Top Six Experiences on the Potomac Heritage Trail

The ‘Grand Canyon of American Heritage’

The Potomac Heritage Trail skirts along the Potomac River from Georgetown in Washington DC to the Great Allegheny Passage near Pittsburgh.

The National Potomac Scenic Heritage Trail (PHT) has been nicknamed “The Grand Canyon of American Heritage” for having the highest concentration of nationally significant historic and cultural landmarks of any US National Park trail. It houses a number of extraordinary sites: Native American hunting grounds in Ohiopyle, Fort Circle Parks (11 preserved Civil War forts), monuments like Theodore Roosevelt Island, colonial outposts like Mt. Vernon and St. Mary’s City, and Civil War battlefields like Antietam and Monocacy. The PHT also possesses several aging structures like bridges and aqueducts built in the pre-industrial age that span its sides. 

The PHT offers a host of outdoor activities that will bring you closer to nature. You can backpack, cycle, boat and camp along the PHT. Here are some of my favorite destinations on the Potomac Heritage Trail:

The view from the First Overlook at Great Falls Park in Fairfax, Virginia.
  1. Paw Paw Bends is especially picturesque area thanks to the five horseshoe shaped bends, but it’s most notable for the Paw Paw Tunnel, a 3,118-foot-long canal tunnel on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Located in Allegheny County, west of the town of Hancock, the Potomac River takes wide sweeping bends, heading in every direction of the compass. People love to ride bikes through the Paw Paw Tunnel, named for the Paw Paw, which are indigenous fruit trees that ripen in early September.
  2. Great Falls Park – it’s debatable but many argue that the best viewing is on the Virginia side on the Old Potomac Canal. From here you can have three different perspectives of the falls. From the Old Potomac Canal, there’s an easy walk south called the George Washington Avenue of Commerce where 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.
  3. Loudoun County, Virginia’s Elizabeth Mills and Kephart Bridge Landing is a riverfront park with excellent hiking for families. Locate about one mile from Lansdowne Resort, you’ll see the remarkable double-stone locks where canal boats traveled up Goose Creek. Charles Fentom Mercer, a Congressman and President of the C&O Canal Association, was the chair of the committee that appropriated funds to pay for the building of the Canal. This waterway along Goose Creek ends at Aldie Grist Mill, which Mercer also owned.
  4. Stay in a Historic Lockhouse – there are six historic lockhouses in the eastern region that have been rehabilitated, furnished with period décor, and opened for overnight stays, including Swains Lock and Point of Rocks. The Canal Quarters program, run by the C&O Canal Trust, allows guests to feel like they’ve stepped back in time. Learn more and book a stay here.
  5. The Billy Goat Trails are some of the most popular hiking trails in the area. Start your hike on the towpath near the entrance to C & O Canal Park, near the Great Falls Visitor Center, as the trail requires one-way travel with Covid-19 restrictions. These trails challenge with ample rock scrambling but reward with stunning panoramas. As of 2020, Billy Goat Trail B has been closed due to trail damage, but A and C remain open.
  6. Hike Harper’s Ferry to Lock 38. Besides exploration of the quaint town built on steep hills, you’ll find many important African American heritage sites including Storer College founded for formerly enslaved people after the Civil War.  Here you’ll find a dramatic section of the towpath with towering cliffs dwarfing the canal. There are class II rapids known as “The Needles” popular with kayakers. A mile north on the towpath, you re-enter woods and come upon the restored Antietam Aqueduct. The trail ends near Shepardstown, WV.

You can stay overnight at Swains Lockhouse.

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

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