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Coming ‘Round the Bend Loop

Though Riverbend Park is the head of the Potomac Gorge, you don’t have to be a whitewater daredevil to get out on the river here.Situated on the Virginia side of the Potomac in Fairfax County, the relatively gentle moving water of the Potomac at Riverbend Park belies the torrent of falling water and massive rapids found just downstream at Great Falls. But fear not! The paddling possibilities accessible from Riverbend Park are quite suitable for the leisurely beginner and the faint of heart. Though Riverbend Park is the head of the Potomac Gorge, you don’t have to be a whitewater daredevil to get out on the river here.

In addition to multiple paddling route possibilities, Riverbend Park also features an impressive nature exhibit in the Visitor Center, many picnicking locations for refueling after your river voyage, and over 10 miles of hiking trails if you still have extra energy to burn. Rich both ecologically and historically, informative signs will guide you along your exploration of the park as you learn about the wildlife and early native inhabitants of the area.

Water Safety

Remember: safe use of rivers and any designated trails, at any time, is your responsibility! Water trail maps are for informational and interpretive purposes only and are not meant for navigational purposes, nor do they take into account level of skills or ability required to navigate rivers. The National Park Service, Chesapeake Conservancy and/or the individual trail associations assume no responsibility or liability for any injury or loss resulting directly or indirectly from the use of water trails, maps or other printed or web-based materials. Learn more about water safety.

Things to Know

  • Rental boats are available seasonally at the park.
  • Though beginner friendly, this is a moving water environment, meaning that there is continuous downstream current.
  • Though a loop paddle starting and ending at the Riverbend boat ramp is the most logistically easy trip to plan, it is also possible to leave a shuttle vehicle at Riverbend and to launch further upriver at Algonkian Park for an 8 mile one-way trip.
  • Riverbend Park has over 10 miles of hiking trails within the park proper, many of which are connected to other trail networks outside of park.
  • Riverbend Park offers several different guided tours, including a sunrise kayak tour, a wildlife tour, and a point-to-point trip starting at Algonkian Park.

Navigational Hazards

  • When launching at Riverbend Park, all boaters and paddlers are required to head upriver. This is because of two deadly hazards that are downriver. As a precautionary safety warning, downriver from the ramp is a row of buoys directing boats to turn around.
  • Washington Aqueduct Dam: This is a hazardous, medium sized dam that is part of the water supply infrastructure servicing DC and surrounding areas.
  • Great Falls: At Great Falls, the river plunges over 50 feet in about one-tenth of a mile. By most standards, these are large waterfalls. Only a small set of expert level kayakers attempt to run Great Falls.
  • Both the Aqueduct Dam and Great Falls are deadly. However, one is not in imminent danger when paddling out of Riverbend Park.
  • WSSC low head dam on the west side of Gladys Island: There is a low head dam on the west side of Gladys Island used by the WSSC Water Filtration Plant. Turn around before nearing the dam. The dam is easily avoided if approached from downstream.

Marine Forecast

We STRONGLY suggested that you review the marine forecast ahead of heading out for a paddling trip. To review the forecast for this paddle trip, visit:

Emergency Information

Inova Emergency Room - Reston/Herndon
Part of Inova Fairfax Hospital Network
11901 Baron Cameron Avenue
Reston, VA  20190

Facility Address and Phone Number for Riverbend Park:
8700 Potomac Hills Street
Great Falls, VA 22066

Parking & Shuttles

Riverbend Park has a large parking lot in the area immediately adjacent to the boat ramp. However, the park does get busy weekends and fills up fast. There is an additional lot above the Visitor Center which is also prone to filling to capacity on weekends. When all lots are full, vehicles are sometimes parked along the road in different sections leading into the park.

Written permission from park staff is required for any planned overnight parking.

Park gates are locked at 5:30PM. (However, always be sure to confirm current closing times with park staff when trip planning.)


Ample, ADA-accessible restroom facilities are located next to the Visitor Center  building.


  • ALWAYS wear a personal flotation device (PFD) properly secured, at all times when participating in paddlesport activities.
  • Always bring a paddle float and water pump for self rescue.
  • A spray skirt is recommended for cold/foul weather.
  • Whether you are renting or bringing your own, make sure that your PFD has a safety whistle that is readily accessible.
  • Wear protective clothing appropriate to the weather, activity, and environment especially sun protection (large brimmed hat, sunglasses, long sleeved water-appropriate shirt, sunblock lotion). Assume that you will get wet and be mindful that your clothing would be safe to swim in.
  • Footwear: watershoes or similar are a must have for paddlesports. Launch areas and the river can contain abrasive hazards that can cut feet. Footwear that protects toes and can be walked in when wet is necessary. Flip-flops and sandals are not sufficient or appropriate.
  • Water: Bring water in bottles than can be secured to your boat. Bring more water than you expect to need and drink it throughout your paddling journey.


Trail History

Captain John Smith Chesapeake NHT

  • Captain John Smith and his crew spent approximately one month exploring the Potomac, guiding their craft as far up the river as was navigable. Smith traveled to Little Falls of the Potomac, and traveled overland to the Great Falls to study the rocks and sediment rich with mica. Later, 19th century prospectors found gold on the Maryland side of Great Falls.
  • The Great Falls mark the boundary between the Piedmont Plateau and the Atlantic Coastal Plain – most of the rocks here formed deep beneath the surface of the ancient Lapetus Ocean over 500 million years ago. While in the region, Captain Smith traded furs with the Nacotchtank native tribe, noting their hospitality in his journals. The Potomac River was a heavily traveled trade route by Native Americans and in fact, the name Nacotchtank translates to mean "at the trading town."
  • Smith was not the first Englishman that the Nacotchtank encountered. Englishman Henry Fleet lived with the Nacotchtank for five years in the 1620s, learning the Virginia Algonquian language, which allowed him to become a trader and translator for Lord Calvert when Calvert brought settlers to Maryland. The tribe was called the Anacostan in later years, hence the name of the Anacostia River.
  • Part of the Visitor Center exhibit includes a replica dugout canoe of the same style and dimension that would have been used historically by Native Americans on the river. When you think you’re spent after paddling a sleek, modern, plastic canoe or kayak, just imagine what paddling a dugout canoe must have been like!
  • Tens of millions of shad were once harvested each spring in the Potomac. They were the number one item in terms of dollar value transported upstream on the C&O Canal. Unfortunately, through overfishing, pollution, and loss of spawning habitat, their populations plummeted and the fisheries were closed on the Potomac in 1982.
  • In 1995, an American shad restoration program began on the Potomac River. In 2000, a new fish passage was installed at the dam at Little Falls, to reduce flow and allow fish to pass.
  • The Potomac’s American shad population has rebounded, and in 2012, was declared a sustainable fishery, and serves as the egg source for shad restoration in other rivers in the mid-Atlantic.

Star-Spangled Banner NHT

  • Efforts against the advances of the British in Fairfax County, VA and Montgomery County, MD both contributed to the American resistance in the War of 1812. The area includes routes associated with the Madisons’ escape from the British troops’ burning of Washington, D.C., and the removal of national documents to rural Maryland for safekeeping.

Potomac Heritage NST

  • The Patowmack and C&O Canals reflect the story of early American industrialization along the Potomac. At the end of the eighteenth century, George Washington's efforts to build the Patowmack Canal were well underway. In July, 1828, President Quincy Adams shoveled the first earth at nearby Little Falls, to mark the beginning of the canal which made the Potomac Valley a main artery of ante-bellum commerce and travel. While canal construction was successfully completed and the venture operated for several years, it would take the C&O Canal and B&O Railroad until the mid-19th century to truly open the Potomac River valley to trade. Ultimately, the efforts at the Patowmack and C&O Canals had important political repercussions that helped lead to the stronger union of the American states.
  • In the eighteenth century, Great Falls was primarily a collection of huge farms, many run by tenants of absentee landlords. Due to thin soil and poor accessibility to ports, farms were unable to prosper. In the 1830s, prosperity in this region took a severe downturn. Many Virginians went west seeking richer land or greater opportunity, and northerners came to Great Falls to buy the cheap land left behind.