National Scenic Trails - Potomac Heritage Trail Overview
Trail at a Glance
Length: 700 miles
Route: Potomac River Basin in Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia to the Allegheny Highlands in Pennsylvania
Highlights: C&O Canal Towpath, Mount Vernon Trail, Laurel Highlands Trail, many historic towns and sites, connections to other trails
Completion: Approximately 40%
Hiker Purity: Most of the existing portion of this trail is mixed use.

This is still more the opportunity for a trail than an actual trail. In 1983, Congress designated the roughly 700-mile Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail a "corridor." The corridor is a general route—but not an actual, walkable trail— that connects the outstanding natural and cultural features along the Potomac River from the Chesapeake Bay to the Allegheny Highlands. The corridor passes through Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia and Pennsylvania.

"Official" trail segments of the PHT currently include the 18-mile, multi-use Mount Vernon Trail, the C&O Canal Towpath, and the Laurel Highlands Trail. Beginning in Georgetown in the District of Columbia, the Cheseapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park is a major feature in the corridor, providing a 184.5-mile trail over the old towpath that stretches along the Potomac River to Cumberland, Maryland.

In addition, the ten-mile Potomac Heritage Trail runs parallel to a portion of the George Washington Memorial Parkway between Theodore Roosevelt Island and the American Legion Bridge along the Potomac River. For some reason, this short trail is distinct from the longer Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail—all we can say is leave it to Washington to cause this kind of confusion. But name games aside, this trail is a real gem of urban outdoors, passing through steep, rocky hillsides of the palisades, and forested stream valleys. Across the river from the capital, hikers are crossing streams by stepping on rocks. Sycamore, oak, poplar, and beech trees shade most of the trail in summer.

There is still a lot of work left to put a walkable trail through the entire Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail corridor. For years, despite the national significance of the corridor, trail development has been moribund. This is changing. In 1997, with assistance from the American Hiking Society, a group of local governments, citizen groups, and regional organizations formed the Potomac Heritage Trail Coordinating Committee, hosted by the Potomac Heritage Partnership. The Committee is working to develop and make connections among local hiking and bicycling trail networks and between land and water trails. In addition, the Allegheny Trail Alliance has organized development of seven trails linking Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with the western terminus of the C&O Canal Towpath in Cumberland, Maryland.

This is the one national scenic trail that doesn't seem to have a through-hiker on record. Want to be the first?


Published: 31 Oct 2008 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »