Wanderlust: Your Guide to Hiking Hemlock Overlook Regional Park
April 11, 2023 @ 10:00am
Our Wanderlust column clues you in on all the best hikes and parks in the greater D.C. area. This month, we zoom in on Hemlock Overlook Regional Park in Clifton, Virginia.
Hemlock Overlook Regional Park is one of the best year-round hikes in Northern Virginia, and spring is the best season to visit. The highlight of this spring hike: picture-worthy Virginia Bluebells blanketing the Bull Run riverbank in crisp blues, purples and pinks. The Bluebells only bloom for three weeks, and they start to appear in March and can last through the end of April. Here’s the details on hiking the Hemlock Overlook.
How Long and How Difficult?
This hike is roughly 2.5 miles roundtrip and can easily be completed in an hour and a half. For experienced hikers, this trail is pretty easy since you mostly hike downhill to get to the river, walk alongside a flat river trail and then climb a hill to get back to the parking area at the end.
Hemlock Overlook Regional Park is on Manahoac land, and is located a short drive away from the adorable town of Clifton, Virginia. After your hike, refuel with brunch at the Clifton Café or Trattoria Villagio. Or if you’d rather do some day drinking, Paradise Springs Winery is walking distance from the trailhead so you can wine the day away after your hike or gather and have a picnic — but if you didn’t bring your own food, there is a food truck on the premises.
Who Should I Bring?
This hike is perfect for a group of friends or even an adventurous first date. Just be sure to wear shoes you don’t mind getting a little muddy, especially if you are visiting the park after a rainy day. The pace of the trail is chill and relaxing, so you’ll be able to hold good conversation with whomever you bring. Honestly, the trail is so serene that I like to hike by myself more often than not for some much-needed nature meditation.
The ruins of Fairfax County’s first hydroelectric dam, an abandoned outdoor adventure ropes course and summer camp (which are private property off-limits to trail users), herons dotting the Bull Run River nearing dusk, a set of eyes graffitied onto the rock wall at a bend in the trail and so much more.
Unfortunately, this trail is not wheelchair accessible. Also, if you have knee trouble like I do, take it slow and steady on the downhill portions of the hike. This is why I prefer the route suggested below, because it has the gentlest descent down to the river.
What is the Best Path to Take?
I prefer entering the park through the trail on the left, just at the end of the parking area, which winds through a thick forest of hemlocks, beech trees, pines and poplars where you might spot the occasional woodpecker or rusty blackbird. At about five minutes into the hike, the trail forks and you can either choose the horse trail (red blazes) to the left or the Hemlock Overlook Parking Area trail (yellow blazes) which leads straight down to the Bull Run River. If you have more time available for your hike, I suggest taking the horse trail so you can take in the sights and sounds of the forest a bit longer before making your way to the old boat launch section of the river. Whichever path you choose, once you get to the river, you’ll start hiking the Bull Run/Occoquan Trail (blue blazes).
Once you arrive at the Bull Run/Occoquan Trail, turn right and head up the trail toward the ruins of the hydroelectric dam. There will be several opportunities for you to exit the park along the river trail and if you have less time available, taking one of these trails will lead you back to the parking area. But I suggest hiking up the blue blazes trail past the hydroelectric dam and toward Popes Head Creek. You may hear the whistle of an Amtrak train as you near this portion of the trail from the train tracks running alongside the park. Keep your eyes open for any herons from the hydroelectric dam onward, as this is the stretch of Bull Run where I see them most frequently.
Once you arrive at Popes Head Creek, a tributary of the Bull Run that curves the trail to the right, there are stone steps you can take to the left to continue on the Bull Run/Occoquan Trail. However, if you take that path, please note that you will eventually have to turn around because it does not loop back to the parking area. I suggest exploring that path when you have more time available. If you turn to the right, you’ll start heading back up the hill you originally descended. Keep following the trail until you get to the top.
If you’re interested in checking out some Civil War gravestones and an old farmhouse, take the yellow blaze trail on the left once you get to the top of the hill. This will likely add on another 30 minutes to your hike. Otherwise, continue straight and eventually you’ll come across a grassy field with picnic areas. This is part of the abandoned summer camp and outdoor adventure center. Continue down the trail and you’ll be able to glimpse the recreation hall, food hall, cabins, bathhouse, etc. that belong to the old summer camp. You’re almost at the end of the hike. Just keep following that path and you’ll end up back at the parking area. Reward yourself with some wine, brunch or even ice cream at the famous Peterson’s Ice Cream Depot in Clifton.
Looking for something a little closer to D.C.? Another great hike to spot Virginia Bluebells is Riverbend Park along the Potomac. You can enter at Riverbend Park and hike into Greats Falls National Park and see Bluebells and waterfalls all along the way.
Hemlock Overlook Regional Park: 13220 Yates Ford Rd. Clifton, VA; novaparks.com/hemlock-overlook-regional-park // @novaparks
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