Great Falls National Park is a waterfall park located on the Potomac River in Northern Virginia. The park features three main overlooks that provide a breathtaking view of the falls. It also has easy hiking trails, ample picnic space, wildlife and nature, rock scrambles, boating, and ruins for American history buffs. It’s a wonderful space for families to gather and enjoy nature at its best.
The Great Falls and Potomac River are visible from both Virginia and Maryland. The Virginia side is encompassed within the Great Falls National Park, and is part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway. The Maryland side is encompassed in the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal National Park, which stretches into Washington, DC and West Virginia. If you’re a local, you’ve probably heard of the Billy Goat Trail, one of the most beloved hiking trails in the DC Metro area. That is located on the Maryland side, which is separated by the Potomac River. Note that there’s no footpath that crosses the Potomac and connects the Maryland and Virginia sides. You must drive from one side of the park to the other.
To enter the park by vehicle, you will pay a per car fee – a good reason to carpool if traveling with a group. Or, if you have an annual America the Beautiful National Parks Pass, you can use it to enter the park instead. There is a one-lane entrance into the park, and on occasion, the line gets backed up for miles. Over Memorial Day weekend, we waited about 30 minutes to get into the gate. Every other time we’ve gone, however, there has been no wait at all.
Right off the parking lot is the Visitor Center. Inside is a small museum about the park, a short film, and a gift shop with a variety of guidebooks on hiking, wildlife and the history of the neighborhood. Helpful park rangers can answer your questions, provide maps and information on guided tours, and help you get a stamp on your National Parks passport. The lower level exterior of the Visitor Center has restrooms and a seasonally operated snack stand.
Once into the park you will see a large swath of open space with picnic tables and grills, making this an ideal place for family gatherings. Pets are welcome subject to these guidelines.
A short distance from the entrance are three main overlooks onto the falls, all within a short walk of each other. “Wow!” is usually the first word that people say when they see the Great Falls. It’s hard to believe that this natural wonder is just 18 miles from the urban snarl of Washington, DC. The first overlook is reached from a rocky path – a fun, but not too challenging rock scramble that kids can manage. The second and third overlooks are handicap and stroller accessible with wide open wooden platforms overlooking the falls. All three overlooks are prime selfie spots. It’s easy to generate a genuine smile with the spectacular landscape behind you.
Take a few moments to soak it all in – the beauty of the rocky landscape, the sounds of water crashing over the falls, and the occasional daredevil kayaker carefully navigating the craggy rocks before plunging into the narrow river. It’s hard not to hold your breath when they come down!
It’s also a fun place to watch birds of prey and shore birds circle their territory and dive for fish. Herons and vultures are common, as well as a few ducks. Look across the river and wave to visitors on the Maryland side.
One of the features I really like about this park are the two handicap and stroller accessible overlooks. Ramps lead you to the wooden viewing platforms. These two overlooks are not far from the entrance of the park, making it ideal not just for those on wheels, but also for those who can’t walk long distances. This is a big plus if you want to share a beautiful day at the park with the elderly or infirmed.
There are fifteen miles of hiking trails at the Park, some of which can also be used for horseback riding and biking. Click here for brochures and maps.
The River Trail follows the Potomac River along the cliffs, allowing more spectacular views below. The river is much more narrow and calm further down the trail from the falls. Much of the trail is shaded, which is a relief on hot summer days, but it is a bit rocky in places and requires steady footing. It’s not steep, just uneven. Along the way, there are ample places to sit on the cliffs and meditate. Every time I see someone sit on the cliffs overlooking the water, a peace and calm washes over their face. It’s like a reflex action.
If you follow along the River Trail you can head back through the center of the park through the forest. There you will come across the ruins of the work of George Washington.
As you’re walking along the park and trails, you’ll see chunks of stone rising out of the grassy fields. But don’t overlook them. These are ruins that trace back to George Washington and our nation’s founding.
Among Washington’s numerous talents, he was also a land surveyor, landowner and entrepreneur. He understood the strategic and commercial significance of using the Potomac River to open trade routes with those living west of the original 13 colonies into the Ohio River Valley. With few good roads available at the time, overland transport was much more costly than water transport. The problem was, how do you get a boat carrying goods over the falls? If you’ve visited the park, it’s easy to see their dilemma. Between of Georgetown and Cumberland, MD, there were five points along the Potomac River that were impassable. The Great Falls presented the biggest challenge. Its 76-foot drop in less than a mile required construction of a bypass canal using a system of locks and dams to reroute the river around the falls, a cutting edge technology that had never been done before in the United States.
Here’s an example of how a canal lock works:
Shortly after the Revolutionary War ended, George Washington and other visionaries resumed their prewar project of forming the Patowmack Company to make the river navigable at these obstructed points. Construction of the canal system began in 1785. In 1790, Revolutionary War hero “Light Horse” Harry Lee formed a little town called Matildaville at the construction site to provide the canal workers and future travelers with food, lodging and entertainment. Records show that they built a superintendent’s house, a gristmill, an inn, a forgery, housing and other supporting structures.
Completed in 1802, the canal was used for shipping goods like flour, whiskey, tobacco and iron. George Washington, who died in 1799, did not live to see its completion. Unfortunately, the Patowmack Company’s risky endeavor did not pay off. The canal was plagued by fluctuating water levels, costly maintenance and repairs, and poorly built transport boats. Under financial distress, the Patowmack Company was absorbed into the Chesapeake and Ohio Company, and the Great Falls canal was abandoned by 1830. Along with it went Matildaville. Eventually, the invention of the railroad made river travel less necessary.
The significance of the Great Falls, however, goes much deeper than its innovative canal. George Washington’s interstate negotiations to form the Patowmack Company exposed the weakness of the Articles of Confederation, and the need to modify them. Ultimately, those discussions led to the Constitutional Convention the adoption of the U.S. Constitution.
While at the Visitor Center, pick up a copy of the Patowmack Canal Trail Guide, or find it online here. The map indicates the points where you will find the ruins of the canal and Matildaville. Numbered wooden markers correspond to the numbers on the map. Signs in the park provide additional information. The most prominent are the ruins of Lock 1, where boats carrying cargo would begin their decent down the outskirts of the falls. Check at the Visitor Center for a guided tour.
In addition to hiking, some trails can be used for horseback riding and bicycling. On the water, you can go whitewater boating, kayaking, and fishing. Swimming, however, is prohibited. The steep rock walls of the gorge offer opportunities for rock climbing. Check the website for more details.
The diverse habitat of forest and river make the park a good location for birding. Find out what birds have been spotted here.