Potomac Heritage Trail Thru-Hike
If you want to thru-hike the PHT, here is some info to get you started!
In a few days, I will be starting my thru-hike of the Potomac Heritage Trail (PHT), and I am more than stoked to revert to my trail gremlin state of existence. My journey on the PHT, however, will not be what most people imagine when they picture a long backpacking trip, so if you are imagining a Snow White moment in the solitude of a wooded mountain top, you’re who I’m talking about. A majority of the route I will be taking will be on the urban side of things… meaning I’ll look extra feral beside the urban folks enjoying these trails, haha. Also meaning, I will be one of the few thru-hikers among the Sunday strollers, day-hikers, and cyclists. It’s not a super common route to thru-hike, and there is no single official trail association to refer to.. Basically, there isn’t a whole lot of information about making the trek, so we’re going with the flow and seeing how it goes. Shout out to the homies of the thru-hiking community and ye ol’ Google for providing me with enough beta to make this happen. So, I’m here to share the information I have gathered thus far.
Thru-Hiking the PHT
The PHT is a designated National Scenic Trail (NST) network managed by the National Parks System (NPS) tracing natural, historical, and cultural features of the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay corridor in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia. The trail corridor hosts diverse plant and animal populations and a rich history of the area.
The PHT trail network includes 830 miles (according to the NPS, but some websites claim anywhere from 600-900 miles) of existing and planned sections offering opportunities for hiking, biking, paddling, horseback riding, and cross country skiing. Unlike other NSTs, such as the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail, the PHT is an informal route with numerous side trails and alternatives providing a “choose-your-own-adventure” style thru-hike. Among the thru-hiking community, and according to an NPS PDF I found, there is an “official unofficial route” approximately 425 miles long spanning from the Eastern Terminus in Point Lookout State Park, Maryland to the Western Terminus in the Laurel Highlands, Pennsylvania. This “official unofficial route” connects four sections to create a cohesive path:
Section 1.) Suburban Road Walkin’
- Location: Point Lookout Lighthouse, Point Lookout State Park, MD to Washington D.C.
- Approx. Length: 90 miles
- Camping: Unavailable
- Notes: I definitely don’t expect this to be the highlight of the trail. It’s all highway road walking and strolling through suburban neighborhoods with no camping available since it’s almost all private land, but that means easy access to resupply options and less food to carry for this section. The distances between towns offering lodging is pretty wack, so it requires long stretches of hiking over three days of hotel stays. There is only one option I have been able to find for this section and it seems like a brutal start, but the terrain is very flat, so I guess it’s not as bad as it could be, haha.
- 25ish miles from Point Lookout State Park to Hollywood, MD
- 40 miles from Hollywood, MD to Waldorf, MD
- 25ish miles from Waldorf, MD to Washington D.C.
Section 2.) Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath
- Location: from Washington D.C. to Cumberland, MD
- Approx. Length: 185 miles
- Camping: 31 hiker-biker campsites (first-come, first-served) and five drive-in campsites (reservation required)
- Notes: Bike path along the Potomac River and the remains of the C&O Canal with plentiful free camping, beautiful river views, and social opportunities along the trail. This segment overlaps a few miles of the Appalachian Trail near Harpers Ferry, WV.
Section 3.) Great Allegheny Passage
- Location: Cumberland, MD to Ohiopyle, PA
- Approx. Length: 73 miles
- Camping: Six campgrounds (reservations and fees required)
- Notes: Bike path with towns known for their hospitality along the trail offering beautiful river views and social opportunities.
Section 4.) Laurel Highlands Trail
- Location: Ohiopyle, PA to the Conemaugh Gorge near Johnstown, PA
- Approx. Length: 70 miles
- Camping: eight overnight shelter areas, one area every six to 12 miles along the trail (reservation and fee required)
- Notes: The Laurel Highlands Trail is revered as one of Pennsylvania’s finest hiking trails, so I’m pretty hyped to end my thru-hike with this segment. The trail is clearly marked with yellow blazes with blue blazes marking side trails to the camping areas. This section of the PHT is the most rugged with elevation ranging from 1,000 ft to 2,700 ft above sea level offering vista views and an abundance of wildflowers. Campsites offer shelters, camping space for 30 people, and water.
History of the Potomac River Region
People of the Potomac
The Potomac River and Chesapeake regions are the historic lands of the Powhatan, Piscataway, and Nanicoke peoples, with ancestral settlements dating back 14,000 years ago. In the early 17th century, Captain John Smith mapped and explored this region resulting in the European colonization of the area. The Powhatan people graced English colonizers with assistance in surviving this unfamiliar environment; in return, they did what colonizers do to make way for more plantations. The natural resources of this region were bountiful providing fertile soil for agriculture, ample land for hunting, and plentiful waters for fishing. The Potomac River provided early colonizers the opportunity for trade, travel, and the generation of energy for mills.
Back in the day, President George Washington chose the District of Columbia to serve as the nation’s new capital per the Compromise of 1790 and initiated the construction of the Potomac (Patowmack) Canal for trade and travel. However, this canal was only operational for 26 years before the company managing it went bankrupt. In 1828, construction of the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal began, providing a fully functional route by 1850. Although the C&O Canal served as a route to transport bulk resources, the railroads offered more efficient transportation by this time. The C&O Canal was used until 1924 when it was damaged beyond repair by a flood. The ruins of the canal remain along the C&O Canal Towpath.
Corridor to Freedom
The Potomac River was a “corridor to freedom” within the Underground Railroad Network, providing enslaved people with abundant hiding spaces in their northbound pursuit to freedom. The use and participation in the Underground Railroad heightened tensions between the North and South, provoking the start of the Civil War. During the Civil War (1861-1865), the Potomac River served as natural a boundary between the Union and the Confederacy and was the setting for several significant battles.
The Potomac Heritage Trail was established as a National Scenic Trail in 1983 by Congress to provide outdoor recreational opportunities and help connect with the landscape and history it holds. The trail is managed by the nonprofit organizations, volunteers, and agencies at the local, regional, state, and federal level.
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Just an FYI, in addition to camping along the C&O, you can also rent some of the lock houses. Advanced reservations are required, but it’s always an option. Also, once you pass Brunswick MD, the C&O follows along railroad tracks, sometimes on both sides of the river. So, bring earplugs for sleeping. Good luck!
Thanks for the tip! Always helpful to have more options and it sounds like a neat place to crash!
My neck of the woods in the middle there. Welcome to the Mid-Atlantic. Be sure to spray up really well for ticks and check for them often. They’re everywhere here.
I’ll be on the lookout!
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