Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
Pictures and written content
Great Falls Park in McLean, Virginia is a great place to hike. The scenery is terrific and you have your choice of trails from the ridiculously easy to the just plain ridiculous. As I mentioned before, the trails through this park tie into a larger trail system that follows the Potomac River for about 45 miles. Just north of Great Falls is another location, Riverbend Park. While not as "traily" as Great Falls, there are still several paths to be explored. I had to be back in town for a mid-afternoon doctor's appointment, and having lost a morning battle to my pillow, I got a later start than I intended. Nevertheless, I parked in the northernmost parking lot at Great Falls and after stretching out, I headed north. The day was overcast and cool, one of those days where you kinda need the sweatshirt, knowing you'll be sweating underneath.
The character of the river undergoes a rather startling transformation. North of Mather Gorge, the Potomac is very sedate. There are a few rocks, but no rapids. I don't know who the first riverman was to make this trip, but I'm sure he was real surprised.
In the space of a mile, it goes from this...
The trail for the most part is pretty smooth, although there are a couple of challenging stretches ("challenging" being a relative term).
The trail running along the river is part of the Potomac Heritage system, but as you head north, there are several trails that exit inland into the bluffs. These side trails are intriguing, if only for their names: Madison's Escape, Bootlegger, Duff n' Stuff, Follow the Hollows. Given my time constraints, those would have to wait for another day.
Recognizing that I'm still very new at this, I pulled a real doozie of a mistake. Concerned about the footing, my attention was mainly focused on the ground in front of me. Too focused. As I climbed a steep portion, my head rammed into a low-hanging limb. I lost my balance and fell backwards on the steep downward slope behind me. My Camelbak, full of water, took most of the impact, thankfully not rupturing. When I finally achieved a resting position, I looked to my right and saw a pointy rock. I looked to my left and saw another pointy rock, both inches from my head.
I guess I still have work to do in this life.
Lesson learned. BIG lesson learned. If I'm going to be foolish enough to do this by myself, I need to pay better attention to my surroundings. In all three dimensions.
I wasn't completely unscathed, however, I picked up a laceration at the base of my left thumb and on top of my first knuckle on my left hand. Definitely not life-threatening, but they stung enough. I rinsed both areas with the only thing I had with me, water from my Camelbak. Another lesson learned. No first aid kit.
I continued on my way, being too pig-headed to turn back. Within another three-quarters of a mile, I came upon the Riverbend visitors center. I found a ranger who provided me two bandages and an iodine pad. I cleaned both wounds, applied the bandages, and soldiered on.
The scenery along this trail is wonderful. To my right, the Potomac glided by, its surface like a mirror, broken here and there by large rocks. To my left, the bluffs rose precipitately, and at their base, a host of lovely spring flowers.
These are Bluebells
I don't know what these are called, but does it matter?
The river is an active entity, always working on its banks. In a few places, small streams have cut there way inland, producing islands. At this point, the trail bends inland and climbs steeply about a hundred feet to Witch Hazel Bluff. I went as far as the point where the trail lets back down to the river. Looking at my watch, and keeping in mind that the Doc's office would charge me for the visit whether I was there or not, I decided to turn back.
Looking down on the river from Witch Hazel Bluff
One of the rocks disrupting the smooth water.
The Witch Hazel Bluff trail segment
Usually I don't care for out-and-backs, preferring loops. But I am enchanted by forests, especially those alongside rivers, and the trek back was every bit as pleasing as the trip out. Of course, I didn't run into the limb this time.
This trail system intrigues me with it's contrast between the rugged rocky hills and the gentle spread of flowers. The good news is that there's plenty yet to be explored, not just the Potomac Heritage Trail along the river, but the myriad number of trails going up into the hills. I think there's enough here to keep me occupied for several trips.
Or, did I forget to say that I've ordered a map set of the Appalachian Trail through Virginia?
It's gonna be a great summer!