The historic port town of Alexandria is one of the Potomac Heritage Trail’s most vibrant, happening places. There are shops, watering holes, and all variety of eateries. Alexandria also has the distinction of being an archaeological treasure. It’s one of the most studied towns in America. There’s an Alexandria Archaeology Museum in the Torpedo Factory Art Center, as well as several self-guided walking tours along The Alexandria Archaeology Trail.
Through this short walk or bike ride along the Canal Trail, you’ll discover what Alexandria was like when the city was first settled. It’s only a 20-minute walk, and by parking at the marina, you don’t have to look for parking downtown! Or you can public transportation into Alexandria to take the walk beginning on the downstream end.
The waterfront here has undergone continual change since the city was founded. The natural shoreline has been remade and remade again to suit the city’s economic needs and interests.
Along the Canal Trail there are remnant woodland bogs where beaver live within hearing distance of a busy airport. There are also stretches of shoreline bluff perched 25 feet above the water’s edge. More so than any place in the upper tidal reaches of the Potomac River, you can see the contours of the river and shore the way the first settlers did.
The trailhead is the Washington Sailing Marina, an area known as Daingerfield Island. It’s not so much an island as a narrow stretch of dry land between the marshes west of the George Washington Parkway and the Potomac River. Here John Alexander, a Scottish merchant, purchased a 700 acre tract that is today the City of Alexandria.
From the marina trailhead, travel downriver along the Canal Trail. As you begin to circle the harbor you find yourself on a bluff overlooking the water. This is the Potomac of long ago, a river on which high sheer bluffs lined long stretches like the walls of a gorge. This contrasts with the waterfront you encounter just a mile downstream, where the land falls gradually to the water’s edge. The shoreline there once resembled these bluffs, but was engineered to meet the needs of merchants.
The area near this bay was the location of Belleview Plantation. Over the years Belleview had many incarnations, as a mill site, a dairy farm, and as a 19th century flower farm complete with greenhouses.
As you leave the bluffs, get a first view of the Potomac shoreline as it has been remade over time to better accommodate shipping and commerce. What better place to discover this essential connection between river and economy than Tide Lock Park at the south end of the Canal Trail. You can see a reconstructed replica of one of the four locks of the Alexandria Canal at the river’s shoreline at the base of Montgomery Street.
For information on what to see and do in Alexandria, see http://alexandriava.gov.