Riverbend Park in Fairfax County, Virginia is one of my favourite places to hike. Located on the Potomac River, it’s a beautiful spot full of interesting plants, geology, wildlife, and history.
It’s the only riverfront park in the county and consists of over 400 acres of meadows, forests, and ponds. You’ll find 2.5 miles of the Potomac Heritage Trail here, linking you to other regional and national parks, including Great Falls.
For those with an interest in kayaking and canoeing, Riverbend Park is the perfect location. You can explore the islands of the Potomac or, if you’re interested in fishing, you can bring a boat or find a shady spot on the river to cast your line.
Address: 8700 Potomac Hills Street, Great Falls, VA 22066
Riverbend Park is open from 7 am until dusk, and the gates close at 8:30 pm.
Visitor center hours are noon to 5 pm Wednesday through Sunday. It’s closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
The visitor center features an exhibit on Native American life and a small gift shop. There are also restrooms available, as well as picnic tables with beautiful views of the Potomac River, and access to the river itself, including a launch ramp.
Parking is available just outside the visitor center and is plentiful during the weekdays. The lot gets busy quickly on weekends and holidays, however, and once the lot fills up, the park closes the entrance gate. When this happens, you can’t get in until more space becomes available. Since you can’t park your car in the neighborhood nearby, I recommend arriving as early as possible.
Wildlife and Wildflowers
Riverbend Park features a delightful display of wildlife no matter the season. In the summer you may see a ruby throated-hummingbird or a white-tailed deer. In the winter you may spot ducks on the river or a bluebird in the trees. In fact, nearly 200 species of birds have been spotted in the park, including bald eagles and osprey. Turtles, snakes, frogs, and skinks also call the park home.
Spring is one of the most glorious seasons at Riverbend Park, when the wildflowers flourish. You’ll find trout lilies, wild ginger, and purple aster. The most beautiful time of all, however, is from mid-March to early April, when Virginia bluebells adorn the park’s trails. In fact, the park hosts an annual Bluebell Festival every spring that’s worth checking out.
Hiking at Riverbend Park
Riverbend Park offers more than 10 miles of hiking trails. Whether it’s a short, family-day hike you’re looking for or something longer, you’ll find it here. Dogs are welcome on the trails, as well, but must always be on a 6-foot lead.
Riverbend’s trails link to other regional trails to the north, including Colvin Run Mill, Lake Accotink, and Occoquan Park, providing you with up to 45 additional miles of adventure. You can also walk south along the Potomac Heritage Trail to Great Falls National Park, with its breathtaking views from every angle.
One of the things I love most about Riverbend Park is the ability to hike multiple short trails during your visit to create a unique experience each time.
The Bootlegger Trail is a 4-mile loop that starts at the park’s visitor center and follows its western boundary. The loop features meadows, forest, and hollows along the way.
Madison’s Escape Trail
One of the shorter, more historic treks is the 1-mile route President Madison took in 1814 though what is now Riverbend Park via Conn’s Ferry to Maryland as he fled invading British soldiers during the War of 1812.
Follow the Hollows Trail
This 2-mile loop starts at the visitor center and makes for a great family hike. It begins at the Potomac Heritage Trail and winds through the forest and hollows before returning to the river.
The Potomac Heritage Trail
The Potomac Heritage Trail is also known as the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail. This trail system follows paths all once explored by George Washington. It’s 830 miles in total, running through 6 different parks, including Riverbend.
2.5 miles of this historic trail runs through the Riverbend Park, creating a memorable hike as you follow the Potomac River. If you start at the visitor center, you’ll have the option of heading north toward the Bootlegger Trail or south toward Great Falls.
Hiking South on the Potomac Heritage Trail in Riverbend Park
I arrived at Riverbend Park around 9 am on a beautiful Saturday morning and found plenty of parking in the visitor lot. As usual, I popped on my hiking boots before leaving my car.
While the trails aren’t steep, there’s a portion of the Potomac Heritage Trail that’s a bit rocky heading south to Great Falls. The trail can also be muddy in either direction during the spring or right after a heavy rain. For this reason, I always err on the side of caution and wear my boots versus my trainers.
I began my journey by using the facilities, which I also recommend you do before venturing out. Then I decided to head south to Great Falls National Park. Because the Potomac Heritage Trail tends to get quite busy heading this direction on a nice day, I opted to go that way first. It turned out to be the right call.
The trail is quite flat to start and well shaded by beautiful mature trees, especially the western portion, which you can follow up into the Hollows. It’s a peaceful jaunt, where I came across a Fowlers toad and a rat snake making their way into the low grass around the path.
The sound of the river picking up speed as you approach the rapids becomes louder as you make your way over a couple of narrow rocky scrambles. You’ll also pass sandy outcrops where you’ll find people enjoying a bit of fishing for smallmouth bass and sunfish. Note: anyone over the age of 16 must have either a Virginia or Maryland freshwater fishing license to legally fish here.
The geology here is refreshingly varied. You go from dirt trails to rock formations, and sandy paths as the Potomac widens. You’ll also encounter more people as you pass the parking lots nearer to Great Falls. As a result, the paths widen too, and you no longer feel like you have the place to yourself. Especially as the day gets later and this end of the park becomes more crowded.
Before you know it, you’ll reach the Great Falls visitor center, where you can continue into the National Park or make your way back on the Potomac Heritage Trail. I’m always a fan of taking a few minutes to admire the falls and was glad I did the morning I went. It wasn’t very busy as it was still early in the day, and the views were spectacular.
Hiking North on the Potomac Heritage Trail in Riverbend Park
After admiring the view and fueling up for the trek back and beyond, I hit the trail once more. I’ll admit, I didn’t spend as much time admiring the scenery this time as I was eager to tackle the northern part of the trail, which you can continue just past the visitor center.
The trail was extremely muddy in spots making me grateful I’d worn my hiking boots. It wasn’t as busy as the southbound trail and seemed to welcome more walkers taking quiet time out with their dogs.
I passed the offshoot to the Bootlegger Trail but decided to continue walking the Potomac Heritage Trail. I followed the river before starting an upward climb away from the mud and into trees. The views were stunning, and I only passed a couple of people along the way.
It was a beautiful day, and I felt as though I could have wandered for miles more but opted to turn back after logging about 4. Like many, I tend to lose myself in my surroundings and sometimes forget to save some energy for the trek back. Plus, I’d already done the southbound part of the trail earlier that morning.
This was the furthest I’d walked on the Potomac Heritage Trail within Riverbend Park. Having had a taste of the area has made me eager to explore the land even further afield.
As I wandered back, I took in the sights and sounds around me: woodpeckers, damselflies, and butterflies galore. Riverbend Park is a true gem in the Fairfax County Park System, and one I’ll continue to visit again and again.