South River Falls Loop (Shenandoah National Park, VA)

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South River Falls, Shenandoah National Park, April 2019

At its peak flow in spring, South River Falls in Shenandoah National Park is easily one of Virginia’s most spectacular waterfalls. Here the South River, barely a trickle a mile upstream, catapults 83 feet down a two-tiered drop, forming a thundering sound that reverberates throughout the rocky gorge. Most hikers turn around at the first overlook of the falls, 1.3 miles from the trailhead at the South River Picnic Area. This is a mistake: while the views are partly obscured from this vista, it is worth adding an hour of hiking time to trek down to the base of the falls—a blissful cove that is one of the most idyllic spots in Shenandoah. Make the hike into a circuit by taking the South River Fire Road and Appalachian Trail back to the start, forming a 4.7-mile stem-and-loop. Note: Hike in spring or after recent rain/snowfall for the best flow.

South River Falls Trail Shenandoah hike information

South River Falls trail loop Shenandoah map

Map of South River Falls Loop, Shenandoah National Park

The hike

The moderately difficult hike to Shenandoah’s third-tallest waterfall starts and ends at the South River Picnic Area, situated in the park’s Central District roughly three miles north of the park entrance at Swift Run Gap. Note: Parking is relatively ubiquitous; just keep driving around the one-way circle until you find a spot. The marked trailhead is situated in the southeast corner of the picnic area, next to the pit toilets.

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Start of the South River Falls Trail

The blue-blazed South River Falls Trail quickly plunges into the woods, dropping to a junction with the Appalachian Trail (AT) within about 150 yards. For now, stay straight—you will return to the AT later. Continuing downhill, the incline steepens. As you descend more than 50 wooden steps, the faint sounds of the South River gradually come within earshot, and peeks through the trees reveal mighty Saddleback Mountain (3,081’) to the south.

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Descent along the South River Falls Trail

After a brief respite from the rapid descent, the trail enters a series of winding bends at around 4/10 mile. Moss-laden outcrops become increasingly common, while the noise of the river becomes clearer. By 6/10 mile, hikers can spot the flowing water below on the left; a left-hand bend and short descent brings you to the edge of the South River—here merely a small and relatively calm stream.

It’s hard to believe that this small brook will soon become a rushing waterfall, but sure enough, as the South River Falls Trail follows the water eastward, the creek gradually picks up steam. The relatively level route traverses a boulder-choked tributary at around the ¾-mile mark, then the path cuts away from the water, briefly putting the stream out of view. As the stream returns trailside, it has more oomph than before, and minor cascades become increasingly frequent.

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Following the South River

Cross another tributary at 1.2 miles, then climb uphill, passing a rock outcrop on the right. At last, the sounds of the waterfall become unmistakable and the trail reaches the falls observation point at 1.3 miles. This often-crowded viewpoint offers a decent view of South River Falls, although only a teaser for what it is to come. Take a picture or two and move on.

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South River Falls from the falls observation point

After the overlook, the trail climbs uphill and rounds a left-hand bend, revealing obscured views of the mountain gap below. Hugging the southern slopes of Bald Face Mountain, the South River Falls Trail intersects with the South River Falls Road, an old fire road (closed to vehicles), at about 1.5 miles.

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South River Falls Road

To reach the base of South River Falls, head right on the fire road to begin a roughly 1.3-mile out-and-back detour. The wide road descends steadily into a side gully with views of a terrific, cascading tributary that would be a worthy destination in itself. After 350 yards, the path rounds a sharp bend, coming parallel with the stream, now on the left. From here the road continues to shed elevation, finally reaching the bottom of the main canyon—carved by the South River—at around the two miles from the trailhead.

The road ends abruptly at this point, giving way instead to a narrow and strenuous single-track trail that climbs sharply upward. With the rushing stream on your left, follow the path as it mounts a series of stony steps—use caution as they can be very slippery. Around a couple minutes in, hikers approach a beautiful, multi-tiered cascade that slides down the greenstone into a picturesque pool.

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Cascades along the way to South River Falls

From here, the blue-blazed trail climbs a steep staircase, approaching the foot of the gray canyon walls. Around 2.1 miles from the trailhead, the path finally ends at the base of majestic South River Falls. Here the stream drops 83 feet, initially in one free-falling drop, then split between two gushing chutes. In summer, it is possible to wade in the pool at the base of the falls or—for those preferring dry land—an abundance of rocks offers the chance to sit down for a snack with a view.

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South River Falls

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South River Falls

Leaving one of the best waterfalls in the park can be difficult, but when you are ready, head back the way you came up South River Falls Road. Returning to the junction with the South River Falls Trail, you can bear left and retrace your steps back to the trailhead or stay right on the fire road as it winds uphill along the wooded slopes of Bald Face Mountain. This circuit option entails a largely uneventful climb but at least offers some variety from the pure out-and-back. At 3.25 miles, the wide track merges with the South River Upper Fire Road; bear left at the fork. Pass over a minor tributary a minute later, then continue the steady slog westward for another ¾ mile. At 4.1 miles, just as the road crosses a wooded gully, cut left on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail. This south-bound path gains more elevation, then briefly drops to clear a low dip before climbing mildly again. By now you can hear the cars on Skyline Drive to the right.

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Appalachian Trail

At last, the AT reaches the initial junction with the South River Falls Trail. Bear right, following the path uphill back to the South River Picnic Area. All told, the stem-and-loop hike, including the climb down to the base of the falls, comes out to about 4.7 miles. Hikers should allot at least 2 ½ hours for this journey.

Posted in Moderate Hikes, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Marys Rock via Panorama (Shenandoah National Park, VA)

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Marys Rock, Shenandoah National Park, April 2019

Towering more than 1,000 feet above Thornton Gap, Marys Rock is one of the most popular summits in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. Sitting atop the rock’s highest fins offers true 360-degree panoramic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah Valley, and beyond. Yet the approach is not for the faint of heart: while there are easier and longer ways to the summit, the most dramatic route ascends 1,200 feet from the Panorama parking area at Thornton Gap. Window views through the trees offer picturesque views along the way, helping one to forget the challenging uphill slog.

Marys Rock via Panorama hike information Shenandoah

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Map of hike to Marys Rock, Shenandoah National Park

The hike

There are three main ways to reach the summit at Marys Rock in central Shenandoah: The first, and longest, option is a very pleasant, 7-mile out-and-back from the Pinnacles parking area. (Note: See the trail description here.) The second route—a 2.6-mile round-trip jaunt from the Meadow Spring Trailhead—is the shortest, albeit with one sharp ascent. Finally, the steepest option is the most dramatic and most easily accessible from Washington, DC: a 3.5-mile out-and-back from the Panorama parking area, situated just south of the Thornton Gap Entrance Station. This is the hike described below.

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Marys Rock Trailhead at Panorama

From Panorama, look for the start of the trail to Marys Rock at the far southern end of the parking lot: a tall informational sign provides a brief description and map of the hike, as well as others in the area. The summary calls for 2 ¾ hours to complete the round trip, but many fit hikers can complete the out-and-back in less than two hours, while others who want to take their time climbing—or relaxing at the top—may want to allot at least three hours in total.

The wide and well-trodden route begins as a simple connector path, meeting up with the famed Appalachian Trail (AT) after just seconds of walking. Bear left on the AT as it briefly parallels a set of power lines and climbs a dozen wooden stairs—a warm-up for the climbing to come. As hikers round the first switchback, they can catch a brief view of distant peaks through the tree cut for the power lines. A minute later, the trail switches back again, to the right. Passing under the power lines, the views improve further.

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Power line cut near the start of the hike

For the next 2/10 mile, the trail traverses a long straightaway but climbs laboriously through one of the hike’s steepest sections. Eventually the trail curves left again around another switchback amid a large rock field, then wraps around a north-facing hillside, offering obscured but lovely views of Thornton Gap and US Route 211 below. The sloping mounds just across the gap are Pass Mountain (3,052’) and Oventop Mountain (2,468’), situated within the North District of Shenandoah National Park.

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Appalachian Trail as it climbs toward Marys Rock

By now the incline has lessened significantly, and the AT turns southward, with east-facing views into the Thornton River Valley. On the horizon, behind Pass and Oventop Mountains, lie the highest peaks of the North District, including Hogback Mountain (3,474), South and North Marshall (3,212’; 3,368’), and The Peak (3,255’).

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Views to the north

At ½ mile, the trail passes a slope with moss-laden boulders on the right, followed soon by a lovely pine-laced corridor situated on a perch above a steady drop-off to the left. By now the width of trail has narrowed significantly, and there are few barriers that would halt a tumble off the side—although the path is flat and easy to traverse.

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Gargantuan boulders along the AT

Just beyond this section, hikers approach a collection of mammoth-sized rock monoliths on the right. While much of the Blue Ridge Mountains is composed of Catoctin greenstone, a metamorphic rock, the tops of Marys Rock include patches of igneous granite formations.

At about 7/10 mile, the incline steepens again. After rounding a corner, one can spot southbound Skyline Drive as it snakes around Marys Rock to the east. At 8/10 mile, the trail abruptly rounds a switchback, followed by another within a couple minutes. Just before the 1-mile mark, a window view through the trees provides another great look toward the Piedmont to the east.

Passing more boulder protrusions on the right, the route edges south, bearing ever closer to the top of Marys Rock. After cresting a slope dotted with mountain laurel, the hill reveals itself to be a false summit. At 1.4 miles, the trail switchbacks to the north, although the ascent is not particularly steep. Moments later, the AT bends back southward, and a “camping prohibited” sign indicates that the end is near. After a final switchback at 1.6 miles, hikers reach a trail junction—the AT continues left (toward Meadow Spring and Pinnacles), while a spur path leaves to the right. This spur is the way to Marys Rock summit.

After a final stretch of rocky steps, the trail ends at a spectacular lookout. To the north, Thornton Gap and Pass Mountain appear dwarfish from the high overlook, while the Blue Ridge Mountains stretch for miles off into the horizon.

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View north from Marys Rock, overlooking Thornton Gap and Pass Mountain

Climb the fin at the viewpoint for views to the south: here an even higher point on Marys Rock reveals itself—a short walk, but difficult climb, away. This is the true summit. Beyond, one can see a stretch of peaks in Shenandoah’s Central District, from The Pinnacle (3,730’) to Stony Man Mountain (4,011’) to Hawksbill (4,050’). The shadowy, rugged peak to the left of Stony Man is the famed Old Rag Mountain (3,268’).

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View north from the highest point on Marys Rock

The views to the west and east reveal foothills that give way to a patchwork of farms and fields. The westward vista covers Shenandoah Valley (more precisely, Page Valley), with Massanutten Mountain and Great North Mountain beyond. To the east, the Appalachians come to a gradual end as a long plain leads toward the Potomac and Washington, DC.

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View west across Shenandoah Valley

In short, Marys Rock offers one of Shenandoah’s best panoramas, best enjoyed on a relatively cloudless day in the off-season, when the summit’s visitation is lower. Once complete, return the way you came to the Panorama parking area at Thornton Gap.

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Falls Nature Trail (Catoctin Mountain Park, MD)

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Falls Nature Trail, Cunningham Falls State Park, March 2019

Cunningham Falls in northern Maryland tumbles 78 feet down a set of cascades, making it the tallest waterfall in the state and a popular getaway destination for residents of the DC/Baltimore area. Most visitors hike to the falls by way of Cunningham Falls State Park—but it is also possible to reach from neighboring Catoctin Mountain Park, a lovely National Park Service unit outside Thurmont, Maryland. The Falls Nature Trail provides a moderately challenging, up-and-down walk to the base of the cascades.

Falls Nature Trail Catoctin Mountain Park hike information

Falls Nature Trail map

Map of Falls Nature Trail, Catoctin Mountain Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

Begin this relatively short but steep hike from the overflow parking area across Park Central Road from the Visitor Center in Catoctin Mountain Park. (Note: As of March 2019, this parking lot was closed for construction, but there was other parking available at the Visitor Center.) From the parking area, walk north on a wide trail before reaching a fork; a short trail to the Blue Blazes Whiskey Still heads right, while the orange blazes lead left to Cunningham Falls.

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Trail fork near the parking area

The Falls Nature Trail starts relatively level, quickly crossing over a minor stream within the first 100 yards. Thereafter, however, the path climbs steadily, cresting the first of many ridgelines at about the 250-yard mark. With Foxville Road (Maryland Route 77) visible down to the left, the trail levels off briefly, then climbs again. By now, it is clear that the short distance of the hike—1.25 miles one way—and seemingly straightforward westerly direction are deceptive: the Falls Nature Trail ascends rugged and rocky terrain, with a surprising number of uphill slogs.

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Falls Nature Trail as it cuts through the Catoctin Mountain range

Cutting through the heart of the Catoctin Mountain Range, the trail crests another hill at 4/10 miles, then descends for a brief moment. Soon enough, it is up again, treading southwest with occasional views of the valley and road below. The terrain gets rockier as you progress, with one particularly steep section at around 7/10 mile. Within a few minutes, a rock outcrop emerges on the right, leading to another mild ascent. By now, the trail has gained around 300 feet in elevation to roughly 1,250 feet in total, about 100 feet above the elevation at the base of the falls.

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Rock outcrop along the route

The much-anticipated descent comes just before the 1-mile mark, with the trail dropping sharply to cross Foxville Road. (Note: Just before the road, the trail splits—stay left; the right fork heads steeply uphill toward Hog Rock.) After carefully traversing the road, hikers leave Catoctin Mountain Park and enter Cunningham Falls State Park. An information kiosk provides information on the park, with a wooden boardwalk beyond that takes hikers to the base of the falls. The roar of Cunningham Falls becomes audible as hikers following the boardwalk over a fork of Hunting Creek. The hike ends abruptly at about 1.25 miles, with views of the tumbling falls.

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Cunningham Falls from the boardwalk

While not quite as good as the vista from the adjacent boardwalk on the state park side, it is still possible to see the cascading waters as they leap down the grey greenstone. Warning signs discourage visitors from approaching the falls, but a couple of benches at the end of the boardwalk offer a place to sit and admire the waterfall.

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Cunningham Falls and the other (better but inaccessible) boardwalk)

Unfortunately, there is no connector to the other boardwalk (and associated Lower Trail), so hikes must trek back the way they came, this time enjoying considerably more downhill than the incoming journey. Adventurous hikers can continue northward to Hog Rock and beyond, but most will return straight to the Visitor Center. Visitors can expect to take 1.5-2 hours for the 2.5-mile out-and-back hike.

Extra credit

Experience the area’s history as a regional hub for moonshine on the Blue Blazes Whiskey Trail, or drive to Cunningham Falls State Park to see the falls from the superior viewpoint.

Posted in Catoctin Mountain Park, Cunningham Falls State Park, Maryland, Moderate Hikes | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Blue Blazes Whiskey Trail (Catoctin Mountain Park, MD)

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Blue Blazes Whiskey Trail, Catoctin Mountain Park, March 2019

In 1919, Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment, ushering in the Prohibition era and forcing distilleries to move their business underground. Hidden up in the mountains—but close to large markets in Baltimore and Washington, DC—many so-called “moonshiners” turned to the Catoctin Mountain region of northern Maryland to reestablish their business. The most famous whiskey operation was Blue Blazes Still, site of one of the area’s most profitable enterprises during the Prohibition era until it was raided by police on July 31, 1929.

Nestled in the rugged landscape of today’s Catoctin Mountain Park, a short, 0.6-mile out-and-back trail provides passage along Blue Blazes Run to the former site of the still. While the structure at the site is a reconstruction, regular interpretive waysides tell the story of the rise—and dramatic fall—of the moonshine operation.

Blue Blazes Whiskey Trail Catoctin Mountain Park Maryland hike information

The hike

In Catoctin Mountain Park, hikers can start the short walk from either the overflow parking lot, just across the street from the park Visitor Center, or just up the paved Park Central Road on the left. This description follows the latter, as a marked path bears west from a spot across the road, just past the Visitor Center.

Follow the wide path as it descends ever so gradually to a trail junction after about 50 yards. The longer Falls Trail continues straight to Cunningham Falls and beyond; the Blue Blazes Whiskey Trail heads right. Stroll along the relatively level trail as it hugs the right bank of Blue Blazes Run, situated amid thick woods at the base of a rocky ravine. The path climbs up and out of the gully at about 1/10 mile, meeting a paved maintenance road. Bear left on the road, crossing the stream, then look for a sign marking the continuation of the trail to the right.

From here, the Blue Blazes Whiskey Trail pivots north again, this time along the left flank of Blue Blazes Run. Logs obstruct passage for wheelchairs, but the trail is otherwise level and easy to follow.

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Blue Blazes Whiskey Trail along Blue Blazes Run

At 3/10 mile, the trail ends at a stream crossing and the reconstructed Blue Blazes Whiskey Still. Today, the distillery appears modest—effectively just a wood fire, kettle, and some barrels—much smaller than the large-scale commercial enterprise present here in the 1920s. The distilling business ended abruptly in July 1929 when a raiding party—led by Frederick sheriff Clyde Hauver—descended on the site. Although Hauver himself was shot dead during the raid, the local authorities got their revenge, eventually arresting the intrepid moonshiners and destroying the once-thriving whiskey still.

From here, return the way you came, a short 3/10 mile walk back to the Visitor Center and parking area.

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Reconstruction of a small whiskey still at the site of Blue Blazes Still

Posted in Easy Hikes, Maryland | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Accokeek Creek Marsh Boardwalk & Mockley Point Trail (Piscataway Park, MD)

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Marsh Boardwalk and Mockley Point Trail, Piscataway Park, February 2019

Piscataway Park in southwest Maryland features a mix of riparian forests, grasslands, and marshes within an hour’s drive of Washington, DC. While most visitors will flock to the National Colonial Farm (which itself boasts several hiking trails), the Accokeek Creek area offers a more natural experience, with ample opportunities to spot birds—eagles, herons, and ospreys among them. A short, 2-mile out-and-back hike covers the length of a scenic boardwalk over the tidal marsh, as well as an easy stroll around Mockley Point, situated at the confluence of Piscataway Creek and the Potomac River.

Accokeek Creek Marsh Boardwalk Mockley Point trail hike informatiion

Accokeek Creek Marsh Boardwalk Mockley Point trail Piscataway Park map

Map of Accokeek Creek Marsh Boardwalk and Mockley Point Trail, Piscataway Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

To reach the trail, pull into the Accokeek Creek parking area in Piscataway Park, situated off Bryan Point Road about ½ mile before the entrance to National Colonial Farm. In winter, visitors will have to park here and walk ¼ mile down the gravel road to the start of the hike. From spring to fall, however, the gate is likely to be open, allowing for passage straight to the parking area at the Accokeek Creek Trailhead.

The walk begins just beyond this second parking area, bearing to the left of the interpretive panel at the trailhead. The partly asphalted path quickly gives way to dirt, but it remains smooth and wheelchair-accessible. Follow this route through a clearing for 75-100 yards, after which the path bends sharply left and the Marsh Boardwalk comes into view. Bear right on the wooden walkway, following it for the next ¼ mile.

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Accokeek Boardwalk in Piscataway Park

The boardwalk begins by traversing Accokeek Creek, a tidal tributary of the Potomac River. The wider Potomac is visible to the left, with the mouth of Accokeek protected in part by a vegetated spit. Further down the boardwalk, as it passes over reed-filled marsh, interpretive panels on the left tell the story of man-assisted preservation: in 2010, local naturalists developed a “living shoreline”—complete with rock sills and pocket beaches—to help protect the marsh. The result is a more sustainable habitat for birds, fish, and land animals who depend on the swamp for survival. Whether the sills and beaches are visible depends on the tides—these moon-driven forces also control whether Accokeek Creek is full of water or reduced to a largely mud-choked drainage.

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Accokeek Creek from the Marsh Boardwalk

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Potomac River from the boardwalk

Continue along the boardwalk as it reaches a junction at about the ¼-mile mark. Stay straight at the fork, bearing northeast. (Note: The right fork leads back to land, where a faint trail connects back to Bryan Point Road.) Within a minute, the boardwalk comes to an end, giving way to an open field that is firmly onshore. There are picnic tables scattered across the grass.

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Picnic area beyond the boardwalk

Some may elect to turn around here, but it is possible to continue onward, following the well-worn dirt road as it parallels the Potomac. The rutted track passes a monument (and grave) for Chief Turkey Tayac of the Piscataway Indian Nation. This area was the approximate location of the Accokeek Creek site, a large settlement for the Piscataway Indians that may have existed at the time of Captain John Smith’s expedition to the area in 1608. Today the area is still used by remaining members of the Piscataway Indian Nation.

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Old road continues northeast toward Mockley Point

Beyond the gravesite, the road continues straight for around 4/10 mile in the open sun, with occasional peeks at the Potomac through gaps in the trees on the left. (Note: Stay left at the junction; heading right leads to the Hard Bargain Farm.) At about 2/3 mile, the track bends to the right and reenters the woods.

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Potomac River from Mockley Point Trail

In winter, when foliage is limited, one can make out Mockley Point—a haven for riverine birds—on the left, but there is no trail access to the end of the small peninsula. Hikers can also spot the Fort Washington Lighthouse, situated across Piscataway Creek inside Fort Washington Park. (Note: See here and here for more on historic Fort Washington.)

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Mockley Point and Piscataway Creek

As the road bends east and then south, it runs away from the Potomac, but views of Piscataway Creek improve. Compared to the often-windswept Potomac, this lovely waterway is relatively still and peaceful. At about 1.05 miles, the road comes to and end at an anticlimactic cul-de-sac, but spurs off to the left offer access to small beaches along the creek.

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Piscataway Creek from the end of the trail

Stop for a snack at this peaceful hideaway, then return the way you came. Expect to take around 1-1.5 hours for the easy, out-and-back hike.

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Small beach at Piscataway Creek

Extra credit

Consider also visiting the National Colonial Farm to complete the 2.4-mile Accokeek Farm Loop, or head north to Fort Washington for the scenic Fort Washington Loop.

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Accokeek Farm Loop (Piscataway Park, MD)

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Pumpkin Ash Trail, National Colonial Farm, Piscataway Park, February 2019

Situated inside Maryland’s Piscataway Park, the Accokeek Foundation, an education non-profit, runs the 200-acre National Colonial Farm along the banks of the Potomac River. In addition to live barnyard animals, the farm features a series of interlocking nature trails, several of which can be combined to form a roughly 2.5-mile circuit around the riverside tract. This post describes a counter-clockwise loop around the area, featuring stretches of dense woods, open fields, wetlands, and views of the Potomac River. If you are lucky, hikers will spot a bald eagle or two among the riparian ecosystem, as well as beavers, foxes, or ospreys.

Accokeek Farm Loop hike information

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Map of National Colonial Farm at Piscataway Park (Also check out the MapMyHike track)

The hike

Begin the walk from the main parking area at National Colonial Farm in Piscataway Park, roughly a 40-minute drive south of central Washington, DC. (Note: Piscataway Park is often coupled with a visit to nearby Fort Washington Park. See here and here for more information.) Here you will find the Visitor Center and Education Center (open seasonally), as well as restrooms and the access route to a fishing pier.

The circuit starts behind the Visitor Center to the northwest, just before the gravel road enters a pine-studded straightaway. Look to the right, following the sign indicating the start of the Riverview Trail. This blue-blazed path cuts across the grass, skirting the edge of a long field on the left, then enters the riparian woods along the southern banks of the Potomac River. (Note: As of February 2019, the trail had a peculiar feature: an electric fence on the left—don’t touch!)

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Start of the hike: Riverview Trail behind the Visitor Center

The river comes in and out of view as the flat and easy trail bears westward. Occasional spurs offer access down to the water itself. From here hikers can see across the Potomac River to the Virginia side: the hilltop mansion visible across the way is no less than Mount Vernon, the 18th century home of President George Washington.

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Mount Vernon from Piscataway Park

Off to the east is a fishing pier, and the narrowing Potomac upstream in the direction of Washington, DC. To the west, the lower Potomac gradually broadens, eventually winding its way to the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean.

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Potomac River from a spur off the Riverview Trail

After about 250 yards of hiking, the single-track trail cuts west, away from the river, and bursts out of the woods. Follow the blue blazes as the route skirts a plant garden and then bears south to meet up with the original gravel road. Bear right on the wide drive, following it for a mere 50 yards to the Caretaker’s House, where the Riverview Trail continues straight, next to the edge of the riparian woods.

For the next 300 yards, the trail follows the edge of a fenced field on the left, with dense thicket obscuring views of the river to the right. At 4/10 mile, the Riverview Trail bears left and returns to the forest, then reaches a grassy ridgeline, where the red-blazed Persimmon Trail comes in from the left. Stay straight, then continue to the end of the grassy patch, where the path connects again with the Persimmon Trail. (Note: Before continuing right on the blue-blazed path, take a short detour left to view the modest Conservation Pond, which features a wooden bird blind.)

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Conservation Pond off the Persimmon Trail

The Riverview Trail continues right and descends briefly to cross a wooden bridge, followed by a gradual climb back to the top of a small escarpment. The path ends suddenly at 6/10 mile, spilling into the much broader Bluebird Trail. Follow the baby blue blazes straight, following the wide and grassy straightaway. With the river on your right, the trail passes a trail fork within about 125 yards; stay straight. At the next intersection, the Bluebird Trail bears left at a 90-degree angle, while a spur path leads to a picnic table along the river ahead.

Follow the left-hand turn and walk the path through the chestnut grove as it bears southward. At about 8/10 mile, an unmarked path comes in from the right, and hikers will now realize that they are on the brink of a relatively sharp drop-off to the right. Continue straight for 30 seconds to another trail junction. Take a left, leaving the Bluebird Trail in favor of the white-blazed Pawpaw Trail.

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Near the start of the Pawpaw Trail

The Pawpaw Trail is a small single-track and one of the more interesting of the circuit, as it gains some elevation in the hills around National Colonial Farm. After the initial junction, stay right at a subsequent junction, climbing the wooden stairs up Cactus Hill. The path tops off at around 9/10 mile, in view of a private residence on the right. From here the trail dips slightly as it bears east, then climbs again as it pulls out of a gully with a seasonal stream. The descent back to the farm begins at around 1.1 miles, ending at a small weathered shack and a trail fork.

 

Bear right at the junction, skirting the eastern flank of the Native Tree Arboretum, which contains over 125 different species of trees and shrubs that grew in the Chesapeake Bay area in the 17th and 18th centuries. At 1.25 miles, the Pawpaw Trail ends; stay straight on the gravel road, heading back in the direction of the river and Visitor Center.

The next 1/3 mile requires tracing the wide road as it bears north and then east. At 1.4 miles, pass the barnyard—chock full of cows—on the left. Follow the long straightaway between fields to the 1.6-mile mark, where the road cuts sharply right, within striking distance of the Education Center. Here the road returns to pavement and treads southward toward the farm entrance.

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Residents of the barnyard

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Long straightaway at National Colonial Farm

After passing the turnoff to the main parking area on the left, catch the start of the purple-blazed Blackberry Trail on the left. Within steps, this trail drops back into the woods and descends gradually to cross a seasonal stream. While the main track continues right to the Ecosystem Farm, continue left on the blazed path, which stays in the wooded floodplain. As the muddy trail weaves east, it passes a junction with the Accokeek Connector Trail at about Mile 2 (this provides access to the Accokeek Creek area), then brushes up against the edge of a fenced field near the eastern fringe of the farm area of Piscataway. The next 1/10 mile follows the fence northward, ending at 2.2 miles.

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Fenceline along the Blackberry Trail

With the Potomac River again within reach, the Blackberry Trail ends and becomes the yellow-blazed Pumpkin Ash Trail. Bear left here, following what is arguably the finest section of the hike. After hugging the banks of the Potomac River with sweeping views, the Pumpkin Ash track crosses a wooded boardwalk at 2.3 miles, which offers clearance over a wet marshland.

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Views of the Potomac River from the Pumpkin Ash Trail

Eventually the wetland gives way to forest again, and the boardwalk ends. This marks the final stretch back to the Visitor Center and parking area, featuring a gradual climb. At 2.4 miles, bear left as the path emerges from the woods to return to the parking lot.

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Boardwalk across the marsh on the Pumpkin Ash Trail

Allot between 1.5-2 hours for this round-trip hike. With the exception of the Pawpaw Trail, there is very little elevation gain, although some attentive route-finding is required in places.

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Woodlot Trail (Oxon Cove Park & Oxon Hill Farm, MD)

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Woodlot Trail, Oxon Cove Park & Oxon Hill Farm, February 2019

The Woodlot Trail is a short, one-way nature hike in Maryland’s Oxon Cove Park that—despite being within striking distance of Washington, DC—makes for a surprisingly scenic walk. Meandering in and out of wooded ravines, the hilly traverse follows a deep-cutting stream behind Oxon Hill Farm, ending back at the parking area.

Woodlot Trail Oxon Cove Park hike information

The hike

The main attraction of Oxon Cove Park is Oxon Hill Farm, a family-friendly farm owned and operated by the National Park Service. Behind the pig pens and chicken coops, however, is a dense forest, crisscrossed by a pair of hiking trails. The longer Hiker-Biker Trail begins at the parking area off Bald Eagle Road, while the shorter Woodlot Trail starts further into the park, past the Visitor Center and heart of the farm.

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Oxon Hill Farm

To access the Woodlot Trail, walk from the parking lot roughly ¼ mile to the Visitor Center. Then, upon exiting the building, bear left and follow the path as it winds westward, taking the second left. Continue down the gravel road until it enters the woods; the marked trail begins on your right.

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Start of Woodlot Trail

From the gravel road, the Woodlot Trail drops sharply, a rapid change from the level stroll through Oxon Hill Farm. Fallen leaves congregate here in masses in the late autumn and winter, making for a potentially slippery descent. Within about 150 yards, the trail levels off as the dipping ravine gives way to a relatively flat basin. The yellow-blazed path passes a small and unused brick structure on the left and then crosses an unnamed but perennial stream, the primary natural centerpiece of the hike.

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Brick house and stream beyond

This mossy basin is extremely pleasant, but onward hikers must move on past the wooden bridge over the creek. Here the path begins to ascend sharply, almost switchbacking up a bulging, wooded slope. After leveling off again, the trail hugs the east flank of a deep-cut ravine and crosses a second bridge (over a tributary of the main creek), with the structures of Oxon Hill Harm visible through the trees to the west and south. Pay close attention to the yellow blazes, which offer passage in the absence of a clear path.

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Primary stream along the Woodlot Trail

At about 4/10 mile—around which the way is most obscured—the route bears left, climbing another hillside to work its way out of the ravine. After crossing another tributary, the trail climbs a set of steep stairs, leading to a final push out into the open—the woods give way to an open pasture at around the ½-mile point.

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Woodlot Trail

From here, bear right on the faint path, meeting up with a gravel road. The parking area is visible up ahead. Continue for around 100 yards, passing a quaint picnic area under a mammoth oak on the left, to the parking lot—the end of the short hike. (Note: It is best to complete the Woodlot Trail after exploring the farm because it connects back to the picnic area.)

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Picnic area

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Hogback Mountain Loop (Shenandoah National Park, VA)

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Hogback Mountain Loop, Shenandoah National Park, February 2019

At 3,474 feet, Hogback Mountain is the highest peak in the North District of Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. Although the summit is not accessible by trail, the modest Hogback Mountain Loop offers fine vistas looking north across Shenandoah Valley to nearby Massanutten Mountain. There is also a pleasant creek crossing at Piney Branch to top off the pleasant half-day circuit hike, which takes about 3-5 hours.

Hogback Mountain Loop trail hike information Shenandoah

Hogback Mountain Loop trail hike map Shenandoah

Map of Hogback Mountain Loop, Shenandoah National Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

There are a few options for where to begin the Hogback Mountain Loop, but the starting point closest to Dickey Ridge Visitor Center and Washington, DC is Keyser Run Trailhead, situated at about Mile Marker 22 on Skyline Drive. Turn into the parking lot here, where there are several spaces—although they are likely to fill up on a busy day, as this also doubles as the trailhead for the popular Little Devils Stairs Trail Loop.

Start the hike by leaving the parking area and crossing Skyline Drive to the north. Here hikers will catch a short, 70-yard connector to the Appalachian Trail (AT), America’s most famous long-distance path. Take a left on this white-blazed track, which bears west and gradually climbs the slopes of Little Hogback Mountain, Hogback’s shorter but scenic cousin.

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Initial climb on the Appalachian Trail

Like most of the park, this section runs through a dense forest, obscuring most views. As the trail gains elevation, however, hikers will be able to peek through the trees to catch a glimpse of the Shenandoah Valley unfolding to the north and west.

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View of Hogback Mountain (3,474′) from Little Hogback viewpoint

At about 1/3 mile, the AT levels off and then winds its way to the first true viewpoint of the hike: a small outcrop of rocks forms a perch overlooking the Browntown Valley, itself a segment of the broader Shenandoah Valley. Off to the west is the hulking mass of Hogback Mountain (3,474’)—the hike’s next destination to come. North of Hogback, the tree-laced slopes form Gimlet Ridge, which sticks out into the farm-studded valley below.

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View of Browntown Valley and Dickey Ridge from the overlook

Off to the east, the Blue Ridge Mountains curl north, with Dickey Ridge extending off into the distance to the park’s northern end. Across the valley lies the lengthy cast of Massanutten Mountain, itself dwarfed by the taller Great North Mountain range beyond.

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Outcrop overlook on Little Hogback

From this windy perch, backtrack a few strides and bear right as the trail continues southward. Within a minute, the path drops to within striking distance of the parking area at Little Hogback Overlook, but the AT cuts right at the last minute, descending a set of stairs below the viewpoint. The saddle between Little Hogback and its taller neighbor is laced with lovely mountain laurel.

At about 6/10 mile, with Skyline Drive still within eyeshot, hikers will begin the hardest climb of the hike: a roughly 400-foot gain in around 1/3 mile to the upper reaches of Hogback Mountain. Although switchbacks partly ease the ascent, this is easily one of the steepest stretches of trail in the park. It is over relatively quickly, however, as the path levels off before the one-mile mark.

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Steep switchbacks up Hogback Mountain

After the climb, the AT flattens out and even partly descends to a high gap on Hogback Mountain Despite being taller than Little Hogback, the views from Hogback proper are more limited. However, at 1.25 miles, the AT reaches a junction; if you stay right, the trail approaches a decent viewpoint at the local hang-gliding launch site. Although power lines detract from the charm, hikers are rewarded with sweeping views of the Browntown Valley.

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View from the hang gliding site on Hogback Mountain

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View of the summit on Hogback Mountain

Beyond the vista, the AT drops back into the woods and then weaves south, bypassing the summit of Hogback. The relatively level path rounds the mountain, then begins to descend at around 1.5 miles through a patch of mountain laurel. Skyline Drive soon reappears on the left, and the trail spills into a gravel road at 1.6 miles. Bear left on the road, then cross Skyline, eyeing the trail continuation on the other side. As the path returns to single-track, it drops down a set of stone steps.

If pursuing the full circuit, stay right at the junction with the Sugarloaf Trail. (Note: Hikers seeking a shorter loop can bear right here, cutting off a couple miles from the total hike.) From the fork, the AT stays close to Skyline Drive, rising to a decent vista at about 1.75 miles, effectively a perch looking out over the drive to the valley beyond.

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View over Skyline Drive to the Shenandoah Valley

This marks the last unobstructed view of the hike, and the AT from here descends to cross Skyline Drive again at about 1.9 miles. Stay on the trail as it skirts to the left of a parking area, a popular starting point for the lovely hike to Overall Run Falls. The relatively wide and flat track bears southwest through the thick forest, approaching another junction at 2.25 miles. Stay left, then begin to descend a long, gradual slope. The trail briefly climbs to clear a rock outcrop at about 2.6 miles, then resumes its descent, with the incline becoming more pronounced.

At 2.9 miles, hikers will cross Skyline Drive for the final time on the hike. Here the trail continues dropping, rounding bending switchbacks. At 3.1 miles, bear right onto the Piney Branch Trail. After spending most of the hike to this point amid the heights of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Piney Branch Trail drops precipitously toward the lowlands. Following a straightaway and sharp left-hand U bend, the path descends sharply again. A long, south-bound straightaway leads to another bend, then the Piney Branch Trail descends gradually to its namesake stream.

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Crossing Piney Branch

The area around Piney Branch (or Piney River) is lush and lovely, and a smattering of rocks offers a nice place to stop for a snack. Hikers are well away from civilization by now, with the traffic of Skyline Drive drowned out by the water, wind, and some 500 feet in elevation loss. The crossing of Piney River is followed shortly by another trail junction, this one at about 4.4 miles.

Here hikers should turn left, leaving the Piney Branch Trail and entering the Pole Bridge Link Trail, effectively a connector path. The trail climbs very gradually to a low saddle, immersed in woods. Stay right at the junction with the Sugarloaf Trail at 4.9 miles. From here it is a relatively uneventful ½ mile to the Keyser Run Fire Road at the so-called Fourway junction. The trail bearing straight across the road is the Little Devils Stairs Trail—a challenging but extraordinary scenic path that features a tight canyon and seemingly endless waterfalls. (Note: See here for a hike description.)

To complete the circuit, bear left on the Keyser Run Fire Road, an overgrown gravel path that is closed to vehicles but acts as a superhighway for hikers. It is roughly one mile up the gradually sloping road, which hugs the side of the mountain. Finally, at about 6.4 miles total, the hike ends back at the Keyser Run Trailhead.

Hikers aiming to complete the full Hogback Mountain Loop should allot between 3-5 hours, depending on pace. Besides the climb between Little Hogback and Hogback, the trail is relatively mild, making the circuit a nice, moderate half-day journey.

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Riverbend Road Trail (Great Falls Park, VA)

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Riverbend Road Trail, Great Falls Park, September 2018

The Riverbend Road Trail is easily the least interesting of the hikes in northern Virginia’s Great Falls Park and is largely out of the way of the other trails in the park. Those seeking to conquer every trail in the area, however, may find some charms in this short, out-and-back jaunt. Situated in the park’s northwest corner, the single-track trail weaves through woods and across a perennial stream, connecting the parking area north of the Visitor Center with Riverbend Road.

Riverbend Road Trail hike information Great Falls Park

The hike

Because there is no evident parking along Riverbend Road, begin and end the hike along Riverbend Road Trail at the northernmost parking lot in Great Falls Park. (Note: Some will complete the hike in conjunction with the nearby Mine Run Trail.) From the parking area, a graveled road (closed to vehicles; hiking and biking only) heads off into the woods to the west, skirting the northern flank of Clay Pond. Follow this gentle path for about 1/3 mile, first passing the turnoff for the Mine Run Trail on the left, then proceeding further north—almost to the boundary of Riverbend Park—to the start of the Riverbend Road Trail. (Note: Both are marked with trail signs.)

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Gravel road

Bear left on the narrowing footpath, which starts by descending steadily to a wooded floodplain dotted with oaks, maples, chestnuts, and the occasional beech. Roughly 4/10 mile from the start, hikers will cross a small, muddy stream, then climb again to another floodplain.

 

Patches of verdant undergrowth are interspersed with relatively barren earth as the trail bobs up and down, bearing west toward the edge of the park. The trail climbs out of the woods suddenly at about the 7/10-mile mark, running under a set of power lines and approaching Riverbend Road, the terminus of the short path.

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Looking back at the trail from around Riverbend Road

From this point, return the way you came, or venture south on the lovely Mine Run Trail. If completing just the out-and-back, plan for a little less than an hour of hiking.

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Riverbend Road Trail, Great Falls Park

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Mine Run Trail (Great Falls Park, VA)

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Mine Run Trail, Great Falls Park, September 2018

The Mine Run Trail is an oft-forgotten path nestled in the northwest section of Great Falls Park, away from the namesake waterfall, Mather Gorge, and Potomac River. Mine Run, nonetheless, is a lovely tributary of the Potomac and is the highlight of this pleasant, 0.7-mile stroll. Small cascades dot the creek, shaded under a thick canopy of deciduous trees.

Mine Run Trail hike information Great Falls Park

Mine Run Trail map Great Falls Park

Map of Mine Run Trail, Great Falls Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

The Mine Run Trail is technically a one-way track, but a loop can easily be formed. Start the hike at the signed trailhead, situated virtually halfway between the north and south parking areas at Great Falls Park, roughly a ¼-mile walk up the length of the southern parking lot from the Great Falls Visitor Center.

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Start of Mine Run Trail

After leaving the road, the wide but root-laden trail bears west into the forest, with Mine Run appearing almost right away on the left. Hikers can also see a boggy depression on the right, filled with water—this is Clay Pond. Within 1/10 mile, the trail runs right up to the banks of Mine Run, which gently cascades through the greywacke.

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Mine Run along the trail

Upstream from this point, the path suddenly climbs, then approaches some steeper drops on Mine Run on the left. Around 300 yards into the hike, the path bends north, leaving Mine Run behind. However, a well-worn social trail on the left leads to the best scenery of the hike: a beautifully cascading slide of water, blighted only by the sight of a road overpass upstream.

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Beautiful slide on Mine Run

Back on the main trail, bear north as the trail continues through wooded uplands. Moss-covered rock outcrops on the right and views of a Mine Run tributary on the left offer some natural interest, but the route is relatively banal from this point. At ½ mile, the Mine Run Trail ends, merging with a gravel road running north-south. Bear right, following the road back to the northern parking lot in 2/10 mile (then walk south to return to the start), or, alternatively,  continue northward to the Riverbend Road Trail or Riverbend Park.

The Mine Run loop takes around 20-30 minutes, plus additional time to explore the lovely creek.

Extra credit

Try one of the other trail routes in Great Falls Park, including the Great Falls Overlooks, Great Falls Loop, or Patowmack Canal and Matildaville Trails.

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