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 Riverbend Park.
Fairfax County’s Riverbend Park is one of my favorite parks in the county for views of the Potomac. It has no entry fee, which offers another perk: You can hike into Great Falls National Park from Riverbend Park, saving you Great Falls’ $20 entry fee.
Aside from hiking, during summer weekends, you can rent a kayak, tandem kayak or canoe and paddle down the Potomac. The water at this section of the Potomac is beautifully serene and is often spotted by waterfowl. There are buoys at the point of no return leading up to a dam where you’ll find the first waterfall of the park.
If you’re kayaking or canoeing at Riverbend Park, don’t tempt the fates; turn around once you see the buoys, otherwise you’ll be in for a very treacherous ride. If you are hiking the park, you’ll be able to hear the roar of the waterfall well before you can see it.
How Long and How Difficult?
The combined hike of Riverbend Park and Great Falls is roughly six miles out and back. If you do the whole hike, it is medium difficulty because there are small portions of rock scrambling that might not work for every hiker. The Riverbend Park portion of the trail, which is three miles roundtrip, is an easy trail hike. The whole Riverbend trail is flat until you come to the waterfall at the end of the trail where the park transitions into Great Falls.
Riverbend Park is on Powhatan, Tauxenent (or Dogue) and Nacotchtank land. The indigenous communities of this area inhabited the land at Riverbend for over 13,500 years and it is riddled with archeological evidence of this inhabitance. The visitor’s center at Riverbend has a museum dedicated to preserving this history. Located in Great Falls, Virginia, Riverbend is about a 40-minute drive from Washington D.C.
Who Should I Bring?
Bring anyone who loves to be near water. Swimming is not allowed, but there are plenty of other opportunities to interact with the Potomac River when you visit Riverbend and Great Falls. In the summer, a majority of the trail is shaded by trees and at some of the beach-y spots along the route, you can get near the water and dip your hands in for a quick refresh.
I’ve brought my dog to this park several times and she always loves it — she looks like a little explorer climbing over the rock scrambles. If you or your dog are unable to easily handle climbing over things, I recommend just doing the Riverbend Park portion and skipping the Great Falls trail.
History buffs might enjoy that the park was called Hell’s Half Acre during prohibition times, since the location was known as a moonshine manufacturing hub. Many abandoned stills and bottles still can be found hidden in the park.
Canoe and kayak rentals in summer, paddling the Potomac, bluebells in spring, peaceful river scenes, beach-y areas for fishing, rock scrambles, a dam, massive waterfalls with vistas, shaded forest paths, picnic areas, archeological sites and a visitor’s center with a museum and activities like cornhole and a scavenger hunt.
This trail is not very wheelchair accessible. There are numerous spots along this trail where you will need to rock scramble – this is mostly in the Great Falls portion of the hike. The flat trail which is available for the majority of Riverbend is not paved and it can be narrow at times. The visitor’s center and the boat launch area at the entrance to Riverbend Park are accessible if you’d like a nice spot to watch the Potomac and have a picnic.
What is the Best Path to Take?
Start at Riverbend Park and hike into Great Falls. When you arrive at Riverbend Park, head down to the visitor’s center to use the restroom, grab some water and check out some historical facts about the region. Halfway through your hike, you’ll reach the Great Falls visitor’s center where you’ll have another opportunity for a bathroom break and snacks at the concessions stand.
Once you’re done at the visitor’s center, you’ll notice a trail that leads to the left as you face the Potomac. That trail is also one worth trekking, but that is not the trail that leads to Great Falls. To access the trail to Great Falls, you’ll want to head to the right of the visitor’s center, pass by the boat launch region on the Potomac and head to the end of a parking lot area where you’ll see the trail entrance.
This trail is pretty straight forward: literally, just go straight forward the whole way and you’ll end up in Great Falls. There are a couple of offshoots to the right of the trail if you want to explore away from this path, but I recommend just staying on this trail along the Potomac as the views are outstanding.
You’ll hike down the Riverbend path for around one mile when you’ll reach a dam that forms the first waterfall. At this section, you’ll also encounter your first tiny rock scramble. Go up and over that rock scramble and you’re in Great Falls National Park. Keep going another half mile and you’ll reach the Great Falls visitor’s center. Once you’ve picked up some refreshments, keep heading down the gravel path and keep to the left. You’ll cross a small wooden bridge and then you’ll see several viewing platforms on your left-hand side. These platforms are the best places to view the next set of waterfalls — the actual nature-made Great Falls. And they really are great. You can see these falls from the Maryland side of the park as well, and I recommend making the trek over to that side one day for a different angle on this incredible sight.
Once you’re done gazing at the impressive force of nature, keep heading down the same path you were on and you’ll reach a section with stunning views of the Potomac and more sections of rock scrambling. If you’re there at the right time, you also might notice some rock climbers who are repelling down the side of the gorge. If you’re into descending down a sheer rock face, check in with your local climbing gyms and there may be options to repel at Great Falls through them.
I recommend bringing a snack with you for this section of the trail because the views are so breathtaking, it is a perfect spot to take a break and have a little picnic. Continue down the path and you’ll cross by an old canal lock — a fun historical feature. You’ll know you’ve reached the far end of the trail once you get to a paved ramp that heads right down to the Potomac River. A lot of dog owners bring their dogs to the bottom to romp around in the water as a treat for completing such a rigorous rock scrambling adventure.
From here you can either turn around and go back exactly the same way you came, or you can take a flat path back through the forest until you get back to the Great Falls visitor’s center. At that point you’ll need to head back on the path that you took to get into Great Falls to connect back to Riverbend. It can be a lengthy trek, but it is well worth it for the sweeping views you’ll take in along the way.
Want to discover the best hiking spots in the greater D.C. area? Join the District Fray community for exclusive access to national and regional park hike guides and recommendations. Become a member and support local journalism today.