Waterfalls, rock formations, and beautiful Potomac River views await
As the saying goes, April showers bring May flowers. But that spring rain isn't always welcome by us hikers, antsy to get outside and hit the trails after a long winter.
New to the area and eager to explore, I mapped out a hike along the Potomac Heritage Trail and checked the forecast hoping for rain, a definite change of pace for me. Here's what I found on my rainy day hike!
Glancing out the window, I watch as the rain shifts from a gentle pitter-patter to an all-out downpour. Perfect! It’s time to go for a hike. I throw on my rain jacket and boots before heading out the door to walk to the metro.
I offload at Rosslyn metro station in Arlington on the blue line, the closest stop to the trailhead. I hop on to Key Bridge to snap a photo of the Potomac. Fog rises up from the river, giving it a classically spooky look.
After dodging cars’ puddle sprays on the half-mile walk from the station, I find myself on the Potomac Heritage Trail. The Potomac Heritage Trail is part of a large network of trails that connect the mouth of the Potomac all the way to the Allegheny highlands in Pennsylvania. If I continued to follow the trails from this spot, I could end up as far north as Pittsburgh.
I stop to look around. I’m right in the city, but there isn't a soul in sight. It's beautiful and calm. Unlike John Muir, I don’t have to scurry up a tree in a lightning storm to appreciate the beauty of trail walking in the rain.
Gnarled roots and dormant plants complement the spookiness of the fog levitating just above the river. Dreary days produce gray backdrops and brown puddles, but like a good decorator, nature remembers to surprise with pops of color even before spring fully emerges. Burgundy lichen, vibrant green moss, and stark white mushrooms are speckled across the otherwise monochromatic scene.
As I set off, the weather seems to have ensured me solitude, which is hard to come by on urban trails usual abuzz with “On your right!” cyclists and cheerful greetings from other hikers. The weather allows a completely different experience along the Potomac. That is, of course, until a car drives by on the George Washington parkway, monopolizing the moment.
After a brief walk along the parkway, the trail takes me back into the woods.
And . . . there’s a cart sticking up in the river? Yes, a shopping cart. I took this as the Potomac’s reminder that the peace and beauty of a rainy day walk shouldn’t lull me into complacency. The scene left me thinking about what more I can do to protect our river. It reminded me that spring river cleanups were only a few weeks away, and I knew dedicated volunteers would be out along the shorelines soon!
(Update! Volunteers did pull a shopping cart out of the river near Teddy Roosevelt Island, not far from where this photo was taken, just a few weeks later. We are pretty sure it was the same cart, and we're thankful to the Team Potomac volunteers either way!)
Leaving the wallowing cart with an “I’ll be back,” I turn and notice the clichéd ending of winter – bright green shoots piercing through the decayed leaves. Will they be yellow daffodils from bulbs that floated from someone’s garden during a flood and landed right here? Or perhaps some wildflowers preparing to bloom.
The second half of the walk turns into more of a hike. Now, instead of drinking in the landscape, I’m trying to remember some tips REI had about hiking in the rain. I'm concentrating on where to place my feet, and I’m using my hands to scramble over some rather slippery rocks. This is really fun, but it is takes a bit more focus.
Wait, there are waterfalls, too? Man, this is a cool walk!
Chain Bridge is now in sight, and I feel like my walk is over, even though I still have four miles left to go. At this point, I could keep going on the Potomac Heritage Trail, turn back and retrace my steps, or cross Chain Bridge and make a loop by walking back on the C&O Canal.
I chose the Canal for some great puddle jumping and low-effort walking, but it was definitely the cushy choice after the PHT.
After five hours of wandering through the woods, I find myself in the middle of Georgetown. I was just in the wilderness, and now I’m in one of the toniest areas in, like, the world? I love this city!
I grabbed a late lunch of steaming wanton soup before heading to the Foggy Bottom metro station and calling it a day.
On the next rainy day, I hope to see you on the Potomac Heritage Trail!
Start time: 10:00 a.m.
End time: 3:00 p.m.
Total Mileage: 9.16 miles
Average Hiking Speed: 33 minutes/mile