After nearly eight years of publishing my blog, I’m finally getting around to a post about Great Falls. Why did it take so long to feature a favorite –and one of the most popular and beautiful locales in the area? I’ve been asking myself the same thing, and the best I can come up with is that it’s one of those places that is so obvious and well known I just put a full write-up about it on the back burner. I did highlight it early on in both the round-ups of great hikes with kids and best outdoor places, have included it numerous times among weekday and weekend recommendations, and kind of covered it in when I wrote about a neighboring park.
But Great Falls unquestionably deserves its own post. The national park encompassing over 800 acres along the Potomac River in Virginia and Maryland boasts some of the most majestic nature and stunning vistas in the DC area along with excellent opportunities for outdoor recreation and historical explorations. The Virginia side is officially Great Falls Park, while the Maryland side is actually part of the C&O Canal National Historical Park, but with the main attraction — the gorgeous cascades of the Mather Gorge — the same for each, it’s all considered Great Falls. And it absolutely lives up to the name.
Active pursuits there include hiking, biking, rock climbing, kayaking (lots of experience recommended!), fishing, and horseback riding (BYO ride). You can also learn about the C&O Canal, see remnants of nearly 200-year-old locks and structures, and even take a mule-drawn boat ride for a little time trip to the 1800’s. Both sides of the park have their own Visitor Centers with interesting exhibits and hands-on activities for discovering more about the nature, wildlife, and history of the area.
I still remember my first visit to Great Falls during my college years — I couldn’t believe that such spectacular natural beauty existed so close to DC. Friends and I would head there occasionally to hike the trails and hang out on the rocks high above for deep conversations about life and stuff (because we were so profound and cool back then 😉 ). Who knew then that years later it would be a favorite destination for outings with my two children?
Trips there as a parent began early on, when Owen was still a baby. We’d put him in the Kelty pack, and he’d look around with wonder and delight at the surrounding scenery that was so different from his familiar urban environs. As the kids grew, we’d take them on hikes mostly through the woods, away from high, rocky areas, so we wouldn’t have to worry about precarious situations. Now, both Owen and Sasha navigate the trails competently and safely, and we’re confident taking them just about everywhere (though this acrophobic mama still freaks out when I see them stand too close for my comfort to an edge).
The Billy Goat Trail on the Maryland side is the most well known in the park, and maybe even in the DC area. Just under five miles, it winds through trees, over clusters of large rocks, and along rooty paths in the area between the C&O Canal and Potomac River. It’s rugged and fun and offers some breathtaking views, but it tends to get crowded and includes parts that could be a bit tough for young children to tackle. That said, we’ve seen people of all ages and abilities hike it, though the ease with which they do varies.
We’ve also brought bikes to the park — rides along the tow path are pretty and flat, making it nice for little cyclists. I’ve done some rock climbing there with friends — you can often find group lessons through REI or even Groupon like we did.
There are designated overlooks on both sides of the park. In Maryland, there is one just a short walk from the parking lot, and further down the tow path a boardwalk extends over the river, and you can take in views of different parts of the Mather Gorge. In Virginia, overlooks with views of the gushing rapids and falls are right off the trail, not far from the Visitors Center. All of them offer incredible vistas. Really, it doesn’t get much better in the DC area.
If there’s any downside to Great Falls, it’s the crowds. On a nice weekend, the park is guaranteed to be packed with people, and there is often a long line of cars waiting to get through the entrance. Try to arrive early, or go on a weekday if you can swing it.
Other good things to know:
– Wear appropriate shoes, especially if you plan to hike the rocky, rooty trails.
– Swimming is NOT allowed in the park. That section of the river is dangerous, even where it looks calm.
– Concessions are available, but you can also bring along a picnic to enjoy at a table in the snack bar area or a nice spot along your hike in the park.
– There are restrooms located near both Visitors Centers.
Great Falls Park is open daily from 7am to 30 minutes after sunset. The Visitor Centers are open 10am – 4pm. The Snack Bar is open March through October 10am – 4pm. Admission, good for three days, is $20/vehicle, $10/individual on foot or bike. Entrances are located at 9200 Old Dominion Drive in McLean, VA, and 11710 MacArthur Blvd in Potomac, MD.