The last day of my kids’ Spring Break was a gorgeous one, so a friend and I decided to make the most of it and take our broods on a hike along the Potomac. My first idea was to head to Great Falls. It’s a perennial favorite for walks in the woods, plus the long, cold winter had kept us from visiting for awhile. But the combo of great weather and day off from school made us rethink it a bit as we anticipating a crowd, so we came up with another yet similar plan: We’d go to Riverbend Park, just a few minutes’ drive down Georgetown Pike from Great Falls, then hike the two miles to the larger park, where the spectacular vistas of the water rushing through the Mather Gorge would be our reward and turn around point.
I’ve written about both places before in an old post about local hikes with kids and the best outdoor places in the area, not to mention I’ve recommended them countless times as weekday and weekend pursuits. However, I’ve never put the two together in one outing, either on the blog or in my own experience visiting them; usually it’s one or the other. And it’s actually my friend, Jody, who gets credit for that idea, which turned out to be a perfect venture for our crew.
We had packed some lunch, so we started off with a bite by the river. There are picnic tables pretty close to the Visitor Center and parking lot, but you can also spread out a blanket on the grass in the same area or a field not too far away. After lunch, the kids played by the water a bit and chased a few geese before we set out on our hike.
You can get on the trail literally right from the parking lot, and it’s easy even for little ones to follow. Along with it being pretty wide in most places and fairly tame terrain, there are trail markers on trees that the kids enjoyed finding.
It was a beautiful time to be there, and not just because of the sunshine and mild temps. Big clusters of Virginia bluebells were in bloom alongside the path much of the way to our destination. And we saw several butterflies flitting about the flowers. And, of course, the views of the river and woods and cliff sides across the water are great from just about any vantage point.
We stopped a couple of times on the way for a snack and water break and to examine interesting plants and logs, so the whole two-mile walk to Great Falls took about 35-40 minutes. Once there, we immediately made our way to one of the main overlooks, where we all took in the magnificent views of the falls.
We hiked a bit more, before stopping at a picnic table in a large field to relax and let the kids run around and play. Beyond that, though, the trail runs along the river and snakes through the woods. And depending on how far you go and where you might veer off to explore, there are wooden footbridges to cross, big rocks to scramble over, more fantastic views to take in, kayakers and climbers to watch, and peaceful places to just sit and chill out (we’ve been enough times to have done all of the above, even partake in some climbing). We kept it simple this time, and hiked back to Riverbend when the kids finished playing.
Although we didn’t do it on this trip there, I highly recommend stopping in the park Visitor Centers at Great Falls and Riverbend. Both contain interesting exhibits about the nature, wildlife, and history of the area. You can also find out about any special programs, such as wagon rides and nature tours, that might be happening that day — some require a small fee, but they are open to the public.
Riverbend Park is located at 8700 Potomac Hills Street in Great Falls, Va. You have to wind your way through several roads after turning off of Georgetown Pike to reach it. Hours are 7am – dusk, the Visitor Center is open 9am – 5pm. Admission is free.
Great Falls Park is located at 9200 Old Dominion Drive in McLean, Va. (There is also a Maryland side of the park in Potomac.) Hours are 7am – dark, the Visitors Center is open 10am – 4pm. Admission is $10/car, free for walkers and bikers.