Great Falls Park | WHITEWATER PADDLING

Kayaking the rapids below Great Falls

Kayaking the rapids below Great Falls

Kayakers, canoeists, and whitewater rafters can access the Potomac River from within Great Falls Park only below the waterfalls. The access points are at Fisherman’s Eddy (between Overlooks 2 and 3) and AA Gorge (just off the River Trail south of the Mather Gorge Plaque). Both are reached by steep trails that cover rocky terrain. I had trouble hiking down to the river via AA Gorge with just me in tow, so I can’t imagine lugging a kayak on my back, and from what I hear the Fisherman’s Eddy trail is no cakewalk either. However, people do it every day—people obviously in better shape than I am.

Exiting the river at AA Gorge

Exiting the river at AA Gorge

Kayaking the rapids below Great Falls

Kayaking the rapids below Great Falls

It is possible to kayak the waterfalls, but you must put in on the Maryland side of the Potomac River, or put in at Fisherman’s Eddy and then carry your boat upstream to above the falls—needless to say, most people choose the Maryland side. Running the waterfalls is for expert kayakers only, as all rapids are Class 5 and 6. If you plan to do this, the unwritten agreement with the National Park Service is to do it early in the morning or in the evening when the park is not crowded. They don’t want a bunch of spectators working their way down to the river for a closer look and perhaps falling in.


While the Class 2 through 4 rapids below the falls aren’t for beginners, kayakers with moderate whitewater experience, or those under the tutelage of a person with such experience, should be fine under normal river conditions.

For those interested in whitewater rafting, but who do not have a raft or the experience, there are National Park Service authorized outfitters that provide trips down the Potomac starting at Great Falls. Keep in mind that tubing is not allowed within the park.

Whitewater rafters on the Potomac River

Whitewater rafters on the Potomac River

Only those in some sort of boat are allowed on the river, for swimming or wading is illegal and dangerous. Violators are subject to fines and/or death. Nearly all drownings at the park involve people who tried to wade or swim in the river, though boater deaths do occur as well.


While I do kayak, I did not do any while in the park and therefore cannot give advice other than to say that it is dangerous enough that you need to seek more information than I can provide here. Speak with a park Ranger or read up about the Great Falls section of the river on some of the kayaking forums on the Internet. For a detailed list of rapids, see the American Whitewater website for Mather Gorge within Great Falls Park.

Kayaker on the Potomac River below Great Falls

Kayaker on the Potomac River below Great Falls

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Last updated on April 8, 2020
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