Great Falls National Park

activities / Water sports

Great Falls National Park information

Washington, DC , USA
+1 703 285 2965
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Fourteen miles upriver from DC’s Georgetown, where the central Piedmont meets the coastal plain, the normally placid Potomac cascades 77ft down a series of beautiful, treacherous rapids known as Great Falls. The Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal was constructed to allow barges to bypass the falls. Today there are parks on both sides of the river providing glorious views of the falls, as well as hiking, cycling and picnicking spots. (The entry fee is good for three days at both parks.) The Maryland side hooks up to Georgetown via the C&O Canal Towpath, which is an excellent route for a cycling trip (it’s not paved). On the Virginia side, the falls lie in the 800-acre Great Falls National Park (703-285-2965;; admission per car/cyclist $5/3; park 7am-dusk, visitors center 10am-5pm Jun-Aug, 10am-4pm Sep-May), in the northern part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway in McLean. Several miles of trails wind through the woods and along the falls. In 1785 George Washington’s Patowmack Company built a canal here to circumvent the falls – a 0.75-mile stretch of it remains, and you can explore what’s left on foot. You can also hike among the ruins of Matildaville, a trading town that died in the 1820s as canal business declined. On the Maryland side, the falls are part of C&O Canal National Historical Park , the entrance of which is in the sprawling, wealthy suburb of Potomac. Great Falls Tavern (301-767-3714;; 11710 MacArthur Blvd, Potomac, MD; admission per car/cyclist $5/3, barge ride $5; 9am-5pm), built in 1828, holds the park visitors center, which features exhibits on the history and design of the canal locks. From April to October, the Clipper, a mule-drawn barge, cruises the canal, departing from here several times a day, on Wednesday through Sunday. From the tavern, a half-mile walk down the towpath and across a series of bridges to Olmstead Island leads to the falls overlook, which offers a beautiful view of rugged rock and roaring rapids. (The white-water is dangerous, so keep kids close.) For serious scramblers, the 2-mile Billy Goat Trail traverses mountainous rock crags, and the towpath provides an easy loop back. Other easy loop trails lead through the woods past the remains of gold-mine diggings, prospector’s trenches and overgrown Civil War earthworks. The Great Falls area is ideal for day trips (there aren’t any lodging options in the area)