The following five- to six-day tour is adapted from cue sheets and an itinerary for a supported bicycling tour organized and managed in 2010 by Virginia Odysseys, LLC. Some sections of the Potomac Heritage Trail corridor are suitable for bicycling and others are not, so a sag vehicle is a practical consideration. For those seeking a route for a self-supported tour, see the Tidewater Potomac Heritage Bicycling Route map set developed by Adventure Cycling Association; the route uses roads some distance from the Potomac River but provides continuity.
For those who hope someday for a continuous route for bicycling closer to the Potomac, the preferred bicycling routes for the PHT between Mount Vernon and George Washington’s Ferry Farm in Stafford County are included in local and regional plans and identical to the planned route of the East Coast Greenway. So, let’s assume you have a sag vehicle and a willing driver and that you want to explore some of the most significant places in the history of the United States while ticking off some moderate days of riding…
Day 1: Arlington to Occoquan (~ 30 miles)
Start on the Arlington Memorial Bridge over the Potomac River, the symbolic unification of the North and South following the Civil War. Besides the many attractions throughout Washington, DC, the monuments around the Tidal Basin are closest to this spot. However, note the Washington Monument and the Robert E. Lee Memorial since you’ll encounter more places associated with their lives. For more information, visit Arlington County’s official tourism Web site, Washington, D.C.’s official tourism Web site, Cultural Tourism DC, and
Next head south of the bridge and follow the Potomac River downstream on the multi-use Mount Vernon Trail. The route winds through grassy parks and woods and on boardwalks over wetlands. Heavily used by bicyclists, walkers, runners, and inline skaters throughout the year, proceed with caution and give way to slower forms of transportation. Stop at Gravelly Point Park to watch planes landing and taking off at Reagan National Airport; planes seem to float as they arrive and depart low and directly overhead.
Beyond the airport Old Town Alexandria includes activities for a day and then some: shops, galleries, restaurants, and the Alexandria Heritage Trail (AHT), a hiking and bicycling route exploring three centuries of history. (A night in Alexandria provides enough time to explore a 22-mile AHT loop). Stroll through the Torpedo Factory, which houses three floors of local artisan studios in a variety of mediums, from paintings to textiles to ceramics, glass, jewelry, and more; visit the City’s fascinating Archeology Museum or The Lyceum: Alexandria’s History Museum, to pick up a guide to the AHT.
For a scenic side trip, ride over the Potomac across the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge from Washington Street to Oxon Cove Park or National Harbor. At National Harbor, you can grab a meal or ice cream, and see “The Awakening,” a 100-foot statue of a giant emerging on the earth.
Back on the Mount Vernon Trail, continue south along the river to Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, George Washington’s beloved home overlooking the Potomac. The new visitor center has spectacular multi-media exhibits tracing Washington’s life and new displays that even include a set of his famous wooden dentures. Stroll the expansive grounds, enjoy the views, tour the house, and eat in the period restaurant. Traveling southwest along the Mount Vernon Memorial Highway to the Richmond Highway/Route 1, you pass George Washington’s Distillery and Grist Mill and come to Woodlawn Plantation, a 126-acre national historic landmark built between 1800 and 1805 for Washington’s nephew Lawrence Lewis and his wife, Eleanor “Nelly” Custis Lewis; from the porch of the plantation house, the tallest trees in the distance are those you walked under at Mount Vernon.
South of this point, accommodations for bicyclists are sporadic, with some notable exceptions: along Mason Neck Road in the vicinity of Gunston Hall, a 5,500-acre tobacco and corn plantation and built for George Mason IV, a senior statesman and author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights; Mason Neck State Park, one of many peninsulas along the Tidal Potomac and a home to a large heron rookery and nesting area bald eagles; portions of Laurel Hill Greenway; and Occoquan Regional Park, which includes a memorial to American suffragettes, a boat launch area, and the southern terminus of the Fairfax Cross-County Trail. From the Park one can bicycle into the historic town of Occoquan, a pleasant
oasis for bicyclists and other visitors, providing plenty of interesting shops and galleries, as well as many places to dine. The town’s name is derived from a Dogue Indian word meaning “at the end of the water.” One might consider a return to this area to paddle the Occoquan Water Trail, a 40-mile journey from Bull Run to the Occoquan River to the Potomac.
Day 2: Occoquan River to Falmouth & Fredericksburg (~ 47 miles, not all suited
From the Woodbridge station for the Virginia Railway Express, it’s possible to ride south again, through Belmont Bay to (and within) Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, home to more than 220 species of birds. At the confluence of the Potomac and Occoquan rivers, the Refuge is a wildlife paradise–a mix of grasslands, wetlands, and woodlands. Depending on the time of year, you may see woodcocks, meadowlarks, snipes, red-shouldered hawks, savanna sparrows, yellow warblers, orchard orioles, great-horned owls, ospreys and bald eagles.
Continuing south through a small industrial park, a pedestrian/bicycle bridge brings you into Veterans Memorial Park—check out the hiking trail adjacent to the tidal wetlands—and to a series of roads through residential and industrial areas until you reach Rippon Lodge at the intersection of Rippon Boulevard and Blackburn Road. (If a draft plan is approved, Featherstone National Wildlife Refuge, to the east, will include an off-road segment of the PHT.) Rippon Lodge (open May-October) is the oldest standing house in Prince William County; located on a scenic hilltop with a sweeping view of Neabsco Creek and the Potomac, the plantation once had its own port. The area also includes remnants of the former King’s Highway and the Washington–Rochambeau Revolutionary Route, used by Colonial troops travelling from New England to Yorktown and the defeat of British troops. Along Route 1/Richmond Highway bicycling facilities are non-existent, but Neabsco Road leads you past hiking trails in the Metz Wetlands to Leesylvania State Park, the ancestral home of the Lee family and over 500 acres of parkland surrounded by the Potomac River, Neabsco Creek, and Powell’s Creek. Also known as Freestone Point, the park offers a visitor center, gift shop, store, bathhouse, boat launch areas, primitive group camping (by
reservation) and a hiking segment of the PHT.
To the west of Leesylvania, Prince William Forest Park, managed by the National Park Service, is the best example of a Piedmont forest in the Nation and includes a visitor center, a bicycling trail, cabins (by reservation), drive-in campsites, backcountry camping (in the Chopawamsic area), a historic gold mine, and many hiking trails. Algonquian people inhabited the area for thousands of years before European settlement, and General George Washington and troops passed through on the way to Yorktown. The cabins were built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
On the south side of the Park you’ll find Quantico National Cemetery, Locust Shade Golf Course (and snack bar), and the National Museum of the Marine Corps, describing the history of the Corps from the first recruiting efforts in 1775. The museum includes a tavern and restaurant and trail network connecting to a PHT segment in Locust Shade Park.
Near Stafford, Government Island provides a window into the quarry from which Aquia sandstone was cut and shipped upstream to build the White House, the U.S. Capitol, and other prominent buildings. At Aquia Landing Beach Park, you can go for a swim; the wetlands attract a variety of marsh and songbirds, as well as waterfowl and colorful damselflies. The 32-acre park, located on a peninsula jutting into the mouth of Aquia Creek, was an important gateway between southern states and northern ports from 1842 until 1862, serving as the only direct rail-to-steamboat transfer point on the Potomac River between Richmond and Washington, D.C. The landing was the site of the Civil War’s first naval engagement and a major supply base for the Army of the Potomac during three separate campaigns. Aquia’s key location and easy access to different modes of transportation made the port an important access point through which freedom seekers passed. After April 1862, an estimated 10,000 enslaved people sought refuge behind Union lines and passed through this port by rail and steamship.
Other nearby sites—Belmont, Chatham Manor, George Washington’s Ferry Farm, and the Falmouth and Fredericksburg historic districts, will one day be connected by a multi-use trail. Chatham, managed by the National Park Service, is alleged to be the only house in America to be visited by both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and Clara Barton and Walt Whitman both attended the wounded here during the Civil War. Lodging and restaurants in the area are plentiful and you can find a bicycle shop downtown near the historic Route 3 bridge. To add a day to your journey, consider riding a loop through the battlefields that make up Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania National Military Park or visiting the James Monroe Museum & Memorial Library, the largest repository in the country for artifacts and documents related to the fifth president of the United States.
Day 3: Fredericksburg to Colonial Beach (~ 50 miles)
As you ride out of town, stop at Ferry Farm, the boyhood home of George Washington. George’s father moved the family here from Popes Creek—see Day 4–in 1738 when he was six. It was here that he received a formal education and forged friendships that lasted the rest of his life. You can explore the 80-acre complex on your own, which includes a visitor center, demonstration garden, and archaeology lab. (At this point, you have the option of using the ACA Tidewater Potomac route or the Virginia Odysseys cue sheets.)
At mile 24.4 (cue sheets), you have the option of turning onto the Dahlgren Railroad Heritage Trail, which is hard-packed gravel and not recommended for skinny tires. The 15.7-mile trail follows the route of the old Dahlgren Branch line through the forest and some wetlands. If you do take this route, however, be sure to turn on to Route 218 so as not to miss Caledon Natural Area State Park, summer home for one of the largest concentrations of bald eagles on the East Coast. As many as 60 eagles have been spotted on the bluffs overlooking the Potomac River. Hiking trails in the eagle area are closed April through September so as not to disturb nestlings.
Back on the route, you end the day in historic Colonial Beach on the banks of the Potomac River that, at this point, is seven miles wide. As the name suggests, there are sandy beaches and places to swim, in addition to a number of lodging and dining options. The town celebrates its heritage with numerous festivals throughout the year, including the Potomac River Festival, Bluegrass on the Potomac, Annual Rod Run to the Beach, Boardwalk Arts & Crafts Festival, and two rockfish fishing tournaments. A couple of antique shops stuffed with whimsical items will keep you occupied, too. You may notice residents using golf carts on public streets, which is completely legal here. To help prepare for your journey on the next segment of the PHT, consult the map and brochure for the Northern Neck Heritage Trail Bicycling Route Network.
Day 4: Colonial Beach to Stratford Hall (~ 27 miles; Ingleside loop ~ 42 miles)
If you choose from a short 27-mile ride to Stratford Hall or Westmoreland State Park, you have plenty of time to explore Colonial Beach, Stratford Hall, and sites along the way. For a longer ride, choose the approximate 42-mile loop that also ends at Stratford Hall, the State Park or, adding a few more miles, in Montross.
For either route, markers along Route 205 (James Monroe Highway) identify the birthplace in 1758 of James Monroe, fifth President of the United States and twice governor of Virginia. In 1803 he signed the Louisiana Purchase, which lead to the Lewis and Clark expedition. The James Monroe Memorial Foundation is planning to reconstruct the original house and a small working farm. A short walk through the woods takes you to Monroe Creek; kayakers and canoers can are able paddle from a launch site in Colonial Beach up tidal Monroe Creek to a small dock on the birthplace property.
Roughly 10 miles farther along the main bike route you’ll find the birthplace of George Washington, a National Monument managed by the National Park Service; the complex includes a visitor center, reconstructed home–the original burned on Christmas Day in 1779—a Colonial farm with heritage livestock and fowl, flower and herb gardens, and a gift shop with coffee mugs proclaiming that “George Washington slept here first.” Explore a short nature trail that leads to the mouth of Popes Creek with a view of the Potomac reminiscent of Washington’s era and his home at Mount Vernon. The memorial house and colonial kitchen are fully furnished with more than 1,000 pieces from the period. To reach a picnic area on the water, ride north from the obelisk past the family burial grounds.
To visit Westmoreland State Park, you will want to use back roads to avoid Route 3. At 1,300-acres and 1.5 miles of Potomac River shoreline, including the famous Westmoreland Cliffs, the park offers cabins, camping, swimming, kayak rentals and a boat launch, as well as accommodations at the Murphy Hall Conference Center and the Potomac River Retreat. At the visitor center (open summers only) learn more about the historical and ecological aspects of the Atlantic Coastal Plain; the rare Miocene formation cliffs in only three other places in the world (Los Angeles, Austria, and Belgium).
Continuing on the loop, stop at historic Leedstown, situated on the Rappahannock River where, in 1608, Captain John Smith’s party was attacked by Rappahannock Indians. After white settlers took over what was once a thriving native village, one individual named Edward Bray built a church, ferry, and wharf. The site, though, is most noted for Leedstown Resolves of 1766, purported to be the first known written declaration of independence from Great Britain, predating the Declaration of Independence by 10 years. Coincidentally, George Washington–and Martha–spent the night here.
If not ending your day at Westmoreland State Park, consider a night—and perhaps lunch or dinner–at Stratford Hall, birthplace of Robert E. Lee and home to two Lee signers of the Declaration of Independence. Tour the visitor center, the Great House and the mill, and explore the trails. The seat of Westmoreland County, Montross boasts a bold history: After the British blockaded Boston’s ports, citizens of Montross agreed to provide aid to Boston, and a year later the county’s Committee on Safety formally denounced the Colony of Virginia’s last royal governor, Lord Dunmore, for seizing Virginia’s gunpowder supply in Williamsburg. If you’re passing through Montross in October, enjoy their annual fall festival
celebrating the town.
Day 5: Stratford Hall to Reedville (~58 miles)
The final day of the tour is the longest. Assuming a start at Stratford Hall, you enter Northumberland County after 20 scenic miles. Named for a county in northern England, Northumberland was originally known as Chickacoan, an Indian district. Arriving in Heathsville, be sure to visit historic Rice’s Hotel/Hughlett’s Tavern, a restored 18th century building that portrays how people lived and traveled in the 18th and 19th centuries. (Hint: It wasn’t by bicycle.) The complex includes a store and restaurant, blacksmith shop, and
craft guilds, but does not offer overnight lodging.
Farther along the main bike route find Vir-Mar Beach, an unincorporated stretch of sand on the Potomac. Pull over for a walk or to relax and watch for shorebirds, as well as terns and osprey. On clear days you can see the Smith Island Lighthouse and the Maryland shoreline.
At mile 50 or so, take the Sunnybank Ferry across the Little Wicomico River to Smith Point, named for you-know-who. The free ferry operates daily from dawn to dusk, except on Sundays and during inclement weather; the crossing takes 10 minutes. End the journey in Reedville, home to an Atlantic menhaden fishing industry built by Captain Elijah W. Reed, a New Englander, in the mid-1800s; Reed developed a way to extract fish oil, widely used for lighting and lubricants. To learn more, visit the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum, dedicated to preserving the marine heritage of the Chesapeake Bay. Their skipjack Claud W. Somers and deck boat Elva C. are both listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Annual events include the Blessing of the Fleet (first weekend in May), an antique and classic boat show (September) and the oyster roast, a museum fundraiser (November).
Region: Northern Virginia, Virginia's Northern Neck
Activity: Bicycling, Birding, Civil War, Historic Site, History, Museum/Visitor Center, Wildlife