About the Basin

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About the Basin: Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

June 17, 2022

Photo Credit: David Brossard, Do You Know the Way to Harpers Ferry (Flickr)

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, and its dramatic history, have been explored and extolled by many and for good reason. The town is steeped in history, and it is evident as you walk through the historic village with its living history storefronts and gaze upon the imposing cliffs across the river.

Harpers Ferry sits at the confluence of the Shenandoah and the Potomac rivers in West Virginia. It also “sits at the confluence of history and nature” (National Park Service). It is said that history repeats itself, and that is no different for this small town perched at the meeting spot of two large rivers. Few people have made the area home in the past few hundred years, but the transportation possibilities and natural resources meant,  “The region was used as a highway, a hunting ground, and a place for raiding and trade,” according to a 2017 NPS Report. The Tuscarora and Shawnee tribes built temporary villages in the area, and it was where Catawba and Delaware tribes would clash.

After a series of treaties, broken promises, and finally, the French and Indian War, the indigenous population moved West and European settlers eventually moved into the area in the early eighteenth century.  It continued to be a place of transition as it was repeatedly razed by floods, fires, and war. The people were resilient and continued to populate the area, build up the town, and then rebuild after disaster strikes.

The area is best known for the raid by the abolitionist John Brown, which was considered a pivotal step towards civil war. The town was torn apart by the Civil War. It changed hands, from Confederate to the Union forces, eight times during the war.  A beacon of hope that came from the ashes of war was the development of Storer College, a post-war institute of higher education for formally enslaved people. Supported by the Freewill Baptists, Storer College used many of the wartime buildings to grow their campus. Beyond education, the college provided a sense of community. The college closed its doors in 1955 but you can still explore the former campus.

In addition to history, the Park provides access to the Appalachian Trail/C&O Canal Tow Path by way of an adventurous pedestrian bridge next paralleling a busy railway over the Potomac River. Take a detour off the tow path and hike up to Maryland Heights for a stunning view of the town and the rivers.

Each Saturday and Sunday throughout the summer, you can join National Park Service staff as they tell “The Story Behind the Scenery.”

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About the Basin: Gunston Hall

Gunston Hall

June 3, 2022

Trees on either side of a path at Gunston Hall, Lorton, Va.

Photo credit: Craig Fildes, Flickr

If you like your hiking with a healthy serving of history, then George Mason’s Gunston Hall is the place for you. The Founding Father’s home is situated along Gunston Cove where Pohick and Accotink Creek meet the Potomac River along the Virginia shoreline. This area is the native land of both the Piscataway and Doeg tribes.

Gunston Hall may not have the grandeur of other Founding Father’s homes, but it also doesn’t have the crowds and traffic. It is a low-key experience that is rich in history and nature. Purchase a $5 pass to explore the grounds which portray the high stature of George Mason with graceful European-style landscaping. A $10 pass will get you access to both the museum and the grounds, which are open from 9:30 am to 6:00 pm.

The website offers short snippets to read or listen to while you wonder the grounds. Up for exploration is the kitchen, the dairy, the laundry facilities, the quarters where enslaved people lived, the school house, and more. After traveling through history, enjoy a little nature by choosing one of the three short hiking trails. The Bluebird trail takes you on a tour of the bluebird boxes, while the Bluff Trail and River Trail are a bit more difficult but offer beautiful views of the Gunston cove and the Potomac River.

Summer Saturdays at the hall provide a themed event with a different theme each Saturday. These drop-in days hold archaeology, gardening, food, and other historical programs.

Looking for more activities in the area? Gunston Hall is near Mason Neck Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

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About the Basin: Buchanan State Forest

Buchanan State Forest

Looking for history, hiking, adventures, and a beautiful view in one easy stop? The Buchanan State Forest in south central Pennsylvania is the place to be. The land straddles the northern edge of the Potomac River basin. One side of the mountain range drains to the Potomac while the other side drains to the Susquehanna.


Boy riding into an abandoned tunnel. Lush vegetation on both sides of the trail.

Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike – Pike 2 Bike Trail

The 69,703-acres of dense forest contains ample United States history. This includes the remnants of a road used to supply British troops during the French and Indian War, a saltpeter mill used during the American Revolution, cemeteries from the antebellum era, and a CCC camp that housed conscientious objectors and German prisoners of war during World War II. The hometown of our 15th president, James Buchanan, is nearby at the compact Buchanan Birthplace State Park where you’ll find a monument to the president as well as picnic areas and a fishing stream with native brook trout.

When the Pennsylvania Turnpike first opened in 1940, two of the tunnels were one-way. Seeing the error of their ways, authorities abandoned the tunnels in favor of a more expedient bypass. The abandoned section is now known as the Pike 2 Bike Trail, an 8-mile stretch of slightly-eerie, graffiti-ridden trail that includes the abandoned tunnels.


The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) provides several maps for recreation in the area, including ATV trails, snowmobiling trails, and cross-country ski trails. There is a wide variety of hiking trails to choose from depending on your interests and skill-level. The short and easy Sideling Hill History Trail leads to an almost 200-year old aqueduct. Most trails allow mountain biking and horseback riding. Hunting and fishing are permitted throughout the state forest (with the right license and within season). Native brook trout can be found in several streams and DCNR stocks some of the streams.

Primitive campsites are available for tents, hike-in or RVs. The sites are free but require a Camping Permit.

The many high mountain ridges provide a variety of scenic overlooks, including the aptly named Big Mountain Overlook. Most of the vistas are accessible by car which make it a popular place for leaf peepers searching for dramatic fall colors.

Feel like getting your hands dirty? Grab your gloves and clippers and join the Friends of Buchanan State Forest (find them on Facebook) for their monthly Trail Work Days.

Headed to the Buchanan State Forest for your weekend adventure? Tag us on social media and let us know what you think!

Sign up for our newsletter and like us on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to learn more about the Potomac River basin.

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About the Basin: Caledon State Park

This National Natural Landmark is 2,587-acres along the banks of the tidal Potomac River in King George, Virginia.

A gravelly beach along the Potomac River.

Caledon State Park by Virginia State Parks License CC BY 2.0

Visitors love the well-maintained trails with plenty of easy, moderate, and difficult levels to choose from. Park staff offer a variety of fun and informational events from full moon kayak tours to fossil finding adventures.

At one point in history sharks roamed the park. At least when the park was underwater during prehistoric times. In modern times people enjoy spending a day looking for the dental remains of the prehistoric sharks along the shore of the river.

The park boasts more than 200 species of birds, but bald eagles are the crown jewel of Caledon State Park birding. The area has the largest concentration of the national icon on the East Coast and as many as 60 eagles have been spotted in the park. The staff holds several eagle tours throughout the year. Check out their Events page to find an upcoming option.

The park offers 6 campsites that are available as hike-in, bike-in or paddle-in only. They are first come first serve. Call (800)933-7275 to reserve your spot since the online reservation system will not work for these spots. The camp sites are part of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, a series of water trails that trace the voyage of the English explorer. The sites are located roughly 3-miles from the parking lot, so be prepared to pack or bike in supplies, including drinking water. This is the tidal Potomac, the water is brackish and therefore too salty to drink.

A welcoming visitor’s center is open 10:00am – 4:00pm, Wednesday through Sunday. They provide historic information, maps, and advice on how best to enjoy the park. Please note that park staff request that unvaccinated visitors must wear face coverings inside all park facilities and where social distancing is not possible.

Caledon State Park is one place you need to look both up and down to enjoy everything the park has to offer. You may spot a bald eagle soaring above or spot a shark tooth along the shore, but either way, you will enjoy your day at the park.

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About the Basin: Piscataway Creek

Piscataway Creek

We’re switching gears for this week’s About the Basin. Instead of extolling the virtues of a nature reserve or state park, we’ll be travelling down a short stream just south of Washington, D.C. called Piscataway Creek and discovering all the natural and historical treasures it has to offer.
Beginning just north of Rosaryville, Maryland, the Piscataway runs just 4.5 miles long. The headwaters pass through Piscataway Creek Stream Valley Park. This park is difficult to access and has few trails. However, if you are in the area, stop by Cosca Regional Park. The main feature of this park is Lake Cosca, which runs into Butler Branch, a tributary of Piscataway Creek. Boat rentals and overnight camping are available in this 690-acre park near Clinton, Md.
About the time Piscataway Creek flows under Indian Head Highway (Route 210), it opens-up into an embayment that provides a variety of recreational opportunities, including hiking, boating, fishing, and educational adventures. The Piscataway Creek Trail can be found on the north side of the embayment. The highlight of this park is a short, easy hike with beautiful views of the river. Just west of the trail is Fort Washington Marina which offers two boat ramps and lots of parking.
Beyond the recreational opportunities, this area is rich with history. The mouth of the river is directly across from George Washington’s Mount Vernon and is largely protected because of its view of this historic piece of land. But long before George Washington dug a hoe into the ground, the Native Americans considered the area a special place. Many organizations work to preserve the history of this creek and its embayment.
On the west side of the marina is Fort Washington Park, one of the few forts still in its original form along the east coast of the United States. An important Potomac River stronghold, this fort showcases how it has adapted to the advances in artillery, ships, and warfare over the past two centuries.
Across the creek from the fort is National Colonial Farm at Piscataway Park, managed by the Accokeek Foundation. In addition to a boat ramp, hiking trails, arboretum, and forest restoration projects, the park hosts a living history farm from the colonial period. Visit the farm to learn what it was like to live as a middle-class family before the American revolution (spoiler alert: they didn’t have wifi!).
Just west of National Colonial Farm is Alice Ferguson Foundation’s Hard Bargain Farm, an environmental center focused on sustainable agriculture and cultural heritage. Most of the farm’s programs are for local students and teachers, but the center occasionally opens to the public for special events, such as last Saturday’s Pinot on the Potomac.
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About the Basin, Peculiar Potomac Edition: Waffle Rock

Waffle Rock

About the Basin, Peculiar Potomac Edition

A large rock with a waffle-like pattern on one side. Photo Credit: mdmarkus66,

Photo Credit: mdmarkus66,

Last week’s About the Basin covered the Jennings Randolph Lake near Elk Garden, West Virginia. This week’s article takes a closer look at a geological phenomenon known as Waffle Rock. This interesting rock stands guard at the West Virginia Overlook above Jennings Randolph Lake.

This massive rock has a large waffle-pattern on one side. Some have claimed it is evidence of visitors from another planet, some say it is the scale pattern of a ginormous lizard, and others say it is just an interesting geological formation. We’re going with the “geological formation” theory.

Several hundred million years ago, according to ICPRB hydrogeologist, Jim Palmer, “Joints opened up in the soft sandstone and allowed iron rich water to seep into cracks and form cement around sand particles.” This cemented sand is highly weather resistant. Regular sandstone is not. The soft sandstone eroded away from the rock while the grid-like pattern of the hard sandstone remained, creating a waffle-y rock.

The rock was originally part of a larger formation that broke off some point in the past few hundred million years. It ended up near Shaw, West Virginia, the ill-fated town that is now at the bottom of Jennings Randolph Lake. The rock had geological (and, according to the story, sentimental) value. Before the lake was filled in during the early 1980’s, the rock was moved to its final resting place. It now welcomes tourists and locals alike to ponder the deeper things in life while overlooking the scenic Jennings Randolph Lake.

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About the Basin: Jennings Randolph Lake

Jennings Randolph Lake

Less than 3 hours west of the Washington metropolitan area lies a massive man-made lake with a storied past. Tucked into the Allegany Mountains of West Virginia, Jennings Randolph Lake sits over land that was once a small town called Shaw. In 1981, the residents moved out and water moved in.

As part of the North Branch of the Potomac River, these are the source waters for the 5.1 million people in the Washington metropolitan area. In times of drought, the lake serves as an emergency reservoir to many downstream. In addition to water supply, the project was constructed for flood risk management, water quality, low flow augmentation, and recreational opportunities. The dam was constructed, and is still managed by, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).

But Jennings Randolph is more than just a place to store water for thirsty people downstream. The 4,500 acres of land and water is a recreational hub with an impressive variety of activities. These include boating, camping, waterskiing, scuba-diving, hiking, swimming, archery, birding, hunting, whitewater rafting, and record-breaking fishing.

Walleye is regularly stocked in Jennings Randolph. Patience is required though, as they are known for being large, but also wily and difficult to find in the lake. Smallmouth bass, trout, bluegill, and catfish abound.

The Howell Run Picnic Area is a picturesque picnic spot overlooking the lake. It offers several shelters for rent, many picnic tables, trails, bathrooms, fishing, and more.

A trail from the picnic area leads to a swimming spot known as Shaw Beach. This sandy beach is a great place to soak up the rays while the kids play in the water.

A 3D archery course is available if you are looking for more adventures. The course is for both beginners and advanced shooters, but you will need to bring your own bow.

During the spring (and occasionally during the summer), USACE releases enough water from the dam to make Class I, II, and III rapids in an area below the dam known as Barnum Whitewater Area. The release schedule for the year is posted online.

Whether you are looking for a day on the water, a day on the beach, or even bigger adventures, Jennings Randolph Lake has something for everyone.

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About the Basin: Fairfax Stone State Park

Fairfax Stone State Park

A white, aged plaque that tells the story of Fairfax Stone.

Photo by West Virginia State Parks

Fairfax Stone State Park, near Davis, West Virginia, has no boating, no hiking, and no camping. It does not even have a restroom. In fact, it is a diminutive 4-acre park.  However, it has immense importance to the Potomac River and the history of the region.

A spring, marked by an organized pile of mossy rocks, is the beginning of the North Branch of the Potomac River. A mere 383 miles downriver, that trickle transforms into the 11-mile wide mouth of the Potomac River, spilling into the Chesapeake Bay.

Before the American Revolution, it was the tradition that English kings would reward loyal friends with large parcels of land in the territories. A plaque on a six-ton rock at the entrance of the park commemorates the western boundary of land granted to Lord Fairfax by King Charles II of England in 1746.

A large stone with a plaque that tells the story of Fairfax Stone.

Photo by West Virginia State Parks

His bounty was, “bounded by and within the heads of the Rivers Rappahannock and Patawomecke”. Known as Fairfax Stone, it is one of the oldest markers in the United States. This plot of land has been part of many boundary disputes.

There may not be many amenities in this charming park, but it is a good reminder that even the largest rivers start as a trickle.

Camping and other amenities can be found at the nearby Canaan Valley Resort State Park and Blackwater Falls State Park.


Photo of a map showing the Fairfax Stone state park in the west and Washington, D.C. in the east.

Photo from Google maps.

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About the Basin: Brunswick Family Campground

Brunswick Family Campground

Four kayakers are seen from behind as they paddle down the Potomac River near Brunswick, Md.

Kayakers paddle down the Potomac River from the Brunswick Family Campground boat ramp.

For many families, the Brunswick Family Campground in Brunswick, Maryland is a summertime tradition. Whether you are a hiker, biker, kayaker, history buff, or train enthusiast, there is something for everyone at this campground along the C&O Canal Park.

This campground is known for two things: access to the river and trains. Campers launch from the boat ramp for a paddle down the Potomac River. Organize boat rentals and transportation with camp staff. Some campers park their beach chair in the shallow waters along the edge to cool-off on a hot day.

Train enthusiasts can enjoy the trains that come rumbling down the tracks along the campground throughout the day. Don’t forget your earplugs for the nighttime rumbles! Learn more about the town’s rich transportation history at the Brunswick Heritage Museum.

Plan to spend a few days exploring the area. The historical powerhouses, Harpers Ferry National Park, Antietam National Park, and Monocacy National Battlefield are all an easy drive from the campground.

One of the perks of staying at a campground managed by River & Trail Outfitters is that many of their boating trips launch directly from the boat ramp at the campground. They offer a variety of adventures along the Potomac River, including an upcoming Sunset Float and Moonrise Paddle Tour on July 21. We would like to thank River & Trail Outfitters for their help as “river watchers” for ICPRB’s weekly newsletter, River Watch.

Going out on the Potomac River this weekend? Show us how much you love the Potomac by using #PotomacLove in your social media posts!

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About the Basin, Peculiar Potomac Edition: Foamhenge


Several large blocks of foam backlit by the sun. They are arranged to look like Stonehenge.

Foamhenge at Cox Farms

In celebration of the beginning of summer, this week’s About the Basin covers an internationally known pile of rocks that honors the summer solstice.  No, not Stonehenge, but the lesser known -henge this side of the pond: Foamhenge.

At Foamhenge, the life-size blocks of foam are chiseled, painted, and arranged to be an exact replica of the slightly-more-famous prehistoric wonder of the world, Stonehenge, in Wiltshire, England. However, this one is closer to home.

Located at Cox Farms, Foamhenge is less than an hour’s drive from the D.C. Metro Area. This homage to Stonehenge is open to the public on Saturdays (12:00-2:00pm) during the summer and spring seasons. Admission to this quintessential American roadside attraction is free but only accessible via a shuttle provided by the farm. Part of the weekly event called “Smokin’ Saturdays”, farm activities also include food, feeding farm animals, produce, and live music. Over-sized games of Yahtzee, Jenga, Connect 4, and Checkers are also available for entertaining the whole family.  This weekend, check out Foamhenge for a European-style staycation and marvel at the wonders that the Potomac basin have to offer right here at home.