Potomac’s Great Falls Park, located just 10 miles upstream from Washington DC, makes for a great day excursion into a land of stunning natural beauty and great geological significance.
One of the park’s most spectacular features is its series of 20-foot falls surrounded by dramatic cliffs bordering Maryland and Virginia. Here the Potomac River meets the Mather Gorge, crashing with fury over a rocky plateau and descending rapidly on its journey to the Chesapeake Bay. The sharp drop, covering 77 feet in less than a mile, makes Great Falls one of the steepest fall lines in the eastern United States.
A recent visit to the park found the river swollen with rain and flowing furiously over the bedrock, sending giant plumes of frothy water jetting in the air. The river narrows significantly then plunges over the falls passing southwards towards Bear Island on the Maryland side of the gorge. Cut from the rock by the turbulent waters, Mather Gorge is banded by jagged rock cliffs that shift to tree-lined as the river changes in configuration, passing into the wider Potomac Gorge.
Located on a small rocky island in the middle of the Potomac River, the Great Falls Overlook provided a mid-air vantage point from which to enjoy stunning views of the falls. The wooden platform, perched high on the cliffs is accessed by a fenced–in tourist walkway. The boardwalk winds through protected forest areas and becomes a series of dizzying bridges near the falls, passing high over the turbulent white water. The overlook is one of three located within a five to ten minute walk from the parking lot.
Many trails border the falls area, most well known of which is the Billy Goat Trail. Located on Bear Island, the popular 4.7-mile hiking track cuts a path between the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal and the Potomac River. The rough-beaten trail is composed of three sections. Section A, the northernmost and by far the most popular, traverses rough and rocky terrain and provides access to dramatic views of the falls. The trail includes a steep ascent along a cliff face towards Mather Gorge. Section A is accessed from the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center.
Great Falls Park is part of an 800-acre park including dense forests, swampland, ponds and streams. In addition to the falls, the park offers miles of hiking trails near and along the gorge and other popular outdoor activities, including white water rafting. Great Falls is operated by the National Park Service and is open daily from 7am to dusk. The park is closed Christmas Day. There is a small snack bar located near the main parking area.