The Potomac River: A Guide to Washington DC's Waterfront

Major Waterfront Destinations and Recreation Along the Potomac River

People walking along the canal in Georgetown

TripSavvy / Victoria Chamberlain

The Potomac River is the fourth largest river along the Atlantic coast and the 21st largest in the United States. It runs over 383 miles from Fairfax Stone, West Virginia to Point Lookout, Maryland and drains 14,670 square miles of land area from four states and Washington DC. The Potomac River flows into the Chesapeake Bay and affects more than 6 million people who live within the Potomac watershed, the land area where water drains towards the mouth of the river.

George Washington envisioned the nation's capital as a commercial center as well as the seat of government. He chose to establish the “federal city” along the Potomac River because it already included two major port towns: Georgetown and Alexandria. "Potomac" was an Algonquin name for the river meaning "great trading place."

Washington, DC began using the Potomac River as its main source of drinking water with the opening of the Washington Aqueduct in 1864. An average of approximately 486 million gallons of water is used daily in the Washington DC area. Almost 86 percent of the region’s population receives its drinking water from public water suppliers while 13 percent uses well water. Due to increasing urban development, the aquatic habitat of the Potomac River and its tributaries are vulnerable to eutrophication, heavy metals, pesticides, and other toxic chemicals. The Potomac Watershed Partnership, a collaborative group of conservation organizations, work together to protect the Potomac River watershed.

Major Tributaries of the Potomac River

The Potomac's major tributaries include the Anacostia River, Antietam Creek, the Cacapon River, Catoctin Creek, Conocoheague Creek, the Monocacy River, the North Branch, the South Branch, the Occoquan River, the Savage River, the Senaca Creek, and the Shenandoah River.

Major Cities in the Potomac Basin

Major cities in the Potomac Basin include: Washington, DC; Bethesda, Cumberland, Hagerstown, Frederick, Rockville, Waldorf, and St. Mary's City in Maryland; Chambersburg and Gettysburg in Pennsylvania; Alexandria, Arlington, Harrisonburg, and Front Royal in Virginia; and Harper's Ferry, Charles Town, and Martinsburg in West Virginia.

Georgetown Waterfront Park
Rachel Cooper

Major Potomac River Waterfront Locations in the Washington DC Area

  • Great Falls – The national park is a spectacular natural landmark with some of the best scenery in the region. Recreation activities including hiking, picnicking, kayaking, rock climbing, bicycling, and horseback riding.
  • Georgetown – The waterfront community is one of DC’s most interesting places to shop and dine. It’s a great neighborhood to explore with many historic sites, museums and plenty of things to do. Kayaking and bicycling are especially popular.
  • Southwest Waterfront – This neighborhood is rapidly developing and is expected to incur major changes in the next decade. The waterfront area is currently home to Arena Stage, marinas, restaurants and nightclubs.
  • Alexandria – The scenic Northern Virginia neighborhood is known for its quaint character and 18th and 19th-century homes, museums, shops, restaurants, and nightlife. Boating and bicycling opportunities are available.
  • Mount Vernon – The estate and gardens of George Washington are set on a hill overlooking the Potomac River. The historic site is a “must see” destination, located 14 miles south of Washington, DC.
  • National Harbor - The mixed-use community, opened in the spring of 2008, includes hotels, restaurants, retail stores, condominiums, a full-service marina, a convention center, and commercial office space. Special events are held throughout the year along the Potomac waterfront.
  • George Washington Memorial Parkway - The road is a part of the National Park system and connects Washington DC attractions and historic sites stretching from Great Falls Park to George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate. Several memorials, marinas, and parks are located along the way.
Kayakers on the Potomac River.
Potomac Conservancy/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Recreation Along the Potomac River

  • Bicycling and Running - Paved hiker/biker trails along the Potomac River include the Capital Crescent Trail which runs from Georgetown to Bethesda, Maryland, the Mount Vernon Trail which extends from Theodore Roosevelt Island to Mount Vernon, Virginia and the C&O Towpath which follows the Potomac River between Georgetown and Cumberland, Maryland.
  • Kayaking - Local sports outfitters offer kayak rentals and lessons at various destinations along the Potomac River.
  • Sightseeing Cruises – A variety of cruises are available, departing from Washington, DC, Alexandria, Mount Vernon, and National Harbor.
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