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About the Potomac

Perhaps no other body of water in America has defined our country quite like the Potomac River. From the American Indian communities who first called this region home to the American Revolution, the Civil War, and industrial progress into the 21st century, the Potomac is truly “the Nation’s River.”

Captain John Smith was the first European to explore the Potomac River. When he sailed up the river from the Chesapeake Bay in 1608, he found a majestic, living river full of fish, crabs, and oysters. But for thousands of years before John Smith explored the region, the Potomac’s forested shores were home to American Indians.

Since these colonial times, the Potomac has witnessed some of the most pivotal moments in the growth and development of the United States. Famous Americans such as George Washington and Robert E. Lee lived along its shores, and their lives are intertwined with the river’s history.

The Potomac River is the second-largest tributary to the Chesapeake Bay. Dozens of small, vibrant rivers and streams flow through forests, farms, towns, and rural communities, coming together to form the Potomac. The river provides a critical link to the Bay; before roads crisscrossed the landscape, the Potomac transported trade goods and travelers to the Chesapeake and the world beyond.

Although much has happened along the river since 1608, today’s explorer will find many of the same vistas that John Smith recorded more than 400 years. From its headwaters on the Allegheny Plateau to the tidewater Chesapeake, the Potomac connects people to nature all along its 383 miles.

In 1983, Congress designated the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, which links communities throughout the river’s vast watershed in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. When you explore the Potomac today, you’ll not only discover natural treasures, but also find a gateway to many of the most significant historical and cultural sites in the country.

Potomac Facts & Figures

The River

  • The Potomac River stretches for 383 miles from its starting point in West Virginia to where it meets the Chesapeake Bay at Point Lookout, Maryland.
  • Many major tributaries flow to the Potomac River: the Anacostia River, Antietam Creek, the Cacapon River, Catoctin Creek, Conococheague Creek, the Monocacy River, the North Branch, the South Branch, the Occoquan River, the Savage River, Seneca Creek, and the Shenandoah River. When you add up all of these major tributaries, the entire Potomac River system is 12,878 miles long.
  • The Potomac River crosses several geologic regions on its journey from its headwaters to the Bay: the Appalachian Plateau, Ridge & Valley, Blue Ridge, Piedmont Plateau, and Coastal Plain.
  • Nearly 90% of the Washington, D.C. metro area gets its drinking water from the Potomac River.

Potomac Watershed

The Watershed

  • The Potomac River watershed ‒ the area of land that drains to the river ‒ covers 14,670 square miles across four states (Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia) and Washington, D.C.
  • More than half of the Potomac River watershed is forested.
  • Over six million people live in the Potomac River watershed.

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