A Hiker's Guide to the Potomac Heritage Trail
The Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail is not like most trails. It is not yet a wholly continuous path from one place to another. But it is also different in terms of the breadth of history it encompasses: the entirety of the United States, from before its birth to the present, has an impact on this trail.
The Potomac River already provides a continuous thread over much of the corridor's length. Just as early Americans saw the Trail corridor as a passage connecting the Chesapeake Bay with lands beyond the Allegheny Mountains, today we use some of the same routes as pathways to discovery. Depending on your interests, the Trail corridor can reveal the stories of American roots music, industrial history, natural history, the Nation's outdoor-recreation heritage, military history and more. You don't have to cover every inch of the Trail corridor to experience its richness. But you can, by using this guide.
The Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail (PHT) is an evolving, 710-mile network of locally-managed trails and routes that embraces both sides of the Potomac, from the mouth of the river at the Chesapeake Bay to the Allegheny Highlands in the upper Ohio River basin. Trails in the Maryland/D.C./Pennsylvania segments of the Trail corridor make it possible to hike 350 miles from Washington, D.C. to Seward, Pennsylvania — all on trails and sidewalks. South of Washington, D.C., there are many places that offer superb hiking, with more opportunities on the horizon.
On the Virginia side of the Potomac River, local PHT advocates are bringing into focus a continuous footpath between Locust Shade Park in southern Prince William County and White's Ferry near Leesburg, Virginia, in Loudoun County - a distance of about a hundred miles. Hikers will be able to cross the Potomac on the ferry and either continue north on the C&O Canal Towpath or head south toward Georgetown to complete a loop.
South of Prince William County, in the area of Fredericksburg and Virginia's historic Northern Neck, hiking opportunities in the PHT corridor are plentiful. To complement such adventures, guides for bicycling and paddling routes entice further exploration of the Potomac and its streams and landscapes, which are available from various entities.
This guide will deliver you to some of the best places to experience the Potomac region on foot - even if you're getting from one hike to the next by car or bicycle. Recent land purchases along the river by local, state and federal agencies will add many miles of trail in tidewater areas. Even now, the corridor offers a scenic and relaxed roadside walk.
The route begins at Point Lookout State Park. In Washington, D.C., the path follows a route connecting the Fort Circle Parks, which also provides interludes in Rock Creek and Glover Archbold parks. Woven together, these trails create a world-class urban hiking experience.
Upstream from Georgetown in the District of Columbia, the towpath within the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park - the geographical spine of the PHT - stretches 184.5 miles west through the Piedmont, Blue Ridge and Ridge and Valley provinces to Cumberland, Maryland. From here, the former Allegheny Highlands Trail (now a segment of the Great Allegheny Passage trail system) takes us to the town of Frostburg, then into Pennsylvania and over Big Savage Mountain, through the town of Meyersdale and on to the town of Confluence and the Youghiogheny River. The Youghiogheny River Trail South (YRTS) connects with Ohiopyle State Park and the terminus of the 70-mile Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, which follows Laurel Ridge northeast to the town of Seward near the Conemaugh Gorge. Or, another option from Ohiopyle is to continue northwest on the Great Allegheny Passage trail system into Pittsburgh.
Seven Trail Routes East/North of the Potomac River
This online guidebook is divided into seven regional sections. Each section is divided into "hikes." We call them hikes whether they follow trails, sidewalks or roads.
There is also a section that lists additional resources and some ideas for further reading. Here is what you will find in each section:
Description. Each section is introduced with an overview of the route and the experience of following it, including a sketch of the surrounding terrain, proximity to water, whether you will follow road or trail, and some explanation of the landscape.
Hikes. Each hike chapter has parts to help you prepare, navigate and enjoy the journey.
Resources. At the end of each of the seven sections, you will find a listing of organizations and agencies that may be able to provide additional information to plan your trip (e.g., visitor bureaus, park offices, etc.).
Trail and Outdoor Contacts. This provides contact information on a wider range of resources than are listed in each section of the guide. It includes land trusts that are active in the corridor, hiking clubs, outdoor education groups, and other people who, either directly or indirectly, enable us all to enjoy the heritage of the trail corridor.
Books & Maps about Potomac Heritage. This is a grab bag of books, periodicals and Web sites. Some of them are gateways to more experiences and some of them offer deep exploration into the history, ecology and culture of the Potomac.
About the Authors
David Lillard writes travel and outdoor books, and develops interpretive media for parks, trails and heritage areas. His books include Appalachian Trail Names: Origins of Place Names Along the A.T., and Journey Through Hallowed Ground: A Travel Guide. He has been involved in the Potomac Heritage Trail as a volunteer and consultant since 1997, and is a former president of American Hiking Society.
Ed Talone has hiked extensively in the U.S. and Canada, logging over 40,000 miles. His journeys have included end to end walks of all eight National Scenic Trails, and a coast to coast hike in 1999. He works for American Hiking Society as the Trails Information Specialist and writes often for their magazine, American Hiker.