Advice from a Naturalist: Winter Hiking on the Potomac Heritage Trail!

Advice from a Naturalist: Winter Hiking on the Potomac Heritage Trail!

Don’t put your hiking shoes away for winter, because this is a great time to enjoy the Potomac Heritage Trail (PHT). The PHT is actually a network of trails stretching from near Fredericksburg to north of Harper’s Ferry, highlighting the natural and human history of the Potomac River and including a 15-mile contiguous natural-surface path from Great Falls National Park to Algonkian Regional Park. Other nearby access points include Riverbend Park in Great Falls, Ball's Bluff Battlefield Regional Park in Leesburg, and Turkey Run in McLean. But my favorite access is at Seneca Regional Park, which is only 18 minutes from Good Wolf Gear, north of Leesburg Pike at the end of Seneca Road.

Winter is a good time to go because hikers enjoy better views of the river and wildlife viewing is easier after the trees have dropped their leaves and the plants have died back. I especially enjoy the white bark of the sycamore trees against the blue sky along the river, and a bald eagle landed in the tree above my head on a recent visit to Ball’s Bluff. A nesting pair of eagles is often seen at Riverbend Park, which is also a good place to listen for spring peepers starting in late February. PHT hikers can also expect milder winter temperatures than at higher elevations in the mountains and don’t waste precious daylight driving to more-distant destinations during the short days of December and January.

The 4-mile loop at Seneca Regional Park shown can provide an introduction to the PHT with hiking along the river, where you can see remnants of George Washington’s 18th century Potowmack Canal, plus some woodland hiking. I typically take the clockwise route as shown and add side trails to match my ambition and schedule. It’s about 7 mostly flat miles to the Riverbend Park visitors’ center for a point-to-point hike or a long out-and-back. In warmer weather, I’ll do a little fishing in the river. There is a picnic table about halfway on the loop to take a break and have a snack. Note that there are no facilities at this park, so plan ahead, and remember to come back in the spring for the bluebells.

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