Tidewater Potomac

Tidewater Potomac Washington D.C. to Washington D.C. 1 Map Set GPX Data | Overview | Buy | Mobile App
1. Washington D.C. to Washington D.C. Detail

Ride through American history and natural wonders.

The Tidewater Potomac Heritage Bicycle Route introduces the cyclist to an area rich in scenic beauty, ecological diversity, and early American colonial history. Museums and points of interest give ample opportunities for sightseeing. Several historic sites are connected to George Washington, the father of the U.S. They include Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s Ferry Farm, where he lived from age six until early adulthood, and the George Washington Birthplace National Monument.

This route lies within a portion of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail corridor. The route begins in Washington, D.C., and traverses both sides of the Potomac River in Maryland and Virginia until it reaches the Chesapeake Bay. At this time it’s best if you reverse your route rather than attempt a loop by crossing the Chesapeake Bay. Due to the rising costs of fuel, both cruise companies listed in the map’s Riding Conditions only run the ships if they have enough passengers registered for the trip (15 minimum) and even then it usually only runs on Saturday and Sunday. Unfortunately, these circumstances cause the ship to be canceled most days.

This route begins and ends at Union Station in Washington, D.C. A spur route within the city is also shown to connecting to the eastern terminus of the C & O Canal Towpath for those cyclists who may want to continue up the Potomac River. The route crosses the Potomac and heads into Virginia along the Mt. Vernon Trail. You’ll have to pedal approximately forty miles before leaving the suburbs behind and getting into the rural countryside. The route skirts the Quantico Marine Corps Reservation on its way to Fredericksburg. This town has its share of museums and historic sites, so plan to spend a day sightseeing.

Leaving Fredericksburg, you’ll head eastward into the peninsula known as the Northern Neck. Traffic decreases the farther east you go, and it’s pleasant riding on smaller back roads. Stratford Hall Plantation, the birthplace of Robert E. Lee, is located on the Potomac River, and there are several museums to visit in the small towns along the route. If you want to explore further, there’s a 25-mile spur to the Rappahannock River bridge.

The route in Maryland meanders along smaller roads through fields and woods. There are many points of interest, museums, and state parks to visit along the way, so plan your days accordingly. Nearby towns offer full services. Automobile traffic increases the closer you get to the Washington area. You will need city-riding skills as you share the road with traffic entering the District of Columbia.

Photo by Adam Coppola

The District of Columbia, Virginia, and Maryland have flat to rolling topography. A few short hills will be encountered. Rivers and bays create fingers of land called “necks,” and the route dips down into the necks, allowing easy access to points along the Potomac River.

Tidewater Potomac - Main Route
Section Distance Elevation Total Climb Avg. Climb/mile
Total 377.0 miles Minimum: 0 ft.
Maximum:430 ft.
14,095 ft. clockwise
14170 ft. counterclockwise
37 ft. per mi. clockwise
38 ft. per mi. counterclockwise
Tidewater Potomac Alternates
Name Section Distance Total Climb Avg. Climb/mile
Leedstown Alternate 1 17.5 miles 500 ft. counterclockwise
495 ft. clockwise
29 ft. per mi. counterclockwise
28 ft. per mi. clockwise
Rappahannock Spur 1 25.0 miles 540 ft. south bound
655 ft. north bound
22 ft. per mi. south bound
26 ft. per mi. north bound
C&O Canal Alternate 1 1.2 miles 25 ft. north bound
15 ft. south bound
21 ft. per mi. north bound
13 ft. per mi. south bound

The lower Potomac River region has considerably warm weather and humidity during the summer months. Otherwise it may be ridden from early spring to late fall (typically April to October). Only privately owned cruise ship companies cross the Chesapeake Bay, so working within their schedule is a must if you want to cross the bay. Occasionally delays can occur due to inclement weather, so be prepared.

Due to the rising costs of fuel, both cruise companies listed in the map’s Riding Conditions only run the ships if they have enough passengers registered for the trip (15 minimum) and even then it usually only runs on Saturday and Sunday. Unfortunately, these circumstances cause the ships to be canceled most days.

Another option for crossing the Chesapeake Bay between Smith Point and Point Lookout is to hire a private fishing boat to ferry you across. Captain Danny Crabbe of Crabbes Charter Fishing has been offering this service to cyclists for years. You’ll need to call ahead and make reservations.

All services and bike shops can be found in Washington and in the cities and suburbs nearby. Fredericksburg also has bike shops. When you leave the suburbs and ride into more rural areas, services will be less plentiful, though small towns with the basic convenience stores appear frequently.

Some campgrounds will charge a cyclist traveling alone less if they have hiker/biker sites, but often they will charge the price of a regular tent or RV site, and that can easily be $10-$40/night. The maps list churches that have opened their doors to cyclists, but they aren’t all that closely spaced. If you’re friendly and ask around, you can often get yourself invited to camp in a yard. Our routes sometimes go through national forests (moreso in the west) and you are allowed to camp anywhere on national forest land as long as you “pack it in, pack it out.” Many city parks are free to camp in.

You may also wish to sign up with Warmshowers, a reciprocal hospitality site for bicycle travelers, for other overnight options.

Route Highlights

Tidewater Potomac Highlights

  • Numerous national and historic sites in Washington D.C.
  • Chesapeake Bay
  • Arlington National Cemetery
  • Mt. Vernon, home of George Washington
  • Kenmore Plantation and Gardens
  • George Washington’s Ferry Farm
  • Fredericksburg Spotsylvania National Battlefield
  • Northern Neck of Virginia
  • George Washington Birthplace
  • Stratford Hall Plantation
  • St. Clelments Island Potomac River Museum
  • Thomas Stone National Historic Site
  • National Colonial Farm Museum
  • Fort Washington National Park
  • Oxon Hill Farm

More Route Resources


Traffic can be heavy leaving Union Station, so be prepared for urban riding. When walking out of Union Station, Louisiana Ave. NW is directly across the circle from you. You have the choice of riding on the roadway around the circle to access Louisiana Ave. NW, or during busier times, walking your bicycle straight across the circle on the pedestrian crossing to access the route.

There is an alternate starting/ending point for the route at milepost 0 of the C&O Canal Towpath.

This text is written following a counter-clockwise direction. Caution is needed after the Maine Avenue Fish Market – the sidewalk narrows and traffic is heavy. It’s worth staying on the sidewalk even if you have to walk your bike under the railroad overpass and around the curve. Then it’s easy riding along Ohio Dr. through East and West Potomac Park. After crossing the river, you will ride on the Mt. Vernon Trail paralleling the Potomac River. This path is heavily used by both bicyclists and pedestrians.

U.S. Bicycle Route (USBR) 1 is signed throughout Virginia. Occasionally you will see a sign that points to a different road than what the map says. Our routing is not always concurrent with USBRs. Be aware that signs can be damaged, stolen, or otherwise missing so you can never rely totally on following signs. For more information see: www.virginiadot.org/programs/bikeped.

In Virginia, the route uses mostly a well-surfaced network of county roads that are signed. The terrain is rolling with a few steep hills. Expect heavy traffic when traveling through the northern Virginia suburbs.

Riding southeast out of Fredericksburg you will be on two-lane SR 3 for 14 miles. The highway carries a moderate amount of traffic, including trucks, and has intermittent shoulders. Please be very careful here.

Use extreme caution when crossing the 4-lane, highly-trafficked U.S. 301. And continue to use caution on SR 3 as there can be high speed traffic with an intermittent shoulder. If you prefer, the 17.5-mile Leedstown Alternate has less traffic and will take you close to the Rappahannock River.

The 25-mile Rappahannock Spur travels on county roads as well as SR 3, so continue to use care on SR 3. If you are continuing off the route over the Rappahannock River, use extreme caution as the Norris bridge is almost 2 miles long, narrow and without shoulders. Do not cross the bridge during morning or afternoon rush hours.

This spur takes you over the bridge and toward historic Williamsburg, where you can access the Colonial Parkway. The 26-mile Colonial Parkway is a bicycle-friendly corridor that joins the communities of Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown. This route is also part of the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail.

The two cruise ships on Chesapeake Bay are a very important link for this route. We have discovered that the best day for both ships to run is Saturdays during the summer. One ship gets you to Ewell on Smith Island, and the other takes you to the continuation of the route in Maryland. Both of these cruise ships make, at most, one trip a day between Smith Island and their respective states, so plan carefully when approaching this area. Ewell has limited overnight accommodations and few options for food. If you do miss the ship, there are multiple opportunities to catch a boat to Crisfield, Maryland, which has all services.

You need to make one-way reservations for the two different cruise ships to get between Virginia and Maryland. The cruise ship from Smith Point, VA, to Smith Island operates from May 15th through October 15th (though if business is slow they will be closed early and/or late in the season). One-way reservations are required for both you and your bicycle, which is considered freight. The cruise needs a minimum number of passengers and are also subject to closure due to inclement weather. Call Chesapeake Bay Camp Resort ahead at 804-453-3430 for reservations and more information.

The cruise ship from Point Lookout State Park, MD, to Smith Island sails from June through August, and limited weekends in May and September. It operates four days a week, Thursday through Sunday. One-way reservations are required for you and your bicycle, which is considered freight. Call 410-425-2771 for reservations or see www.smithislandcruises.com for more information.

As an alternative to the cruise ships, you can contact Captain Danny Crabbe at www.crabbescharterfishing.com or 804-761-0908 for details on ferrying you and your bicycle across the bay. It is recommended that you make reservations a couple of days in advance.

The only other way across the Potomac River is between maps 4 and 9 on the Nice Bridge/U.S. 301, which does not allow bicycles. The Maryland Transportation Authority may, if staff and time are available, transport cyclists and their bicycles across this toll bridge for a fee. Contact the Authority at least 24 hours prior to arrival at 301-259-4444.

Most Maryland state highways have paved shoulders and moderate traffic. County roads are, for the most part, two lanes with local traffic, and generally don’t have shoulders. The route in Maryland is mostly flat with occasional descents and climbs into and out of the Potomac River area. Rivers and bays create fingers of land called “necks” and the route dips down into the necks allowing easy access to points along the Potomac.

Caution is needed in riding the highway shoulders and in crossing SR 5, U.S. 301, and SR 210. The towns of Leonardtown, La Plata, and Indian Head are not on the route but are easily accessible.

Automobile traffic picks up as you near the Washington area. You will need city riding skills as you share the road with cars on S. Capitol St. SW and Martin Luther King Ave. SW. After Firth Sterling Ave. SE, a bike/pedestrian path along S. Capitol St. takes you to the sidewalk across the Frederick Douglass Bridge.

As you pass the capitol and turn left onto Constitution Ave. NW, get immediately into the rightmost left-hand turn lane for the left turn onto Louisiana Ave. When approaching Union Station you have the choice of staying to the inside lane and circling around to the station, or you can dismount your bicycle and walk straight across on the pedestrian crosswalk.


The Potomac River region is characterized in the summer by considerable warm weather including at least several hot, humid periods. Relative humidity varies inversely with temperature — high in the morning and low in the afternoon. The heaviest precipitation occurs in the summer, though this is the season when severe droughts are the most frequent. Principal sources of moisture are the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. May, June, July and August make up the thunderstorm season, with July being the peak.

Updated: Dec 22, 2017

Updates to Recently Released Maps

If you are planning a bike tour, be sure to get the most recent map updates and corrections for your route by selecting the route, and the appropriate section(s), from the drop-down menu below.

Over time maps become less useful because things change. Every year Adventure Cycling’s Routes and Mapping Department create map updates and corrections for every map in the Adventure Cycling Route Network, which now totals 52,047 miles. With the help of touring cyclists like you, we receive updates on routing, services, camping, and contact information. Until we can reprint the map with the new information, we verify the suggested changes and publish corrections and updates here on our website.

PLEASE NOTE: Covid has been particularly hard on the small businesses along our routes. While we do our best to keep the maps and these online updates current, you may encounter more closed businesses and longer stretches with limited or no services.

Refer to these updates for the most current information we have and submit reports of changes to the Route Feedback Form for the cyclists coming after you.

NOTE: Map updates and corrections only pertain to long term changes and updates. For short term road closures, please see the Adventure Cycling’s Routes Temporary Road Closures discussion in our Forums.