Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
Today we went back to the Potomac River, a place I haven't hiked since spring. I remember how enchanting it was, the paths lined with bluebells, and those wonderful sunny days after a winter that just wouldn't go away. I decided to start a bit upstream from Great Falls Park, another park called Riverbend. Using the GPS, we located the visitors center, a modernish-looking structure set on a low rise overlooking the river. We picked up the trail and headed north.
This particular stretch is part of the Potomac Heritage Trail, a system of trails that stretch from Stafford County, Virginia, south of Washington DC, all the way to the Conemaugh Gorge near Johnstown, PA. Added together, the primary and secondary trails add up to a whopping 830 miles. If you were to stay on the main trail itself, you would pile up some 425 miles, if I've done the math right. The section we were on today is actually two trails, one on each side of the Potomac. The trail on the east side is called the C&O Towpath, which provided mule power to haul flat boats up and down the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.
You would think that walking along a river might be a pretty easy, flat path. In truth, the trail does have it's easy portions, but then it meanders inland and you end up climbing and descending the bluffs, some of which are pretty doggone steep. So it ends up being a mixed bag, which is a good thing especially if you have a new hiker along with you.
The first mile or so was flat and in some places, pretty sandy, deposits from frequent flooding. This is a section easy on the eyes, with the forest to your left, and to your right the waters of the Potomac River, today a vivid blue under flawless early autumn skies.
Just as you've gotten comfortable, the trail takes an abrupt upward tilt. At this point, the roller coaster begins. Witch Hazel Bluff takes you up about 300 feet in a bit over half a mile, and it's not a constant slope as there are places where the incline pushes 45 degrees.
Looking around, we noticed with some excitement that some of the trees were already showing spots of fall colors. In think in about three weeks, this place will be breath-taking. The cool and dry air seemed to have taken the fight out of any mosquitos remaining and other than a deer and a black snake, we saw no other large wildlife (read: no bears). There is a part of the trail that intrudes on some private property, as it turns out, some of the most spectacular residences I've ever seen.
The foliage was still dense, but in places you can find some imposing and very old rock formations.
The trail is full of lovely spots, the kind of places which can bring peace to any soul...
Cheryl, being the more pragmatic, sometimes sees things a bit differently.
Candy-crushing her way through the forest.
I had intended to push as far as the Watkins Island Overlook, but the distances on the provided trail map are a bit misleading. We paused at the far end of the Mansions, and checking my phone app, we had gone 3 miles, which meant that we had three miles to go back. Realizing that my bride was not yet ready for a real long-distance trek, we turned back.
The return trip seemed to go quicker, and the late afternoon sun angle gave the forest a dreamy, wistful kind of cast to the colors.
This was a really nice hike with the trail giving us a variety of easy and challenging, along with the beautiful woodland, and the vivid blue of the Potomac always in view. The nice thing about a trail system like the PHT, is that you can drive to just about any portion and catch the trail in a different place and see things unique to that stretch.
Which is a good thing for future planning.
Fall is here, and the trees are already beginning to dress themselves for the occasion. I think the next three to five weeks will produce for us awe-inspiring beauty as we take in the colors of autumn.