Washington DC offers photographers plenty of great options for photography. But if you find yourself wanting to get out of the city and to experience nature, you may be surprised that you don’t need to travel very far. Scott’s Run Nature Preserve is a 300+ acre woodland in McLean (Fairfax County), Virginia. It borders the Potomac River just a very short distance from the nation’s capital.
Although it is located in a highly-populated area and very close to Washington, DC, Scott’s Run Nature Preserve provides great access to nature. It features Scott’s Run, which flows into the Potomac River, a waterfall, wildflowers, dense forest, views of the Potomac River, and hiking trails to see it all.
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There are several hiking trails within Scott’s Run, and two parking areas that provide access to the trails. Both parking lots are along Georgetown Pike. The trails are interconnecting, and some are marked better than others. I recommend taking a trail map with you, but it would be hard to get too lost. The Preserve is boxed in with the Potomac on the north side and Georgetown Pike on the south side. Scott’s Run is at the western edge of the park with a major trail running next to the water. To the east you would run into private property or the interstate.
Hiking at Scott’s Run Nature Preserve
While the forest is beautiful and the trails are nice, from a photographic perspective, the most interesting sections are along Scott’s Run and the Potomac, in my opinion. I recommend parking in the lot at the western end, which is right by Scott’s Run. It’s the location where you see “SN1” on the map. At the back of the parking lot there is a wide trail (the Potomac Heritage Trail) that leads along Scott’s Run almost all the way to the Potomac River. Along this trail you can find interesting spots to photograph Scott’s Run. There are a lot or rocks and small cascades that are ideal for photographing. Please note that it is against the rules of the preserve to enter the water.
There are two sections where the trail crosses the water. Concrete blocks are placed so that you can step on them to cross the water (shown below).
About 75% of the way to the river the trail breaks away from Scott’s Run to take you towards a spot where you can view Scott’s Run Waterfall. The waterfall is located where Scott’s Run enters the Potomac. If the river level is high you may be fairly limited in your view of the waterfall. You’ll be able to see the waterfall quite easily, but getting an unobstructed view for a photo may be more of a challenge. You can get the best view by stepping out onto a rock outcropping. There is enough room for a person and a tripod, but barley. Be careful as it would be a steep fall down to the river. If the water level is low you may be able to step around some rocks to get a good view.
The Potomac Heritage Trail then continues along the Potomac River. Along Scott’s Run the trail is wide and mostly flat. Along the river the terrain is much different. There are some steep sections and the trail is very narrow in most places. In some spots you’ll be hiking on a very narrow trail through the forest, and in other places it is rocky with steep drops off the side of the trail leading down to the river. It’s not a difficult hike, but I wouldn’t recommend taking young children on the section of the trail that borders the river because of the steep drops.
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Along the trail there are a few nice spots river good views of the river. One of them is the Stubblefield Falls Overlook. There is a decent view here, but the “falls” are really more like small cascades or rapids.
Near the northeast corner of the preserve the Potomac Heritage Trail turns and heads south, back towards Georgetown Pike. Again, there are a lot of interconnecting trails you can take, but the easiest option is to head towards the Oak Trail and then take the Oak Trail back to the Potomac Heritage Trail near the parking lot. That loop is a little over a two mile hike.
I spent most of my time along Scott’s Run and at the waterfall. The rest of the hike is nice, but the water was the highlight for me. I’d recommend going on a cloudy, overcast day if possible. It was very sunny while I was there and there were a lot of unwanted shadows on Scott’s Run and the waterfall that made the photography more challenging.
Also in the Area
While you’re in the area, Great Falls Park is just a few miles away. The views of the falls at Great Falls Park are quick and easy to access with only a short walk from the parking lot. See our guide to Great Falls Park for more detailed information. Also, all of the Washington, DC attractions are, of course, very close as well. And it’s only about an hour and a half drive from the north entrance to Shenandoah National Park.