One of the U.S. National Parks and Monuments. Forms part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway
Great Falls Park, according to the brochure is within easy striking distance of the hustle and bustle of the Nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.. The main entrance to the park is near the village of Great Falls, Va, about 20 km upriver (north-west) of the downtown DC area.
The park is entirely in the State of Virginia, although there is a good lookout point on the Maryland side of the Potomac river, which forms the border between the two States. The Maryland lookout point is within the Chesapeake And Ohio Canal National Historical Park. Great Falls is a relatively small park, only about 800 acres in size.
It gets very popular and crowded on the first nice days of Spring weather, as all the surrounding residents make for the park. There can be extremely long queues to get in, so arrive early if it is a warm, spring weekend. (Thanks narzos).
The main attraction of the park today is the falls themselves, and the history surrounding them. The falls were the first big barrier to the 18th century settlers attempting to explore the interior as they navigated inland from the western side of the Chesapeake Bay. Upstream and downstream of the falls, the Potomac is a broad, slow river, and very easy to navigate. But at Great Falls, there is a 3500 foot (1 km) stretch where the channel narrows dramatically to around 80 feet (30m) and cascades down a total of 76 feet (25m) in a series of 20 ft (6m) drops. At one point, just below the main cascade, the channel reduces to under 60 feet, and the whole flow of the river passes through a 20m wide channel, where the flow becomes supercritical, preventing all but the fastest boats from passing upstream, and presenting a challenge, even to skilled kayakers navigating downstream.
The surrounding residents and visitors go to Great Falls for walks along the river bank, kayaking in some of the most spectacular white water anywhere on the East coast, and climbing on the rock faces surrounding the gorge. People walk their dogs along the old Potowmack Canal, now derelict, but built between 1785 and 1802 to link the flourishing eastern seaboard with the new settlements in the Ohio valley. They picnic in the verdant grasslands bordering the river and they scramble on the boulders tumbling down to the rushing, roaring torrent. On a warm Spring day it is a glorious place to be, the raw beauty of the spectacular natural environment contrasting strongly with the stark government buildings in the Capital, or the steel and glass monuments to commercialism at Tysons Corner. (But arrive early, to avoid the queues)
George Washington, first (recognised) president of the United States, was among the founders of the Potowmack canal company. In 1785, this company was formed with the intention of building canals around the various parts of the falls on the Potomac river. In all, five main canals were dug and built, the largest and most challenging of which was at Great Falls, and this was completed in 1802. The 16-years taken to dig the canal through solid rock was longer than the time needed to select a site, plan and build the Federal capital 20 km downstream.
There were five locks on the Great Falls stretch of the canal, mostly at the downstream end of the canal, raising the canal level to that of the river upstream. This section of canal was, according to the official website (see below), “Considered to be the most significant engineering feat of the 18th century in America,” The task was made more challenging by the fact that the navigation required skills were not readily available in the young nation. Although this was the great age of canal building in Europe, and especially the UK, America did not have many engineers and craftsmen capable of building and planning such an ambitious project. It was, for example the first ever use of black powder blasting in a civil engineering project in the Americas.
In the end, like too many such ambitious engineering projects, the money ran out. Twenty six years after opening, the Potowmack Canal company folded, handing over all its assets—and considerable debts—to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company. The C & O continued with the canal for two more years, and closed it in 1830.
It quickly fell into disrepair and today it is possible to see a shallow depression in the ground where the canal used to run. A few of the lock structures are also still visible.
Another factor in the demise of the Potowmack canal was the huge floods which often occur in Spring, raising the water level by 50 feet or more, above the level of the canal, and bringing tree trunks and boulders down in the flood waters.
Around 1900, two entrepreneurs, John McLean and Steven Elkins bought the surrounding land and built an amusement park in the area, with trolley buses bringing tourists out from Georgetown to see the magnificent falls. This was successful for a few years, until more floods and the development of the automobile sent the park into bankruptcy.
The area was designated a park in 1930, and the National Park Service took responsibility for the Park in 1966.
What to do, what to see
Most visitors will start at the visitor centre, which is quite small, but contains a large three-dimensional map of the entire area, showing geology and topology of the whole Potomac basin and the surrounding hills and rivers. In addition, an auditorium offers a slide show with commentary describing the history of the park, and there are some static exhibits of the wildlife which visitors may see in the area. A small shop allows tourists to buy souvenirs.
Immediately outside the visitor centre is part of the Potowmack canal, and it is very pleasant to walk the length of this structure. Further toward the river are lookout points over the most spectacular parts of the falls.
There are five main trails, covering a total of 15 miles of the surrounding countryside, and these are multiple use trails, for cycling, walking and horse riding.
Charges/ visitor info
Cut and pasted from
- Visitor Information - +1 703-285-2965
- Visitor Information - +1 703-285-2966
- Email - GWMP_Superintendent@nps.gov
- Fax-+1 703-285-2223
- Great Falls Park, 9200 Old Dominion Drive, McLean, VA 22101
The park is open every day except December 25. The park opens at 7 am and is closed at dark. The Visitor Center is open from 10 - 5 weekdays; 10 - 6 weekends in summer, but closes at 4 pm every day in Winter.
Entrance fee, $5 per vehicle , good for three days.