First, let’s get one thing straight — although there are numerous hills that make this run strenuous at times, Difficult Run is actually named after the tributary stream, or run, that runs for nearly 16 miles through Fairfax County, eventually ending at the Potomac River approximately two miles south of Great Falls.
With that settled, perhaps one of the most difficult things about running here can be finding a parking spot at the trailhead (although there are nearly 30 different spaces for cars to squeeze into, the Difficult Run Parking Lot is quite popular with local dog walkers and area hikers). If you can’t find a spot here, there is no need to fret, you can also park at Great Falls Park; the entrance is only a half-mile up Georgetown Pike. There are hundreds of spots here, though the park charges a fee.
The forests that surround Difficult Run and Great Falls host a variety of wildlife, including deer, fox, snakes, muskrat and beaver. If you’re lucky, you might see a bald eagle over the Potomac. Luckier still, a coyote or even a black bear in the woods; young males tend to lumber through the area in the spring and summer. There are also miles and miles of trails, which you’ll continuously intersect throughout your run, so it’s impossible to outline this entire recreational area in one try. However, the route I’ve outlined below is a tried and true classic — an out-and-back ten miler that will serve as a great introduction to the park.
Once you’ve locked your door and tied your shoes, face the stream then head left, or south, and follow the twisting Difficult Run Trail for a quarter of a mile as it meanders its way under Georgetown Pike. It’s quite rocky, so watch your step, but soon the trail transforms into a wider dirt path. Approximately one half mile into your run, you’ll spy a swimming hole on your right. If you find yourself out here in the summer, take note and consider cooling off here near the end of your run. For now, continue to follow the stream until you reach a decision point, a little less than one mile into your run. To the left, up the hill, is the Ridge Trail, which you’ll eventually want to take. However, I’d first recommend running the short out-and-back to the end of the Difficult Run Trail to see where the end of the stream meets the mighty Potomac. Retrace your steps and tackle the hill. Regardless of your fitness, you’ll no doubt be breathless once you’ve reached the top. However, you’ll be rewarded with a great view of the river. Keep the Potomac on your right and follow the rolling trail as it makes its way north towards Great Falls proper. There are various side trails which intersect along the way, but, generally, the path is easy to follow. Eventually, after approximately 2.5 miles, the trail ends when it hits the Old Carriage Road. Turn right, and continue north towards the park. Your first opportunity to use rest rooms and a water fountain will be up ahead on your right.
If you weren’t able to find a place to park at the Difficult Run Parking Lot, you would have parked somewhere around here, which is what the majority of those visiting Great Falls will do. If it’s a nice day, prepare to negotiate through a lot of people engaged in a variety of activities. I once ran through a cricket game here.
To the south, back in the direction from where you came from, there are a number of great side trails that won’t add much mileage to your run. One of these trails will lead you to the ruins of Matildaville, a town chartered in 1790 built to house and support workers constructing the ill-fated Patowmack Canal, the remains of which can also be viewed here. Not much remains of the town — a few dilapidated stone structures, is all – but it’s certainly an interesting piece of history to note.
After you’ve read the historical placards, retrace your steps then deviate one last time and sojourn over to one of the three Great Falls of the Potomac River overlooks, have a quick peak, and continue north along the river. Eventually, the parking lot on your left will end. Around here, the River Trail quietly morphs into the Potomac Heritage Trail, but all you’re doing is continuing to follow the river north, so disregard the formality.
Just before the dam, you will have to negotiate your way through a rock field and climb a short rock scramble, but be patient because the trails that lie ahead are some of the best in the park. Perhaps the most pleasant time to explore these trails is mid to late April – that’s when Virginia Bluebells bloom in abundance giving the trail and the forest an air of magic. After nearly 5 miles, you will arrive at Riverbend Park and have another opportunity to use a restroom and grab a drink. You’ve come a long way from your car at Difficult Run Parking Lot, but I encourage you to explore a bit more if you have the time and the energy. Although technical in places, the Potomac Heritage Trail goes on for miles. However, some of the trails that run perpendicular to the river offer a nice change of scenery and are preferred. Once you’ve had your fill, retrace your steps back towards your car, potentially checking out some of the various side trails you encountered on your way out. If it’s a hot, sunny day, recall the swimming hole about a half mile from where you parked. For sixty-six-year-old Sterling resident Chuck Moser, who’s run this route regularly for over two decades, the swimming hole is an absolute must at the end of any warm outing from Difficult Run.
“It’s like a cold whirlpool,” Moser says, “and it feels great on the legs”.
When you return to your car, don’t be surprised to find a few automobiles running in idle; they’re waiting for one of the parking lot’s coveted spaces to open up.
You can catch the D.C. Capital Striders out here at 6 on Wednesday evenings for group trail runs.