Four centuries ago the Potomac and Anacostia rivers near present-day Washington, D.C., were corridors of trade. It was here the Chesapeake Bay Indian tribes of the Coastal Plain met to barter furs and other goods with neighboring and Piedmont tribes. Deer, bear, beaver, turkey, and even buffalo, roamed what was then wilderness. When the first Europeans arrived in 1608 their mission was partly commercial—to find valuable minerals for their patrons and a trade route to the Orient, the so-called Northwest Passage.
Captain John Smith and his men found neither silver nor a shortcut to the Pacific when they ascended the Potomac as far as they dared by boat—halted by a steep, 15-mile succession of rapids known as the Potomac Gorge. Nonetheless, the English explorers opened both rivers to later European settlement and to two monumental engineering efforts on the upper Potomac to bypass its unnavigable waters and reach the western frontier.
It’s not often that an urban area can preserve commercially valuable but historically significant waterfront. Highways, office buildings, houses, and a large airport crowd the Nation’s Capital, but greater Washington, D.C., has managed to set aside large stretches for public use along the upper Potomac and tributaries such as the Anacostia. Visit these parks, refuges, and water trails and you’ll discover the river’s storied history, its surprisingly diverse array of flora and fauna, and some of the unparalleled natural scenery that Captain John Smith beheld so long ago.
This tour takes visitors along a dramatic stretch of the upper Potomac to three sites where Chesapeake Bay Indians and colonial settlers used the river as a passageway for trade.
Route of Discovery
By late June 1608, Captain John Smith and his men had reached the Potomac’s head of navigation, just a few miles above the heart of present-day Washington, D.C. Here they encountered—and possibly traded with—local Indians. As the river became increasingly rocky and treacherous, they left their boat below Little Falls and proceeded on foot, exploring both sides of the Potomac as far as Great Falls before heading down river.
Today’s boaters will find the falls above the Nation’s Capital just as impassable as Smith did. The Potomac between Great Falls and Little Falls is filled with rocks and rapids, a stretch of whitewater only the most experienced paddlers dare to attempt.
Above Great Falls you can paddle and walk where the Indians did at Riverbend Park in Fairfax County, Virginia. At Great Falls Park in Virginia and the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park in Maryland, visitors to the parks’ overlooks can see the Potomac at her wildest, crashing spectacularly over a rocky riverbed and sluicing through the cliffs of narrow Mather Gorge. You can also glimpse vestiges of man’s attempts to outflank her—two historic canals.
On the northeastern side of the river, the C&O Canal is watered for more than 20 miles above its southern terminus (Georgetown in Washington, D.C.), providing excellent flat water paddling opportunities.
Upriver of Great Falls, launch paddle craft and motor boats at bucolic Riverbend Park, located one mile above the Washington Aqueduct Dam. Motorized boats are prohibited on this portion of the C&O Canal and paddlers must portage around its lift locks. Canoes and kayaks can be rented at several commercial boathouses in Washington, D.C. The broad, level towpath paralleling the canal is ideal for leisurely hikes and cycling trips.
Places to Visit
Long before Captain John Smith sought the Northwest Passage or George Washington envisioned a canal to the western frontier here, Indian tribes gathered along the banks of the Potomac above Great Falls to trade. Plentiful evidence of their presence—from bits of pottery to campfire rings—has been unearthed by archeologists in this 400-acre park hugging a curve in the river. The ax heads, points (arrowheads), and pottery shards on display at the visitor center are enduring reminders that generations of Chesapeake Bay Indians made this a gathering place. To experience the area as they did, launch a kayak or johnboat from the park’s sycamore-shaded riverfront or follow in native footsteps along miles of trails through upland and floodplain forest.
An obstacle course of roaring water and jagged rocks, the Great Falls of the Potomac are as breathtakingly dangerous as they are beautiful. It’s no wonder they impeded Captain John Smith’s explorations and entrepreneurs’ attempts over the next two centuries to make the river an artery to the young nation’s prospering western frontier.
This national park’s three overlooks offer dramatic views of Great Falls as it plummets nearly 80 feet in two-thirds of a mile. The first commercial effort to bypass the falls was George Washington’s Patowmack Canal, begun in 1785. Follow the park’s broad footpaths paralleling the river and you’ll pass deep swales, walled embankments, and crumbling foundations. The dry swales and the embankments (former lift locks) are remnants of Washington’s solution to this and four other unnavigable river passages--a channel hewed through earth and rock that skirted each falls. The old foundations belonged to Matildaville, a small town that flourished until the canal closed in 1828.
It was dubbed the “Great National Project.” Begun in 1828, this bold plan sought to link the East’s and West’s major waterways, the Chesapeake Bay and the Ohio River, with a man-made, flat-water river paralleling the turbulent upper Potomac. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal never extended beyond Cumberland, Maryland. And railroads outraced it to the western frontier. Yet parts of the original canal and all of its 184-mile towpath-turned-footpath survive, a memorial to a young nation’s entrepreneurial spirit and a wild river’s legacy.
Four centuries ago, Captain John Smith explored a stretch of the Potomac now bounded by the park’s two metropolitan area visitors centers—Georgetown in Washington, D.C., and Great Falls Tavern in Maryland. Between these two points, according to historians’ accounts, Smith encountered Indians paddling canoes (off Fletchers Cove); was forced to leave his boat (in the vicinity of Chain Bridge); and hiked as far as Great Falls (where the park visitor center is housed in a 19th-century tavern). At Great Falls, pause as you cross the bridge onto Olmsted Island en route to the falls overlook. Gaze downstream. As the river thunders beneath you and a hawk soars lazily over Mather Gorge, you’ll behold the same untamed Potomac Captain John Smith saw more than 400 years ago.
This tour takes visitors down a Potomac tributary, the urban Anacostia River, to three sites where the Nation’s Capital’s “other river” is showing signs of reinvigoration.
Route of Discovery
Before reaching the Potomac River’s head of navigation, Captain John Smith explored the lower Anacostia River, a Potomac tributary that flows through Maryland and Washington, D.C. The Nacotchtank lived here then, along a healthy, marsh-lined river whose clarity Smith remarked upon. Degraded over the centuries by agricultural and urban runoff, the Anacostia (an English corruption of “Nacotchtank”) became a polluted, overlooked river. It is neglected no more. Thanks to community-led restoration efforts the Anacostia is showing encouraging glimpses of its former self.
Those who know only the river’s reputation are often surprised by its natural beauty and wildlife, aspects best appreciated as its earliest explorers did—by water. Put in a kayak or canoe at Bladensburg Waterfront Park and paddle downstream. You’ll pass Dueling Creek, named for the city’s historic pistol grounds, exotic Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens —a jewel of the Anacostia—and the U.S. National Arboretum, where a floating dock serves as a portal to river visitors. Along the way you may encounter herons, beavers, otters and other denizens of the marshes. When you pull ashore at Anacostia Park you can thank prescient urban planners for recognizing the need to preserve this vulnerable waterfront for public use.
Canoes and kayaks are especially well-suited to upper portions of the Anacostia where bridge clearances are lower and the river remains silted and shallow. Launch paddle craft from public ramps at Bladensburg Waterfront Park in suburban Maryland and downriver at Anacostia Park in the District of Columbia. At Bladensburg Waterfront Park visitors can also rent canoes, kayaks, and rowboats or take guided pontoon boat and canoe excursions on the Anacostia. Dockage and services for larger boats are available at several marinas nearer the river’s mouth.
Places to Visit
A thriving port in colonial times, Bladensburg lost that distinction over time. As the Anacostia River silted in with soil that seeped off farm fields upstream, ocean-going ships could no longer reach the docks to load the tobacco and cotton those fields produced. In the modern era, highways and buildings—the harvest of urbanization—have multiplied the stress on a river whose watershed is one of the Chesapeake Bay’s most densely populated.
This suburban park provides area residents and visitors numerous opportunities for water and waterfront recreation, including boating, fishing, bicycling, and bird watching. By hosting naturalist-guided canoe and pontoon boat tours as well as river clean-up days, Bladensburg Waterfront Park is also educating and enabling park-users to become better stewards of the Anacostia and the Chesapeake Bay. A visitors’ center interpretive exhibit depicts the pristine Anacostia of Captain John Smith’s time—inspiration for those working so diligently to restore the waterway of the Nacotchtank Indians.
Dense forests and miles of tidal wetlands lined the Anacostia River when the Nacotchtank lived here. Plentiful game, wetlands of wild rice and a river teeming with shad, herring, perch, and sturgeon sustained the Nacotchtank. Today it’s hard to imagine the city’s industrial southeastern corner was ever that pastoral. Cars, trucks, trains, and subway cars zip overhead on several bridges that cross the river.
Below, however, lies this 1,200-acre park, one of Washington’s largest recreation areas and part of a remarkable five-mile stretch of preserved shoreline. Anacostia Park also includes a rare, nearly hidden treasure: Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens.
Once a privately owned water garden, this park-within-a-park holds ponds filled with beautiful water plants such as lotuses and lilies. These, in turn, are surrounded by original tidal wetlands, survivors of the Anacostia’s decline, as well as acres of restored marshes that also help filter pollutants. On a high tide paddlers can explore the gardens and these precious marshlands that once sustained the Nacotchtank and now nurture a river’s revival.
Headquarters for the Earth Conservation Corps, this site offers environmental education and river improvement programs that enlist residents of this urban neighborhood. By “recycling” facilities whose demise was linked to the river’s decline, the group has used the structures to promote the Anacostia’s restoration.
Two century-old pump houses (closed when the river became too polluted) have been converted into environmental education centers: the Matthew Henson Earth Conservation Center, which served an electric plant, and the Old Capitol Pump House, which helped heat the U.S. Capitol. Both of these repurposed structures practice what they teach, employing “green” building techniques and landscaping. Earth Conservation Corps is also working to reintroduce bald eagles to the Anacostia, host river eco-tours and wild raptor presentations, and help reclaim and provide access to Kingman Island, an Anacostia dumping site that the city envisions as a park and wildlife preserve.
Paddling Through History along the Monocacy River Water Trail
Indians camped, fished, and later farmed along the fertile shores of the Monocacy, which according to legend is a Shawnee name for “river with many bends.” From its headwaters near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, this Potomac River tributary winds 58 miles through the farmlands and hills of central Maryland before joining the Potomac River and, eventually, the Chesapeake Bay. Among those who may have traveled this north-south route in the 1600s were the Massawomeck, Iroquoian-speaking rivals to several Algonquian tribes Captain John Smith encountered along the Potomac.
A designated Maryland scenic river, the Monocacy is valued by canoeists and kayakers for its beauty and ease of paddling. To enjoy a leisurely paddle through this quiet landscape, follow the Monocacy River Water Trail, a 41-mile self-guided trail follows the lower two-thirds of the river from the hills west of Thurmont to the Monocacy’s confluence with the Potomac along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park.
Great blue and green herons greet paddlers along the way. Sycamores—Smith called them “Democrites” (or plane) trees—bend their great shaggy heads over the water. You’ll also be paddling in the wake of history—along the battlefield where Union troops thwarted an attack on Washington, D.C.; past the river’s sole surviving gristmill, built in 1739; and beneath the massive stone bridge the Confederates could not destroy, the Monocacy River Aqueduct, which carried the historic C&O Canal.
Paddling Through History along the Potomac River Water Trail
In the summer of 1608, Captain John Smith and his men traveled up the Potomac “so high as we could with the boat”—to present-day Washington, D.C. That journey, covering roughly 100 miles, is retraced by the Potomac River Water Trail helping boaters discover the river’s diverse scenery and wildlife from the perspective of these original explorers.
Follow the route the first Mr. Smith took to Washington, from the mouth of the Anacostia River, where the Englishman met with Nacotchtank Indians, to the Potomac’s head of navigation below Little Falls, which halted his progress by boat.
If you’re riding the current, begin at the trail’s northernmost launch site—at Fletchers Cove—where you can join the park-lined Potomac as it flows beneath historic bridges past the Nation’s Capital and its monuments. But there is more than just human handiwork to admire. Above Key Bridge is a trio of small rocky islands—the Three Sisters. A local legend maintains that the name comes from an Indian cautionary tale about the deceptively swift Potomac: the outcroppings appeared where three siblings drowned attempting to cross the river. Downstream, Roosevelt Island was known to Chesapeake Bay Indians who fished there as “Analostan.” In modern times the 88-acre marshland and forest park was rechristened Roosevelt Island to honor conservationist/president Theodore Roosevelt.