You Want: an easy walk in a park
Jones Point Park is beloved by joggers, bikers, and anglers—but the real attraction is its lighthouse, first illuminated in 1856. The white clapboard building (you can’t go inside) is a popular spot for photos—particularly at sunrise. Jones Point Dr., Alexandria.
You Want: an accessible Path
The three-quarter-mile Neabsco Creek Boardwalk meanders across wetlands, with striking views of tall grasses, calm waters, and great blue herons. 15125 Blackburn Rd., Woodbridge.
You Want: Drama in Virginia
The view of the Potomac thundering over massive outcroppings and boulders is amazing, no matter how often you’ve visited Great Falls Park. The 1.5-mile River Trail runs along the tops of the cliffs, offering stunning panoramas of
the river and of Mather Gorge. 9200 Old Dominion Dr, McLean.
You Want: Drama in Maryland
The view of Great Falls may be even more impressive from the Maryland side. Join the C&O Canal Towpath near Old Angler’s Inn—there’s a small parking lot across from the restaurant—and then stroll north past the section of the river known as Widewater. It’s about a two-mile walk to reach the footbridges and paths that lead to that powerful vista. Potomac.
You Want: Drama Without a Crowd
Upriver from Great Falls Park in Virginia, and usually less visited, is Riverbend Park, where a 2.5-mile trail parallels the Potomac. 8700 Potomac Hills St., Great Falls.
You Want: Bird Sightings
An easy three-quarter-mile former mining road winds through the marsh and forest of Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve, one of the region’s largest freshwater tidal wetlands and a birder’s paradise. You can also get an up-close perspective by paddling in from adjoining Belle Haven Marina. George Washington Memorial Pkwy., Alexandria.
You Want: Eagle Sightings
Caledon State Park, 90 minutes from DC, was established as a nature preserve for bald eagles, and it’s where many of them make their summer home. Your best bet for spotting the birds is near Jones Pond, but hiking there takes effort—it’s about six miles round-trip. 116›17 Caledon Rd., King George.
You Want: A Bird’s-Eye View
The strenuous 4.5-mile-round-trip Maryland Heights hike offers a breathtaking view of the West Virginia town of Harpers Ferry and the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. 171 Shoreline Dr. (parking lot), Harpers Ferry.
You Want: An Easier Hike to a View
Five trails crisscross Leesylvania State Park, most leading to views of water. From the Lee’s Woods Trail, which passes by the ruins of Lee and Fairfax family houses, you can overlook the Potomac from atop the remains of a Civil War gun battery. 2001 Daniel K. Ludwig Dr., Woodbridge.
You Want: A Place to Think
Getting a piece of 88-acre Theodore Roosevelt Island to yourself is as simple as taking the easy 1.5-mile perimeter trail. A boardwalk cuts through marsh and swamp forest, with views of Georgetown. Parking lot accessible from northbound lanes of George Washington Memorial Pkwy. or footbridge from Arlington.
You Want: To Social-Distance
Relatively unknown, Blockhouse Point Conservation Park features seven miles of hiking trails plus views of the Potomac at the Blockhouse Point and Paw-Paw overlooks. 14750 River Rd., Darnestown.
You Want: A Waterfall
Scott’s Run Nature Preserve boasts rocky outcroppings, narrow gorges, and a waterfall where Scott’s Run makes a dramatic exit into the Potomac, all under a forest canopy. It can get busy on weekends, but with 336 acres, there’s always a path less traveled. There’s no swimming in the creek—and police enforce the rule. 7400 Virginia Rt. 193, McLean.
You Want: A Hike Close to the City
The Billy Goat Trail has three sections—A, B, and C—all of which branch off the C&O Canal Towpath. The northernmost section, A, offers the most spectacular views but is the most challenging: Intense rock-hopping and a steep climb along a cliff take you high up to see the dramatic cascades of Mather Gorge. The 1.75-mile loop is currently one-way, going downstream. Potomac.
You Want: A Nearby Hike, No Crowd
A portion of the Potomac Heritage Trail runs 9.6 miles between Roosevelt Island and the American Legion Bridge—we suggest starting from Potomac Overlook Regional Park in Arlington and walking as far as you please before turning around. The moderately difficult path follows the river—at times, you’ll dip down to the bank and can rest on a rock in the river. Just know that you’ll hear the hum of traffic on George Washington Memorial Parkway, and you should keep an eye out for poison ivy on the narrow trail. 2845 Marcey Rd., Arlington.
You Want: To Picnic
The Mount Vernon Trail, which extends 18 miles from Roosevelt Island to George Washington’s Mount Vernon, offers frequent river views as well as grassy parks for picnics near the water’s edge. Our favorite stretch to bike and walk is between Old Town and Mount Vernon, where the crowds are thinner. Another popular spot, on the trail’s northern section, is Gravelly Point, where you can watch planes land and take off from Reagan National. George Washington Memorial Pkwy.
You Want: A Bike Ride
The wide, mostly smooth Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, which sweeps along the Anacostia River, may be one of the area’s least crowded cycling trails. Some 12 of the planned 20 miles are complete—you could start at Navy Yard or Anacostia Park and pedal to Bladensburg Waterfront Park, skirting the scenic marshes of Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens. Just off the trail are Kingman and Heritage Islands, where you could spot a bald eagle.
You Want: A Mini–Water Park
Georgetown Waterfront Park offers not only a view of passing kayakers and paddleboarders but also a spray fountain for kids, a labyrinth for contemplating, and benches and grassy spots from which you can enjoy it all. Wisconsin Ave. and K St., NW.
You Want: A Hip Scene
You can’t beat the view of the Anacostia River from one of the chaises in the Yards Park (even better when enjoyed with a cone from Ice Cream Jubilee). There’s a quarter-mile boardwalk plus plenty of restaurants with patios hugging the river. 355 Water St., SE.
You Want: Nice Gardens
George Washington once owned River Farm—a large walnut tree is believed to date back to his time. The 25 riverfront acres are the American Horticultural Society’s headquarters and, as you’d imagine, feature lovely gardens and a meadow with a sweeping river view. Picnickers and dogs are welcome. Restrooms are closed, and the property is open only Monday through Friday. 7931 E. Boulevard Dr., Alexandria.
You Want: Fun With a Child
There’s a lot going on at Piscataway Park, named for the tribe that called this land home and consider it sacred. You can walk trails and boardwalks through the forest and wetland or fish off a pier with a view of Mount Vernon. For kids, National Colonial Farm offers a look at 18th-century history and a chance to see farm animals such as a bull, chickens, and pigs. 3400 Bryan Point Rd., Accokeek.
You Want: A Stroll Through Old Town
Alexandria’s newish Water-front Park isn’t big, but it features rotating art exhibits—through November, a sculpture-and-mural installation by Olalekan Jeyifous—and it’s a spot to rest after a stroll through Old Town. 1-A Prince St., Alexandria.
You Want: Colonial History
Before there was Annapolis, there was St. Mary’s City. Maryland’s first city served as its capital for 61 years, until 1695. His-toric St. Mary’s is a mini-Williamsburg of sorts, with costumed interpreters demonstrating antiquated skills such as how to run a printing press or harvest tobacco. 18751 Hogaboom Ln.
You Want: To Help the River
Do some good while you walk, and pick up litter. Potomac Conservancy has five volunteer cleanups scheduled this fall—all small, physically distanced groups; you can sign up at potomac.org/events. Or help out the Anacostia during its three socially distant cleanups—you can pick up trash in your neighborhood, in a local park, or along the river. Register at anacostiariverkeeper.org/events.
This article originally appeared in our September, 2020 issue. There has been a correction to this article since its original posting. To view our full guide to the Potomac River, click here.