been remade and remade again to suit the city’s economic needs and interests.
Along the Canal Trail there are remnant woodland bogs where beaver live within hearing distance of a busy airport. There are also stretches of shoreline bluff perched 25 feet above the water’s edge. More so than any place in the upper tidal reaches of the Potomac River, you can see the contours of the river and shore the way the first settlers did.
The trailhead is the Washington Sailing Marina, an area known as Dangerfield Island. It’s not so much an island as a narrow stretch of dry land between the marshes west of the George Washington Parkway and the Potomac River. Here John Alexander, a Scottish merchant, purchased a 700 acre tract that is today the City of Alexandria.
From the marina trailhead, travel downriver along the Canal Trail. As you begin to circle the harbor you find yourself on a bluff overlooking the water. This is the Potomac of long ago, a river on which high sheer bluffs lined long stretches like the walls of a gorge. This contrasts with the waterfront you encounter just a mile downstream, where the land falls gradually to the water’s edge. The shoreline there once resembled these bluffs, but was engineered to meet the needs of merchants.
The area near this bay was the location of Belleview Plantation. Over the years Belleview had many incarnations, as a mill site, a dairy farm, and as a 19th century flower farm complete with greenhouses.
As you leave the bluffs, get a first view of the Potomac shoreline as it has been remade over time to better accommodate shipping and commerce. What better place to discover this essential connection between river and economy than Tide Lock Park at the south end of the Canal Trail. You can see a reconstructed replica of one of the four locks of the Alexandria Canal at the river’s shoreline at the base of Montgomery Street.
For information on what to see and do in Alexandria, see http://alexandriava.gov.
Visiting Fort Belvoir or Mount Vernon? There’s more to see. The Woodlawn Plantation historic district, near the junction of Mount Vernon Highway and Route 1, includes an historic house on a hill. From the porch on the east side of the house, when the deciduous trees have dropped their leaves, the tallest trees on the horizon are on the grounds of Mount Vernon. Winter is lovely, but anytime is perfect time for a visit!
Such is not a coincidence: George Washington gave the plantation, once part of his Mount Vernon Estate, to his nephew and Martha Washington’s granddaughter as a wedding present. The National Trust for Historic Preservation provides tours of the house, as well as the Pope-Leighey house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
To the south of the plantation house, the Woodlawn Quaker Meetinghouse serves as a reminder of a successful mid-nineteenth century experiment in agriculture without the use of enslaved laborers.
Situated on Dogue Creek, George Washington’s Distillery and Grist Mill is the closest site to Mount Vernon in the district and open for tours seasonally. And while it’s possible for experienced walkers and bicyclists to travel from Mount Vernon to the Grist Mill and to cross Route 1 to reach the Plantation house, one needs to exercise caution, especially at the narrow, two-lane highway bridge over Dogue Creek.
The Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail is a corridor of history and outdoor adventure. The Trail network follows the river through its tidal reaches to the fall line, with an interlude along the escarpment of Washington, D.C., then up the C&O Canal to Cumberland, Md. From there it goes over and through the mountains along the Great Allegheny Passage and the Laurel Highlands Trail.
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.
This trip begins with a launch at Occoquan Regional Park, located near Lorton across from the Town of Occoquan, and continues downstream on the Occoquan River, around Mason Neck Peninsula in the Potomac River, before ending at Pohick Bay Regional Park. The entire route is roughly 16 miles, and because the trip includes open tidal water, the tour is best for paddlers with at least a moderate level of experience. The distance from Occoquan Regional Park to Mason Neck State Park (and another take out) is 5 river miles. In addition to a public boat launch area, Occoquan Regional Park includes restrooms, a seasonal snack bar, kayak and canoe rentals, playfields, interpretive exhibits and picnic tables, and serves as an anchor for the Fairfax Cross County Trail, the Laurel Hill Greenway, and the PHT.
En route to Mason Neck State Park, Conrad Island is one of the first features you’ll notice upon entering Belmont Bay. The island recently was created from dredged soils and is a favorite fishing spot for many birds, including cormorants, osprey and eagles. Kane’s Creek is a tidal inlet to the State Park, with the creek providing a view of a marsh ecosystem supporting resident and migrating waterfowl and raptors. The park offers outstanding bird watching, fishing and beachcombing, as well as hiking trails through marshes and forests and year-round launch access.
The river trip from Mason Neck State Park around Shady Point, High Point, Sycamore Point, and Hallowing Point is 11 miles. Adjacent to the Park, Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge is home to an active heron rookery and provides critical habitat for wildlife. Visible on your left, you are likely to bald eagles, osprey, blue heron, turkey vultures, butterflies, geese and seagulls. This Refuge also includes the Great Marsh – also visible from the water – a 285-acre freshwater marsh and the largest in northern Virginia. Please note that boating access is prohibited on the islands, as well as within the wildlife refuge. End your water trail journey at Pohick Bay Regional Park, which includes a year-round boat launch; rental kayaks, pedal boats, sailboats and canoes; a waterpark; a playground; a golf course; and tent camping, RV camping, and basic cabins.
To continue exploring on land, take advantage of the hiking and equestrian trails in the park and at Meadowood, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and visit nearby Gunston Hall, George Mason’s former home. For more information on activities and accommodations, visit the NVRPA web site or the Fairfax Tourism site.
The Middle Potomac River is one of the most beautiful stretches of navigable waterways in the Mid-Atlantic. (more…)
This bicycle loop connects four scenic Leesburg parks where you can see the natural beauty and history of this corner of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail network.
What you will see: Amazing views of the Potomac from the bluffs high above, the site of a brief but horrific Civil War battle; afterward, visit the charming town of Leesburg.