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July 28, 2008

Potomac Heritage Trail (Chasing Waterfalls)

Before I describe where I ran last week, let me describe where I didn’t, because the name is a bit misleading.

If you Google the Potomac Heritage trail, you’ll find several websites devoted to the 700-mile corridor through the basin of the Potomac River, stretching from Pennsylvania to Virginia. Numerous efforts are underway to create one continuous throughway in the area, similar to the Appalachian or Continental Divide trails.

Then there’s the 10-mile stretch starting in the District of Columbia, which, in typical Washington fashion, languishes in neglect and bureaucratic red tape. Because of jurisdictional squabbles, it’s not technically part of the larger preservation effort, so it’s not officially maintained – but it’s still a nice way to get a small dose of nature in the shadow of the nation’s capital. And that’s just what I was looking for on a business trip to DC last week.

From a training perspective, the centerpiece of my week was a 5-hour run in Rock Creek Park, similar to the one I described in this photo essay. The next evening, I was looking for a mellow recovery run to work the soreness out - so I headed for a scenic trail on the banks of the Potomac. I knew it would be a relaxed run in a unique setting … in other words, it was Nikon time!

My run started on the canal towpath through Georgetown, toward the Francis Scott Key Bridge. By the way, that’s not the Washington Monument in the background – it’s a smokestack. You’d be surprised how many people look twice at it, though.

After crossing the Key Bridge, you swoop down to river level, and see this sign for the Potomac Heritage trail. The location is always a decision point for me; from this spot, I can follow the trail as indicated, or turn in the opposite direction and visit Roosevelt Island, another one of my favorite DC trail runs (which I wrote about here). On this night, I chose the river trail, but it’s pretty much a coin flip each time.

The first thing I do on the Heritage trail is pass underneath the bridge I just crossed to get here. The bridge always looks much larger – not to mention a lot prettier – from ground level.

After passing the bridge, the trail parallels a roadway (sorry, I have no idea what highway this is) for about a quarter-mile. Granted, the run isn’t much of an escape from the daily chaos that’s just a few yards away on the left-hand side at this point. However …

If you look to the right from this same section, you enjoy a great view of the Potomac, Georgetown University above, and its historic boathouse across the river. Seeing a collegiate boathouse always strikes a romantic chord in me – it reminds me of my UCLA crew days, which I just realized I’ve never adequately written about. Maybe someday I will.

Heading north from the Key Bridge, the roadway rises high above and eventually disappears from sight (but never really from sound), while the trail remains at water’s edge. It alternates back and forth between sheltered woodlands, and …

Sweeping vistas of the Potomac, which is never more than a stone’s throw away from this trail. In the spring and fall, there are always several crew teams out here, and I’m close enough to hear the sound of the oars hitting the water, and the whisper of the water as the fiberglass shell cuts across it. (Have I mentioned that I miss rowing sometimes?) Unfortunately, summer is the off-season for crew, so I didn’t get to see any on this trip.

The Heritage trail traverses some runoff areas that drain the watershed on higher ground above. There are several small stream crossings like this, and in a few places …

There are even waterfalls! Granted, this isn’t exactly Fantasy Island-caliber stuff, but considering that we’re still inside the Beltway, the scene struck me as fairly impressive.

In my Rock Creek Park post, I commented that it took me less than 10 attempts to get a good self-portrait; on this trip, it took me less than 8. So I guess I'll call that progress. Actually, it would have been even fewer attempts if not for one factor …

Guess who else likes to inhabit humid, marshy waterways when it’s 95 degrees in the middle of July? An awful lot of bugs, that’s who. I know you can’t really see them in this picture, but trust me: they were formidable. I lost a few pictures fighting battles like the one pictured above. One time, I think one of them tried to fly off with my camera.

Further down the trail, another waterfall. Yes, it’s technically more of a runoff stream than a waterfall, but since we’re in DC, it’s probably referred to as a “special needs” waterfall, and it’s subsidized by our tax dollars.

As the trail heads upstream, the footing becomes progressively more challenging. It even becomes too technical to run in many places – although this isn’t one of them. This is another stream crossing, which leads to …

Another waterfall. Well, you know … sort of.

At several points on the trail, people had fishing lines in the water. It kind of surprised me, based on what I’ve read about fish taken from the Potomac. Hopefully there aren’t too many folks who obtain their dinner this way – and hopefully I’ll never be one of them.

Approaching the Chain Bridge four miles upstream, the trail rises back to meet the elevation of the road in the most direct way possible: a rocky stairway carved into a cliff, which then follows a streambed to higher land, but not quite to road level …

Because you still have to walk under the Chain Bridge before you can cross over it. Given that I grew up in Los Angeles, I’m usually surprised to pass underneath bridge spans like this and not see drug paraphernalia or homeless people who’ve taken up residence there. Of course, it wasn’t quite dark yet, so my timing might have been bad (or good, depending on your point of view).

After crossing the Chain Bridge, the return trip is four flat miles along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath, which seems like the main running and bicycling thoroughfare between DC and northeast Virginia or northwest Maryland.

I could show you more pictures, but honestly, the entire path looks exactly like this: a wide dirt trail, a stillwater canal to one side, lush greenery all around, and bugs everywhere you look. (You can see the bugs, right? I swear they were huge. I thought of posting a picture of bite marks afterwards, but – fortunately for all of us - good taste prevailed.)

Eventually, the canal reaches its terminus back in Georgetown, where this whole adventure began. From here, it’s less than a mile back to my hotel to cap off a leisurely 10-mile recovery run.

I know that other trail networks are far more extensive, more challenging, or more scenic than those pictured here, but the Heritage trail has typical DC appeal: a small refuge of natural beauty in one of the most unexpected surroundings imaginable. Besides, sometimes I’m not looking for grandeur – I’m just trying to make the work day disappear for a while.

In that regard, this run fits the bill perfectly.


Danielle in Iowa 7/29/08, 5:42 AM  

Haha, I love the shot of you hiding from the bugs - candid photography at its finest :-)

Deene 7/29/08, 7:12 AM  

Thanks for sharing your run! We stopped at one of the trails that looked just like that while in DC a couple of years ago.

stronger 7/29/08, 7:52 AM  

I like the big chunky rocks. I thought of your posts about running in the DC area when Michael posted the follow up to their move to DC. Maybe you guys can run together next time.

Backofpack 7/29/08, 8:19 AM  

Looks wonderful Donald - maybe we'll get to check it out in October after MCM.

Lesser is More 7/29/08, 12:03 PM  

Thanks for sharing. Despite living less than a mile from the beginning of the Potomac Heritage Trail, I've never made it all the way to Chain Bridge. I've walked a couple miles of it, but when running, I am usually tempted by the paved trails. Maybe I'll give it a try to change it up, so long as I bring my big spray.

Thanks for reminding me about that much forgotten trail!

PS - the road right next to the trail is GW Parkway, which tends to be quite busy during any time around rush hour.

Anne 7/29/08, 12:46 PM  

Beautiful! Love the photos and the commentary. Both made me homesick.

Jeff,  7/29/08, 2:10 PM  

Water! You didn't really expand on how novel that is coming from the Monterey Peninsula.

mindy 7/29/08, 4:34 PM  

Thanks for bringing us along on your run, Donald! Good to know of a nice trail system if ever in the DC area. By the way, I was a coxswain for a short time in college, so you should definitely post about your crew days...POWER TEN! (And be sure to mention Rob Lowe rowing in a leather jacket - I know you know the reference!)

rick 7/30/08, 10:46 AM  

Nice shots, nice self-portrait shots too. Bugs remind me of Kettle Moraine, they were big and ugly. Good to see that you're running Headlands. No need to let all that training go to waste. I'll see you there, I'm pacing a friend. It's a beautiful course and even nicer at night if the fog is not too thick.

momo 7/30/08, 4:01 PM  

every time i travel, i'm too skittish to explore. i end up running on the treadmill or just around the hotels where i stay. next time, i think i'll branch out a little - especially if the scenery is as beautiful as this. i love the pictures donald.

oh, and the day a 10 mile run is a recovery run for me - well, i don't know that that day will ever happen... :-)

Addy 7/30/08, 6:58 PM  

Beautiful run! I was thinking I'd love to run there sometime, until you mentioned the bugs. I hate bugs (well, more I'm sort of frightened of them). Thank goodness the beauty and not the bugs come through in these pictures :D

Rainmaker 7/30/08, 9:46 PM  

Very nice photo-log of the trail. Kinda like lesser - despite living close to it, I've actually never been on it. But after your photo jounrey, I think I'll give it a try one of these days.

RunBubbaRun 7/31/08, 4:03 AM  

Some nice places to run out there. 5 hours run too..

Yeah the only thing I don't like about trail running is all the bugs.. Keeps you moving thou..

jen 8/1/08, 11:33 AM  

Great run report! That looks like a beautiful trail with a lot of variety. Great self portrait, the bug-flailing one says it all.

triguyjt 8/2/08, 8:44 AM  

that was great stuff......

I love to explore too..and to see a trail and just go for it....

beats the treadmill any day...even if you have to swat bugs to do it

Darrell 8/2/08, 11:58 AM  

This post reminds me that there are so many great places to run and many more to explore. Thanks! You aren't just a great writer but a cool photojournalist as well.

Judi 8/2/08, 3:30 PM  

It is gorgeous there. Thanks for the pix!

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