Top Five Hikes on the Potomac Heritage Trail


You can backpack, cycle, boat, and camp along the Potomac Heritage Trail, but there’s nothing like getting tips from an insider who knows the system. David Lillard, author of Exploring the Appalachian Trail and Journey Through Hallowed Ground  shared his five favorite trail experiences.

  1. Paw Paw Tunnel

Twenty minute drive from Cumberland, Maryland, adjacent to Green Ridge State Forest. This forest has more species of plants than in all of Europe and is the only place along trail where you can go off on an extended backpack trip – a 40 mile loop. Here the Potomac River takes wide sweeping bends heading in every direction of the compass.  You can explore the extraordinary Paw Paw Tunnel, part of the C&O Canal.  The tunnel is the Canal’s longest man-made structure at 3,118 feet long, and was originally built for the canal boats with original railings in place. Today, visitors can ride a bike or hike through the tunnel. It’s very dark and you need a flashlight or lantern.

  1. Great Falls, Virginia

The most dramatic view of the Potomac is on the Virginia side. It has the same emotional impact for some as the mountain vistas in the American West. There’s a great visitors center here where you’ll learn about George Washington’s vision for Western expansion of the new nation. In Northern Virginia the PHT follows a path of a dozen different trails. From the Old Potomac Canal, you can see how in the late 18th century, builders used black powder, which predates gunpowder, to create a 70-foot cut in the cliffs.

  1. Great Allegheny Passage

Less than a mile north of the Mason-Dixon Line is Big Savage Tunnel, built in 1911, it cuts straight for 3300 feet through the mountain. The Rails to Trails Conservancy has described the view from the Tunnel as the most splendid view from any rail trail east of the Mississippi. You’re following the Great Allegheny Passage.

  1. Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

Besides exploring the quaint hilltop town of Harpers Ferry, you’ll find many important African-American heritage sites including Storer College, founded for freed slaves after the Civil War. Visitors will also discover a dramatic section of the towpath with towering cliffs dwarfing the canal. Class II rapids known as The Needles are popular with kayakers.

  1. Historic St. Mary’s City

In Southern Maryland St. Mary’s City was settled in 1694 by English settlers. It was the fourth permanent settlement in America. The park is situated on scenic St Mary’s river. The archeological record is considered one of the finest in America. The route of the PHT winds right through the city

The reconstructed buildings along the river are accessed on a series of foot paths.

–Renee  Sklarew with David Lillard.

For specific directions, including access to parking on the trail, check

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Freelance writer and photographer specializing in vivid, deeply reported stories about food, travel and family.

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