This was to be our final day of a week long visit to the Washington, D.C. area. It had been a great trip but I was a little museumed out and lobbied to get a nature fix on our way to the airport to fly home. With the falls being only17 miles from downtown Washington this jaunt would not be too much of a detour.
Great Falls Park is an 800 acre park with 15 miles of hiking trails. It is managed by the National Park Service but is not a national park. There is a sister park, the Chesapeake and Ohio Historic Park, across the river in Maryland.
While you could not see the falls from the parking lot, if you listened you could hear them to the northeast.
Leaving the parking lot you pass a large visitor center that was not open at the time of our visit due to renovation. The park was busy and there were groups heading out on the numerous trails or picnicking in the grassed area.
Shortly after setting out on the Patowmack Canal path the roar of the falls became louder and we reached the first of three formal overlooks, and got our first views of the falls.
The view was partially obstructed by foliage but eventually we could work our way to better sight lines by climbing up on some higher rocks that were part of the formal viewing area
Form here we got the view captured in the title photo as well as this video.
The video captures the force and roar of the falling water. The Potomac River goes from a width of 1000 feet above the falls, to just 60 to 100 feet as it passes through Mather Gorge. Although it is a series of falls ranging from several to 20 feet, in total the river descends 76 feet over a short distance. When we visited, the region was experiencing a dry late summer and fall, and the water level and volume was considered somewhat low.
On the Virginia side there are three overlooks that occur in short succession. They each give you a slightly different view of the falls. In the photo below you can see people utilizing a viewing area on the Maryland side of the falls.
The views improved as you progressed through the overlooks. At the second overlook you got a more complete view of the breadth of the falls,
and got your first good view of downstream.
I was mesmerized by the water going through the three channel cuts now visible in the center of the river.
At the second overlook I got this video.
Here we could also see a river run entering from the Maryland side with a heron hunting in the churning waters.
The third overlook was the largest and offered 180 degree views of the river from every location.
The rapids here are considered Class V+, on a scale of I-VI; clearly a challenging and dangerous stretch . We did catch this kayaker working his way upstream, but I am not sure if he actually had come down the falls.
This part of the Potomac is considered very dangerous as they average 7 drownings per year and there are numerous signs warning of the risks. I suspect most of those are not kayakers, but rather folks who venture in from the rocky shoreline for a ride on the current.
From here we left the crowds and headed further along the Patowmack Canal Trail.
The Patowmack Canal was started in 1785 with George Washington playing a leading role. The goal was to bypass the Falls of the Potomac and connect the Chesapeake Bay area with the western frontier of the new nation and the Ohio River Valley. Construction of the canal was delayed by financial and labor issues, and done in a piece meal fashion. Much of it was constructed with enslaved labor. It became operational in 1802, but was only utilized for 26 years, ending when its parent company became financially insolvent. An improved canal, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, began operating in 1832 on the Maryland side of the Potomac.
The Patowmack Canal Trail was a well maintained gravel path that left the picnic setting and entered a wood.
The wood hosted some monstrous Sycamores like this one.
Soon we got our first glimpse of some of the remaining stonework from the canal. This was a “bypass stream” that allowed for diversion of water from the canal when the water level needed to be lowered.
Around a bend we came upon other canal remnants. This was a lock site, pictured from two directions.
Just before this was a large holding basin where canal boats could tie off while waiting to work their way through the locks.
And then down a short grade was a more intact lock, complete with a set of stairs that I suspect led up to the lock gate.
I was impressed that these structures were over 220 years old and probably not maintained after the collapse of the parent company, but still relatively intact. The mix use of quarried rock and field stone was interesting.
Shortly after this stone work, we left the Canal Trail and started the River Trail, heading back toward the visitor center. Here the views of the river were from informal stone clifftops. The plant community changed somewhat with Virginia Pine and rather large Musclewoods now being common.
While the river was moving swiftly there were minimal rapids.
We were atop Mather Gorge, the narrowest part of the river, with bluffs rising well above the water. It is named for Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service (1917-1929).
Here some repellers were enjoying the challenge of climbing down the face of the bluff.
This section of the trail offered variety: traversing wetlands,
climbing into and out of a gorge,
and weaving between and over exposed stones, adding a little challenge to the outing. Because we were on our way to the airport we did not have on our hiking footwear.
Then the River Trail hooks back up with the Patowmack Canal Trail in the parkland setting.
As always in nature there are secondary performers who complete the show and that was the case here, where we saw colorful plants associated with the hardscape of the stones that lined the river or on the bluffs above. Those included:
Aster – There are 11 aster species that occur in the area.
Virginia Creeper – always a beautiful source of October red. Here it was clinging to a rock above the largest waterfall.
Sycamore – numerous seedlings were seen trying to find life in the rock crevices along and in the river.
Sea Oats – This plant has many other names including River Oats, Wild Oats, Northern Sea Oats, and Inland Sea Oats. It is common in the partially shaded woods of the region and seen here up on the bluffs.
Coneflower – This is very late blooming for the coneflower family. I could not identify it to a specific species.
In summary, Great Falls Park is well known to DC residents but I think off the beaten path for most tourists. It offers the dynamic energy of the rapids and unmatched beauty of the rugged river valley and its associated ecosystems. I think that it is an excellent change of scenery for someone visiting Washington D.C. and tired of the traffic there. It reportedly can get crowded on weekends and holidays.
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Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns. Video credits to me.
Location – McLean, Virginia
Costs – $10 entry fee per vehicle but National Park passes are accepted.
Parking – Large asphalt lot.
Facilities – In the lower level of visitor center. The restrooms remained open.
Trail Conditions – gravel paths with some exposed stones. Some trip hazards. The Canal Trail was easy, the River Trail Moderate.
Print Map Link –http://npmaps.com/wp-content/uploads/great-falls-map.jpg
Benches – Some seen along the trail. Also large stones to sit on at the overlooks and on the River Trail.
Picnic Tables – Many in the picnic area.
Kids – Kids 4 and over could do well here but may need assistance at the first two overlooks which contain large stones, and on parts of the River Trail.
Dogs – Welcomed on a leash.
Suggested Paired Hikes – There are several other hikes in the park, totaling 15 miles.
Craft Beer – We had an excellent beer and lunch at The Union restaurant in McLean, Virginia.