View of the Potomac from the Potomac Heritage Trail

There is something weird about endurance running that defies logic.  In almost every other aspect of my life, when something hurts, causes discomfort, or makes me feel like laying down never to get up again, I usually avoid it.  Yet for some reason, as I write this post, I have the major urge to go back out and do this run right over again.

With the sold out EX2 Adventures Fall Back Yard Burn trail series, a 10 mile 5 race series, starting next weekend, I was feeling the urge to kick it up a notch.  I’ve been running very consistently, but my long runs were hoovering around the 10 mile mark.  The Parks Half Marathon provided my longest run in about 2 months.  All summer I had been meaning to check out the Potomac Heritage Trail, but with the busy schedule or crazy humidity, I never made it across the river.  So after seeing this weekend’s forecast of sunshine with temps in the low 60s, I knew this would be the perfect opportunity.

The Plan:

I decided I’d start at Roosevelt Island and run the ten mile stretch to the American Legion Bridge (495) and back.  Twenty miles, seemed like a lot, but with no expectations on speed, I knew I’d be able to get through it.  I filled two water bottles, grabbed a handful of gels and a Cliff Bar, and hit the road around 8:00am.

Trail Head

The Trail:

Surprisingly I couldn’t find too much info on this section of the Potomac Heritage Trail Network.  It is obviously a heavily used section of trail, but there isn’t much of a description or even a good map to go off of.  I knew where the trailhead was, had a good idea of where I would turn around, and assumed that on such a beautiful day, I’d see plenty of fellow runners/hikers.

As I look back on the day, I think the ten mile stretch from Roosevelt Island to the American Legion Bridge clearly splits itself into three sections of trail.  For the purposes of this post, I’ll do the same.

Section 1:  Roosevelt Island – Chain Bridge (Miles 1-4)

The 4 mile section from Roosevelt Island to the Chain Bridge was probably both the most heavily trafficked and the most difficult.  It was also probably the most fun.  The first mile or so doesn’t offer much in the way of excitement, but moves you away from the city, crossing under the Key Bridge and dropping down from George Washington Parkway.  By the time you drop down by the river, the trail rotates between dirt, rock, and sand.  The most technical sections of the 10 miles are housed in this first section, most of which is runnable, but some of which is not.

Some fun, but unrunnable section of the PHT

The best parts about this section are the little waterfalls.  Now don’t get me wrong, these were not Niagara, but they provided some nice views of the water feeding into the Potomac.  I guess I didn’t really realize how cool parts of this trail would be.

Steep Climb Away From the River

With about 1/2 mile left before the Chain Bridge, you make a sharp climb up and away from the river.  Even though the trail was very well marked, I actually missed this turn.  It happens right after a little stream crossing, and if you aren’t careful, you’ll do what I did and follow an unofficial trail to what I imagine are good fishing spots.  I took those for maybe 1/10 mile, before realizing I was no longer on the trail.  I looked around for a few minutes, convinced that the trail had to be there somewhere, before turning back.  Once I got back to the creek, it became clear that the trail makes the sharp turn.

After making the climb, you move away from the river for a few miles.  At first, this section of trail is a nice change, with it dumping you into the woods and offering a very smooth path with a few small hills.  But before long, I realized this wasn’t really what I was looking for.

Section 2:  Chain Bridge – Riverside (~2 miles)

Running Next to GW Parkway

This was by far my least favorite section of the day.  In fact, about a mile into this section, I almost turned around and gave up, fearing the rest of the 10 mile length would end up like this.  After popping up around the Chain Bridge and following a nice path along some creek, the trail spits you out next to the George Washington Parkway.  While this section is very runnable, allowing for some faster miles, it follows the road, switching back and forth from right next to the Parkway to about 10-20 feet into the woods.  It is loud, ugly, and not at all the peaceful trail I was looking for.  But because my legs were still feeling fresh, and quitting wouldn’t have made for a very good blog post, I kept going.

Section 3:  Riverside  – American Legion Bridge ( ~4 miles)

By the time the trail dropped back down along the Potomac, I was hitting a bit of a low.  Discouraged from the loud few miles, and beginning to feel a bit hungry, it took me a few minutes to wrap my head around this section.  I really came to when the trees opened up and I was right next to this massive body of water.  I’m not sure why, but the Potomac felt so much larger and so much more powerful on this section of trail (I think there is a dam somewhere around there, so it might actually be larger).  I was taken aback by the beauty, the quiet, and the power of my surroundings.  It was pretty cool.

View from the Trail, Right Next to the Potomac

With a renewed sense of energy (possibly from the two Gu’s I just squirted down my throat, possibly from my surroundings) my step found it’s pep, and I knocked out the last 4 miles with ease.  Passing a few hikers, several trail intersections, and some fun technical spots, this quickly became my favorite part of the day.  This section of trail allowed for some real running, but kept you interested, with enough variation in the footing.

The Return:

The ten miles back to the car were mostly uneventful.  I was feeling awesome for miles 10-14, churning out my fastest miles of the day.  As the day went on, more and more hikers came out to enjoy the weather.  By the time I made it back past the Chain Bridge (section 1 above), I was passing a group of hikers about every five minutes.  This also happened to be the time when I ran out of water, and began my terrible tumble into the runner’s black hole.

Without proper training, a proper night’s sleep, and possibly too many DC Brau’s the night before, this twenty mile, four hour run took a lot out of me.  I could see the Key Bridge for about the last 2 miles, and I knew my car was parked just beyond that.  It was a slow, long two miles, with what felt like way more rock scrambles than I passed on the way out. I went into this run hoping for something that would kick my ass.  When I plopped down in the grass next to my car with a bottle of water that had been boiling in the sun, I knew, my ass was kicked.

I would definitely run this route trail again, and I hope to return soon to hike parts of it with KFB.  If you want to get out of the city and onto some non-Rock Creek Park trail, this is a great option.  If you aren’t looking to do the whole twenty miles, I’d recommend running from Roosevelt to the Chain bridge and back.  It will give you a solid eight mile run with a good mix between highly runnable and some more interesting terrain.

The Details:

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3 thoughts on “Trail Report: Potomac Heritage Trail (Roosevelt Island – American Legion Bridge)

  1. Thanks for your write-up…I understand you may not have done this in a few years….I ran/hiked Potomac Heritage Trail from TR Island to 123 (I sort of just climbed out when I finally got Chain Bridge Road) and your write-up was helpful in verifying I was on the right path.

    It’s not something I’ll do again, mostly cause I spent a good hour down there near the river which was nice but doesn’t help with my marathon training.

    Again, thanks for your write-up as it made me feel less annoyed about my run today knowing that I did follow the intended path but didn’t realize it was so technical for hiking.

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