Great Falls Park, Mclean, Virginia is a wonderful place to get outside, walk, explore and see some wonders of nature. It’s an area that is famous for the Great Falls themselves on the Potomac River, but the hiking trails throughout the park are a joy to walk along.
We wanted to take in a hike at the same time as seeing the Falls so we started further up the river at Riverbend Park car park.
This allows you to then take in a great 4 mile walk (2 miles each way), along the side the Potomac River rather than using the Great Falls car park and just stepping out to see the Falls.
Great Falls Park is on the south side of the Potomac River in Virginia. The River, Falls and the other side are all technically in Maryland. You are able to see the Falls from the Maryland side as part of the C&O Canal National Historic Park.
The Great Falls
The Great Falls are a sight to behold. A dramatic series of waterfalls crashing down around the rocks of the Potomac River. They are about 14 miles up the river from Washington, DC.
Here, the river falls 76 feet (23 metres) in less than a mile with waterfalls of up to 20 feet each. That makes it a series of waterfalls in one smaller area that create the dramatic sight.
There are 3 overlooks at Great Falls Park that give you incredible views of the falls. Overlook 1 is the nearest to the car park and the falls. Overlooks 2 and 3 give great alternative perspectives and both these are accessible for wheelchairs and other mobility aids.
The Falls formed after the last ice age in the huge floods of melting ice and snow, and with the lowering of sea levels. The river cut through the softer rock and gorged out the river path here where we have much harder rocks that hardly erode at all.
As you walk along the cliff tops beside the falls and gorge you must remember that thousands of years ago this footpath, now way high above the river was physically part of the riverbed. As you walk you see remnants of shells and sandy floors.
The signs are there in the rocks. Circular potholes carved out thousands of years ago when water and tides swirled and eroded away at certain spots.
George Washington himself came to these falls and, due to the slow erosion of the hard rocks, the view he got in his day is identical to the view you get yourself today.
As you walk downriver from the Great Falls, you will come out at Mather Gorge. This is where the Potomac River is channelled narrower between high cliffs up to 75 feet high creating a gorge, or a small canyon.
It is named after Stephen Mather who was the first director of The National Park Service.
It is another incredible spot to be at in the park. Not only because of the view of the gorge from the clifftops but to see the scale and beauty of it all; tree lined clifftops on both sides.
You will see that Mather Gorge is popular for rock climbing with its sheer cliffs that go all the way down to river level.
In total there are up to 15 miles of hiking trails in Great Falls Park. Along the river, like we did, is called the river trail but that is only a fraction of what is on offer and to explore.
For instance there is the Patowmack Canal Trail. This takes you on a discovery of the old disused Patowmack Canal that George Washington himself helped create to take barges around the falls and thus move goods further up river.
Matildaville is a ghost town within Great Falls Park. Today you will find just the ruins being taken over by nature. In the 1790s, however, it was a bustling little place. Not only for the barracks for the canal workers but also because it became a place for boaters to stop off while awaiting their turn up the locks. It was also the headquarters of the Patowmack Canal Company.
Walks in the Park take in much of this area along the Matildaville Trail and the Old Carriage Road.
Nature and Wildlife
As you enter the park you will understand how much work has been done to conserve the area. It is a National Park Service site, and they do a brilliant job maintaining it.
If you are lucky or come at a quiet time, you could see some of the abundance of animals that live here. From coyotes and chipmunks to deer and box turtles. A whole array of birds make their homes here too. As we walked we could hear plenty of woodpeckers working up in the trees. Herons love the area as do red tailed hawks. Occasionally you may even see a bald eagle soaring up above.
The sun filtered through the trees as we were walking and captured a perfect web with a colourful spider right in the middle.
A beautiful day, a beautiful walk with some amazing sights.
Does it cost money to go to Great Falls?
Yes, there are entry fees, and the fees cover both Great Falls Park and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park over in Maryland. Adult fees – A car is $20 which includes all occupants. If on foot or bicycle then an individual pass is $10. An annual pass is $35.
Note: You could get an annual pass that covers all of the US National Parks and over 2,000 federal recreation sites for just $80.
What are the opening hours?
Great Falls Park is open daily from 7 am until 30 minutes after sunset.