Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park | GREAT FALLS TAVERN VISITOR CENTER

Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center in Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center in Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

LOCATION AND TELEPHONE

11710 MacArthur Blvd.
Potomac, MD 20854

Telephone: (301) 739-4200

GENERAL INFORMATION

Located next to the Great Falls, the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center is the main visitor center at the lower end of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park. When the canal was in operation, Great Falls Tavern was both the home of the lockkeeper for Lock 20—which is just outside the front door—and an inn and tavern for those traveling on the canal. The lockhouse was built around 1828 when the construction on the canal itself began. W. W. Fenlon, the lockkeeper, suggested to the C&O Canal Company to build an inn, adding that he and his wife would run it. The inn portion of the building, the large three-story section that now houses the Visitor Center, opened in 1831.

Canal Boat Rides are given April through October. To get the latest schedule, be sure to check the National Park Service’s official Great Falls Canal Boat Rides web page. Furthermore, if you are going to the park specifically for the ride, call the Visitor Center at (301) 739-4200 to make sure they are being held. I visited during Spring Break and got my daughter all excited, but when we got to Great Falls we found out the rides were cancelled due to low water levels in the canal.

Canal boat ride at Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center in Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

Canal boat ride at Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center in Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

The Great Falls area of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park is the most densely populated National Park unit on the east coast, and perhaps in the country. In fact, the Great Falls area is almost like a park in itself. On a nice summer weekend if you aren’t at the park by 10 AM, you could be waiting for hours to get in—one car leaves, one enters. Nearly everyone you see is a local resident visiting the park to hike, bike, or kayak on the Potomac River. The parking lot is huge, nearly all hiking trails in the National Historical Park are here, there are overlooks to see the Great Falls, and this section of the Potomac offers the best whitewater kayaking and rafting in the area. And the canal boat ride I mentioned, that’s for tourists, so tickets are usually easy to get even when the place is packed.

Great Falls on the Potomac River

Great Falls on the Potomac River

OPERATING HOURS

The operating hours for the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center varies per season. Before making travel plans, be sure to get the latest schedule on the National Park Service’s official Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center web page for Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park.

AMENITIES

  • Information desk where you can ask questions and pick up a variety of brochures on the park, including a trail map
  • Exhibits
  • Film made by Thomas Edison in 1917 of the canal in action
  • Small book and souvenir store
  • Get tickets for the Canal Boat Ride
  • Restrooms
Interior of the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center in Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

Interior of the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center in Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

EDISON COMPANY FILM

A 12-minute film made by the Thomas Edison Company in 1917 plays on a continuous loop. The film follows a man in a small boat as he is pulled down the canal by mules. It is amazing to see the actual locks in action. The film is silent, but if you pick up the telephone next to the video screen you can listen to a narrator describe what is going on and where on the canal the scene is taking place.

Edison Company film and canal exhibits at the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center in Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

Edison Company film and canal exhibits at the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center in Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

EXHIBITS

While there is no room set aside as a museum or exhibit area, there are a number of information panels and scale models of canal boats and locks scattered around the lobby. It doesn’t take much more than fifteen minutes to read all of the information if you care to do so.

Model of a canal boat in a lock at the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center in Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

Model of a canal boat in a lock at the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center in Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

SCHEDULING YOUR TIME

The main purpose of the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center is to provide information. Most people stopping in are looking for a trail map, have a question to ask a Ranger or park volunteer, or are perhaps buying a souvenir. If this is your first stop on the C&O Canal, I suggest reading through the exhibits and catching a few minutes of the film. If that’s the case, allow 15-30 minutes for your visit.

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Last updated on June 6, 2024
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