I recently flew into Washington DC to take a road trip from there to West Virginia. I happened to fly in on Earth Day and knew that I wanted to spend some time outside enjoying nature to celebrate Earth Day. Since it was also National Park week, I took a look at the National Park Service website to find somewhere new to explore along my drive. I ended up finding a great park that is part of the National Park Service and just a half hour drive from Washington DC.
Great Falls Park is the perfect spot if you are looking to get out into nature and check out a great waterfall near Washington DC. The main feature of the park, the Great Falls, consists of rapids and waterfalls along the Potomac River that fall into Mather Gorge. The falls sit in between the states of Virginia and Maryland and can be viewed from parks located in each state, both of which are part of the National Park Service. In Maryland, the falls can be viewed from the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park and in Virginia they can be viewed from Great Falls Park. This post will focus on Great Falls Park in Virginia.
Great Falls History: It’s been said that the falls formed 35,000 years ago during the last glacial period. Also located at the park are the remains of the Patowmack Canal which was a project by United States first president, George Washington. The construction of the canal began in 1785 and was completed by 1802. The canal was only in operation for 26 years. In 1930, the area was authorized to be preserved as a park. Over the years, there has been an amusement park on the site as well as a couple of carousels. In 1966, the park became part of the National Park Service.
Great Falls Floods: The falls include multiple 20 foot waterfalls and cascading rapids with a total drop of 76 feet. Prior to the falls, the Potomac River is 1000 feet wide, but once the water goes over the falls, the river narrows to between 60 and 100 feet as it flows thru Mather Gorge. This narrowing of the river coupled with alot of rainfall or a huge snowmelt has been the cause of many floods over the years. The floods get so bad that it causes the falls to essentially disappear underwater.
There have also been a number of floods where the water has risen over the cliffs into the park. Inside the park there is a marker for these major floods. It’s hard to imagine water getting this high! For reference, I’m 5 foot 2 and the top mark was definitely well above my head.
Below is a list from highest to lowest of the major floods and their causes
- March 18-19, 1936: Rapid snowmelt and torrential rains
- October 15-17, 1942: 10-19 inches of rain falling in the area
- June 21-24, 1972: Rains from Hurricane Agnes
- April 26-27, 1937: Heavy rainfall
- January 19-22, 1996: Rapid snowmelt and rains after the Blizzard of 96
- November 4-7, 1985: Rains from Tropical Storm Juan
- September 6-8, 1996: Rains from Tropical Storm Fran. This flood came up to the base of the marker.
It always amazes me how much water can pile up, I can’t even imagine it reaching these levels.
Things to do at Great Falls Park: Great Falls Park is an outdoor lovers paradise with so much to do. I was short on time, but could have easily spent a good portion of the day in the park.
Great Falls Overlooks: The must do activity in the park is to check out the falls. There are three overlooks to get a few different vantage points of the falls. The first overlook is the closest to the falls and includes a little rock climbing at some parts of the overlook. If you are with kids, you might want to bypass this overlook as it could be dangerous for kids.
The other two overlooks are completely accessible and great for the entire family. There are paved paths to each overlooks and views are just as beautiful.
Kayaking: The rapids below the falls are a very popular place for white water kayaking. With rapids that range from class II to class V, it’s definitely a place for the experienced kayaker. For those of you who are like me and not sure you could handle these class of rapids, it’s definitely a great place to watch those that are brave enough. I could have spent all day watching the two kayakers who were in the water on that chilly day I was visiting.
Check out my video I took below:
Hiking: Great Falls Park includes 15 miles of hiking trails. The trails range from easy to hard and some can also be used for biking and horseback riding. Since I was tight on time while visiting the park, I decided to hike a portion of one of the trails.
The River Trail is rated moderate to hard and follows the Potomac along the cliffs above for 1.5 miles. The trail can get quite difficult in spots as you are along the edge of the cliff 25-75 feet above Mather’s Gorge. I didn’t make it to that difficult spot, but the parts of the trail I did hike were just beautiful.
Along the trail they also had signs pointing out important features of the trail like these potholes in the rock pictured below. These holes were caused during erosion due to flooding during in the Ice Ages.
Some of the other popular hikes include the following:
Patowmack Canal Trail: An easy 1.25 mile trail that follows the ruins of the canal and also goes by the three overlooks of the falls.
Old Carriage Road: This easy to moderate 1.6 mile trail is mostly flat and wooded making for a great hike on a hot summer day.
Difficult Run Trail: This short .7 mile trail is rated as moderate. It follows a stream down to the Potomac river and can be quite narrow and rocky in spots.
Picnic Area: Great Falls Park also makes for a great location for a picnic. There are many picnic tables available to enjoy. Some of which have a great view of the falls. If you don’t want to bring your own food in, on the weekends starting in mid-April there will be a food truck selling food. There is also vending machines available for snacks.
Visitor Center: The visitor center is currently closed, but when it is open it has a 10 minute video presentation on the park, exhibits, interactive children’s room and trail maps available.
Great Falls Park is located in McLean, VA about a half hour from Washington DC. If you are visiting on a weekend, make sure to get there early as the parking lot does tend to fill up on weekends and there is no street parking available.
The park is open every day but Christmas from 7am until a half hour after sunset. Entrance fees are $20 per car or if you are arriving on foot, bike or horse back it’s $10 per person. The fee is for 7 days of use. There is also an annual pass available for $35. As the park is part of the National Park Service, the America the Beautiful Passes are also accepted.
If you are visiting Washington DC and want to get out in nature somewhere close by, Great Falls Park is the perfect spot.