Located just 15 miles from the Nation's capital, the Great Falls of the Potomac (so named by the first European colonists) is considered the most spectacular natural landmark in the DC metropolitan area. Here, the Potomac River builds up speed and force as it falls over a series of steep, jagged rocks and flows through a narrow gorge.
Great Falls Park stretches along almost 2 miles of the Virginia side of the Potomac providing a series of trails and overlooks from which to view the falls and the gorge. Administered by the National Park Service, Great Falls Park also preserves the remains of the Potowmack Canal.
The canal was initiated by George Washington as a way to link the upper Potomac and the Ohio River Valley to Washington and the Chesapeake. It was later surpassed by the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. Great Falls Park offers numerous recreational activities: bird watching, climbing, cross-country skiing, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, kayaking, nature walks, and whitewater rafting.
The park is open every day except December 25. The park opens at 7 a.m. and closes at dark.
Visitor Center and bookstore hours are: 10:00am-4:00pm daily
(Note: Many places fill to capacity on busy, nice weather days, especially holiday weekends. Please call ahead or visit the official website to get the most up-to-date information before visiting.)
An entrance fee is required:
Great Falls Park Visitor Center: The Visitor Center is within walking distance of the falls overlooks. Videos on the history of Great Falls and George Washington shown on request. Ask at the visitor center desk.
Falls Overlooks: The Great Falls of the Potomac can be viewed within a short walk of the visitor center. The overlooks date to the early 20th century when the land was a private amusement park, and Washington, D.C., residents arrived by train.
Ranger-led programs: Join a National Park Ranger for a tour of the park. These include history and nature walks to points of interest, and Overlook talks at the scenic Overlook #2. Daily programs are always posted in the visitor center and outside bulletin boards, or call (703) 285-2966.
Park Trails: Great Falls Park has 15 miles of trails for hiking and exploring. Along the blue-blazed River Trail are places to view the rugged Potomac River and Mather Gorge. A park trail map and a self-guiding brochure for the Patowmack Canal Trail are available at the Visitor Center. Five miles of multiple use trails provide for horseback riding and bicycling.
Picnicking: Picnic tables and some grills are available but cannot be reserved. There are no picnic shelters. You may bring your own grill, but please use charcoal or artificial fuels. The picnic area is near the visitor center
Other activities include:
Great Falls Park is home to the impressive rapids that Captain John Smith saw on June 25, 1608.
Smith and his crew spent four weeks exploring the Potomac River and meeting numerous American Indian tribes—some hostile, some friendly.
He reported meeting a hunting party “well loaden with flesh of bears, deer, and other beasts, whereof we had part."
Smith and his men portaged their small boat overland from Little Falls in search of a silver mine, which they never found. The spectacular views at Great Falls were probably small consolation.
Suspending the search for precious metals and minerals, Smith nailed a brass cross to a tree near the falls and headed back down the Potomac.