Only 10 miles from Washington D.C., Great Falls Park is full of natural beauty and historical significance. This park is one of the most popular outdoor recreation areas in the D.C. metropolitan area. National Parks passes are accepted; otherwise, a $10 vehicle permit is required for entry.
The waterfalls at Great Falls park are some of the most impressive falls in the eastern United States. As the river approaches the falls, it narrows from 1,000 feet, to just over 100 feet wide. The main section is comprised of over 20 falls and drops 76 feet in less than a mile.
The falls can be viewed from three separate viewpoints along the river trail. The first overlook is the closest to the falls. The viewing platform is uneven and covered in boulders. The other two overlooks are farther away but offer great angles for anyone looking to photograph the falls in their entirety. These two overlooks are both handicapped accessible. The Riverview Trail continues past these overlooks and offers additional views of Mather Gorge and the river as it flows towards the capital.
Kayaking is very popular at Great Falls. The most frequented put-ins are on the Maryland side, but the Virginia side of the falls does have some river access for boaters as well. It is not uncommon to watch experienced kayakers braving the formidable Class V+ rapid line of the center falls. Most paddlers enjoy the Class III Mather Gorge section below the main falls.
The Potomac River can be dangerous and unpredictable. It is important to not paddle above your skill level. An average of seven people a year die from drowning at Great Falls Park. There is no swimming or wading permitted.
Since the early colonization of North America, settlers had been looking for means of creating trade routes west using the natural waterways of the New World. The Potomac River was one of the first developmental ventures due to it's waters flowing directly into Washington D.C. One of the major obstacles that prohibited the travel of boats up this river was Great Falls.
In the late 1700s, the Patowmack Company spearheaded the efforts of creating a system of locks and canals to allow trading and passenger boats to bypass the falls. This route would eventually connect Georgetown as far west as the Cumberland Valley. The construction at Great Falls began in 1785 and lasted for seventeen years, resulting in the completion of a series of five locks. During that time, a town was established. Matildaville was formed as a home to those constructing the falls and then used as a rest stop and trading post for the boaters frequenting the canal.
In 1828, the Patowmack Company was taken over by the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company. The new company abandoned the canal on the Virginia side of the river and turned their efforts towards building a larger canal system on the Maryland side. The series of locks and the town of Matildaville were discarded along with the old business venture.
Remnants of both the town and canal system remain on the grounds today. The Matildaville Trail and the Patowmack Canal Trail allow visitors to explore these ruins. Inside the visitor center, there are many educational exhibits about the history of the canals and their construction.
Warning: This park gets extremely crowded on the summer weekends. It is not uncommon to wait 45 minutes or more to get a parking spot. Getting to the park early is highly recommended.