Great Falls Park | PARK AT A GLANCE

Great Falls Park

Great Falls Park

PARK OVERVIEW

Great Falls Park is an outdoor recreation area located on the Virginia side of the Potomac River’s Great Falls. The importance of the land that now makes up the park stems back to 1785 when construction began on the Potowmack Canal, a man-made waterway that would carry boats around the waterfalls, thus making the Potomac River navigable. The canal was one of the first built in the United States and was operated by a company chaired by George Washington, though he died before the canal’s completion in 1802. Unfortunately, because the river ran nearly dry for much of the summer and froze in the winter, the canal could only operate a few months each year. With limited revenues it soon went out of business, closing for good in 1830. The land and equipment were sold to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal that was being built on the other side of the river.

Between 1839 and 1966 the land was used to support a textile mill, a hydro-electric power plant, and an amusement park. The power plant, which was created in 1895, and amusement park, which opened in 1906, operated up until the Federal government bought the property in 1966. Even after it became a National Park unit, a carousel continued to operate, closing only after being damaged beyond repair by Hurricane Agnes in 1972. Today the park is a unit of the George Washington Memorial Parkway.

Great Falls Park and its neighbor on the other side of the Potomac, the Great Falls Tavern section of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, are by far the most densely populated National Park units on the east coast, and I’ve been to them all, including those in New York City, Washington, Boston, and Philadelphia. While Great Falls Park is not specifically ranked, the George Washington Memorial Parkway, which includes many sub units like Great Falls Park, was the 6th most visited National Park in 2019 (the C&O Canal was #11). One and a half million more people visited the George Washington Memorial Parkway than they did the Grand Canyon. Other than perhaps some of the San Francisco area parks, I can’t imagine any other National Park in the country with so many people crammed into such as small space. (It’s not that the park is small, it’s just that most people venture no farther than the Visitor Center, overlooks, and picnic areas). On a summer weekend or holiday, if you aren’t at the park by 10 AM, you’ll be waiting in line for an hour or more to enter. I made more than one trip to Great Falls Park and simply turned around, opting to come back another day. You have the entire Washington, D. C., area trying to fit into 600 parking spaces.

Great Falls Park offers a smorgasbord of outdoor activities that will appeal to everyone from those unable to walk to extreme sport athletes. There are fifteen miles of hiking trails, some easy enough to accommodate wheelchairs and others strenuous enough to satisfy seasoned hikers. Bikers and horseback riders are welcome on some of the trails.

Highly experienced whitewater kayakers, canoeists, and rafters can access the Potomac River at two locations below the falls, both of which are reached via short but extremely difficult trails. Rapids on this section of the river range from Class 2 to 4. It is possible to actually run the falls themselves by launching from the Maryland side, but keep in mind that you will be dealing with Class 5 and 6 rapids, not to mention drops down actual waterfalls.

Rock climbers can scale the cliffs of Mather Gorge between Overlook 2 and Sandy Landing. Routes range from 25 to 75 feet in length and average in difficulty from 5.5 to 5.9. All climbing is top rope only.

Fishing is allowed above the falls, and plenty of great spots can be accessed along the flat and easy Potowmack Canal Trail and North River Trail. A Virginia or Maryland fishing license is required. No special permits or licenses are needed from the National Park Service.

Of course scenic beauty is another big draw to the park. There are three overlooks where you can get views of the Great Falls, all located near the Visitor Center and main parking areas. Those hiking the River Trail—one of the best of all east coast National Park trails—have a nearly endless opportunity to get some great photos and see spectacular views of Mather Gorge and the Potomac River.

When it comes time to eat, the park has one of the largest picnic areas—complete with grills—of any National Park. There is even a concession stand located on the lower level of the Visitor Center.

And last, but not least, there are a few historical sites within the park, including the ruins of the defunct Potowmack Canal and the town that grew up around it, Matildaville.


HOURS OF OPERATION

Great Falls Park is open from 7 AM until thirty minutes after sunset every day except for Christmas.

The Great Falls Park Visitor Center is open daily from 10 AM to 5 PM, except when closed on Christmas day.

The concession stand located on the bottom floor of the Visitor Center is open Wednesday through Sunday starting in May, from 10 AM to 4 PM. It remains open through October.

Times can always change, so before making travel plans be sure to get the latest schedule by visiting the National Park Service’s official Operating Hours and Seasons web page for Great Falls Park.


FEES

There is a fee to enter Great Falls Park, which is good for seven consecutive days (it is also good for entry into Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park). This is paid at the entrance station when you first arrive, cash or credit. If the station is not staffed on the day you visit, use the pay box also located at the entrance. This requires cash only and no change is given. If you do not have change, you must leave the park and get some at a bank or store.

Yearly passes specifically for Great Falls Park are on sale, as are yearly passes for all National Parks. For locals who use the park often, the yearly pass is definitely the way to go.

For current prices, please visit the official Fees web page for Great Falls Park.

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Last updated on April 8, 2020
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