Great Falls Park and Great Falls of the Potomac River

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Lightbox (34) Tags: great-falls-park   landmarks   parks   usa   virginia Posted: Aug. 11, 2007 by Vassilik

Great Falls Facts

Great Falls with low water in summer

Great Falls with low water in summer

Great Falls Map

Great Falls Map

Many people consider the Great Falls of the Potomac River to be the most spectacular natural landmark in the Washington D.C. area. This dramatic scene makes Great Falls Park, located about fifteen miles from the Nation's Capital, a popular site with local residents and tourists from around the world who are visiting the Washington area. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the landscape of the area is mostly the result of erosion by the Potomac River during the past 5 million years. The geologic history of the falls is an interesting one. After the last ice age, the ocean levels dropped, forcing the Potomac River to carve deeper in its path to the sea. The overlying rock was eroded away exposing a much harder, resistant rock formation. This hard layer is principally made up of metamorphic and igneous rock, and may be seen throughout the park.

Today, at Great Falls, the Potomac starts its rapid descent to sea level. At this place the Potomac River narrows from nearly 1000 feet, just above the falls, to between 60 and 100 feet wide as it rushes through Mather Gorge, a short distance below the falls. The waters of the river gather speed as they are forced through the narrow Mather Gorge and cascade over a series of several 20-foot falls - a total of 76 feet in elevation over a distance of less than a mile, making the Great Falls of the Potomac the steepest fall line rapids of any river in the eastern United States.

Patowmack Canal, remnants of locks

Patowmack Canal, remnants of locks

Human history of this place is not as long as the geological one, but nonetheless is perhaps even more interesting. In particular, it is closely related to George Washington who had a dream of making Potomac River navigable as far as the Ohio River Valley. This dream started materializing when in 1784 both, Virginia and Maryland state assemblies established a company to build a canal and make the river navigable from Georgetown to Cumberland, Maryland. Such company, the Patowmack Company, was created in 1785 and George Washington became its first president. Shallow areas were improved by removing large rocks and debris, along with dredging some areas. Five bypasses and canals were engineered - at Little Falls, Great Falls, Seneca Falls, Shenandoah Falls, and House Falls. The most difficult task turned out to be engineering and building of a canal to bypass the Great Falls of the Potomac. Its construction began the same year, but it took almost seventeen years to complete: difficult geology, dangerous currents, financial problems, shortages of skilled labor - all of these factors contributed to significant delays in construction. As a result if this effort, five locks were build and the canal became operational in 1801.

A small town appeared near the construction site. It was named Matildaville by its founder Harry Lee, the Revolutionary War hero, in honor of his wife, Matilda. However, neither town nor the canal had any future. Revenues from operations were very small and could not even cover interests on the company debt - not a surprise since in reality the canal was used not more than two months a year due to the extremes of high and low water and related navigating problems. Canal stopped its operations in 1828 with assets and liabilities assumed by the newly formed Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company. The latter completely abandoned the Patowmack Canal in 1830 for another canal, this time on the Maryland side of the river.

Great Falls Park entrance

Great Falls Park entrance

High water is both, spectacular and scary

High water is both, spectacular

In the early 1900's, two entrepreneurs, John McLean and Steven Elkins, acquired the lands surrounding Great Falls and built an amusement park. Tourists traveled along a trolley from Georgetown to the park to see the spectacular Great Falls. Included in the park were overlook decks, an observation tower, a dance pavilion, a night light show, a wooden carousel, and a Lovers Lane along the Patowmack Canal ruins. The famous Dickey's Inn provided lodging and exquisite dinners. The amusement park was an instant overnight success. Trolley cars were often full, selling five tickets for 25 cents. After the coming of the automobile and several floods which severely damaged the park's structures, the amusement park was closed and faded into history. The land was bought by the Potomac Edison Power Company (PEPCO) with plans to construct a hydroelectric dam. However, due to the hydrology and geology of the area, the site at Great Falls was determined to be unfit for hydroelectric development. Fairfax County Park Authority leased the land and continued operating as a park, allowing the public to visit the Great Falls and ride the carousel.

In 1930 Congress designated this place of human history and natural landmark as a park, and in 1966 the U.S. National Park Service acquired the lands and became responsible for its management. In 1968 the visitor center was built. Today, the Maryland side of the gorge is part of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, and the Virginia side is part of Great Falls Park. The Mather Gorge was named after Stephen Tyng Mather, the first director of the National Park Service. Remnants of the canal and its locks as well as of a village around the canal are still visible in the park.

About half a million people come to Great Falls Park each year. It offers many recreational opportunities, from a picnic with family and friends, to a hike along the Potomac River. The river itself with its frequent floods depositing new silt and seeds creates a dynamic environment, home to rare plants and a variety of wildlife including over 160 different species of birds ( among them ducks, geese, herons, songbirds, woodpeckers, vultures, and kingfishers). The size of the park is 800 acres most of which are forested. The park has fifteen miles of hiking, biking, and horseback riding trails. All vehicles are restricted to the entrance road and three parking lots only and may not drive on any park trail or enter the picnic area. Unloading zones are located next to the picnic area, just off the main entrance road. Current entrance fees (2007) for private vehicles are $5.00 per car. An annual pass may be purchased for $20.

Great Blue Heron is one of many birds you can find in the area

Great Blue Heron is one of
many birds you can find in
the area

Great Falls, Mather Gorge

Great Falls, Mather Gorge

There are many opportunities for outdoor recreation at Great Falls Park. Perhaps, hiking is the most popular activity in the park - a walk along the Potomac or through the woods on one of the park’s trails offers a glimpse into the natural scenery. Five of the hiking trails are multi-use for horseback riding, hiking, and biking. Trail maps are available at both the entrance station and the Visitor Center. Ranger-led programs are offered throughout the year. Hikers who walk may enjoy lower entrance fees of $3.00 per person. Annual passes are available at the entrance station. Unfortunately, we should also mention one important circumstance that can spoil your hiking in the park - in some places you can experience a strong smell of outdated sewage system that goes through the park. Most of it is underground; however, a number of ventilation openings are located in the park spreading an unpleasant odor. You should avoid the first part of the Old Carriage Road if you do not want to be exposed to this experience (use instead the Swamp Trial - see next page for more details).

The weather in the Washington DC area varies with the season. Summers can be very hot with temperatures in the 90's or higher, often with high humidity. However, wooded areas in Great Falls Park, proximity to the water and pleasant breeze smooth the summer heat and make you staying in the park more pleasant. It's not unusual that the temperature in park can be up to 6 - 7 degrees lower than on I-495 (Capital Beltway). Winter time temperatures can vary from mild to very cold with at times strong winds making you feel like it's even colder. Also, trails can be covered with snow and ice which may make them very difficult to pass.

While hiking and, anyway in the park, the most important attraction is Great Falls. The three Falls overlooks are within a two to five minute walk from the Visitor Center. Overlooks #2 and #3 are accessible and have ramps that go down to the overlook platforms. Among all trials, the River Trail offers the best opportunities to view the Potomac River. This trail can be accessed downstream from Overlook #3. Walking upstream from the Visitor Center will take you along the banks of the Potomac, eventually meeting up with trails in Riverbend Park. If you do not like hiking, you can just have a picnic at special designated areas equipped with grills. Picnic tables and grills are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. There are no covered shelters and reservations are not accepted. You must bring you own wood for the grill since collecting wood for fires is prohibited.

Rock climbing is another activity at the park

Rock climbing is another
activity at the park

Kayaking is one the most popular sport activities at Great Falls

Kayaking is one the most popular
sport activities at Great Falls

Hiking is not the only activity in the park. With five miles of designated trails, including the Old Carriage Road, Ridge, and Difficult Run trails, biking is another way of exploring the park (biking is not permitted on the River, Patowmack Canal, or Matildaville Trails). The park has also about ten miles of multi-use trails open for riding (trail rides are not offered by the park). Trails open to horseback riding are the Old Carriage Road, Difficult Run, Matildaville, and Ridge Trails. Riding is not permitted on the Patowmack Canal Trail and River Trail. Entrance fees for bike and horse riders are $3.00 per person if coming into the park on a bicycle or horseback. Horse trailer fees are the standard vehicle fee of $5.00.

Whitewater boating and climbing are two other activities for which Great Falls Park is known. The Potomac River has many challenging currents, standing waves, and hydraulics and extreme caution must be exercised while on the river. For boating purposes, sections of the river in the Great Falls are categorized from moderately easy (class 2) to extreme (class 6). Access to the river is difficult. All boaters must enter the river below the falls in Fisherman's Eddy, between Overlooks 1 and 2, and in AA Gorge. The Virginia shoreline above the falls is closed to boating. Climbing sites begin downstream of Overlook #2 and end near the emergency boat ramp at Sandy Landing, and climbing is not permitted in other places. Difficulty ranges from 5.0 up to the highest rated climbs at 5.14. Most of the routes are in the 5.5 to 5.9 range. All climbing is top-rope and no anchors may be drilled into the rock.

Note, that while in the park, you should follow park regulations. Here is a brief summary regarding what you can and cannot do:

  • Great Falls is a day use park only, park hours are from 7 a.m. to dark, year-round. The Visitor Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. daily, with extended hours during the spring and summer months.
  • Vehicles are not permitted on any unpaved road, and may not be driven into the picnic area.
  • Alcohol is not permitted in the park.
  • Pets must be on leash.
  • Swimming, wading, and entering the river in any manner are prohibited year round.
  • Do not attempt to feed or touch wildlife.
  • Stay on trails.

No matter what kind of activities you are involved in the park, you must remember that Great Falls can be a dangerous place, especially when you approach the river. A number of drownings and other health and life threatening accidents take place every year. Because of this, you must follow these simple rules:

  • Dangerous currents, rocks, and rapids make the river extremely hazardous. Rescues from the river itself are difficult. Keep your distance from cliff edges and use caution while hiking in rocky areas.
  • Be alert to natural hazards. Poison ivy, stinging nettle, mosquitoes, stinging insects, spiders, and ticks are all found in the park. Only one type of venomous snake, the copperhead, is found in Great Falls Park.

DIRECTIONS: It's really easy to find your way to Great Falls - the road to the park entrance is located at a point where Old Dominion Drive (738) crosses Georgetown Pike (Route 193). Georgetown Pike starts from Capital Beltway, exit 44 to VA-193 toward Langley/Great Falls VA (4.2 miles from exit 44 to the crossroad). Remember that the busiest times are on nice weekend late mornings and early afternoons. There is usually a line to enter the park on those days.

Old Brogue Pub in Great Falls Village

Old Brogue Pub in Great
Falls Village

Restaurant L'Auberge Chez François

Restaurant L'Auberge Chez

If you intend to spend the whole day in Great Falls Park and would like to find a place to eat, your options are limited: you can use a snack bar located in the Visitor Center courtyard or dine in nearby towns which are McLean (about 5 miles) and Great Falls (about 2 miles). To reach McLean, proceed straight through the traffic light on Old Dominion Drive at the entrance to the park. To reach Great Falls, turn right at the traffic light onto Georgetown Pike. We recommend to go to Great Falls Village (at Walker Rd and Georgetown Pike crossroad) where you can try Old Brogue Pub or drive a couple of more miles to L'Auberge Chez François restaurant which can be a destination by itself with its excellent food.

Great Falls Park and Great Falls of the Potomac River - Part 1
Great Falls Park - Part 2: Great Falls Park Destinations

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