Great Falls of the Potomac: A Mighty River along the mid-Atlantic Coast
By Kurt Jacobson
When visitors and residents think of the Potomac River, they think of a large, slow-moving river. However, just fourteen miles upstream from Washington DC, this mighty river raises its voice and crashes through rocks and narrow passages creating a hair-raising white water scene before calming down for its trip to Chesapeake Bay.
It looks more like the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon than the tame Eastern river flowing through our nation’s capital. Yet this special place is unknown to many DC locals and few tourists know of it.
Whether you visit the Maryland side, (Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Park) or the Virginia side (Great Falls Park) there are miles of hiking trails and several scenic view points for gawking at the falls. Each side has its own historic canal. Maryland has the C & O Canal, (Chesapeake and Ohio) built to haul coal from the Allegheny Mountain region, as well as other goods.
Construction of the canal began July 4th, 1828 and finished in 1850. The railroads brought competition to this freight hauling canal in the 1840’s, but the C&O continued to haul coal up until around 1924. In its prime, the canal hauled supplies upstream to Cumberland, Maryland, like salted fish, bricks, lumber and oysters while upstream merchants sent flour, wheat, corn, coal and stone downstream to Washington, DC.
George Washington’s Influence
Virginia has an older, smaller canal, The Patowmack Canal. George Washington felt our young nation needed a reliable way to ship goods to and from the Ohio River Valley to connect us. The best way to create that connection seemed to be by utilizing the Potomac River.
The problem was those rocks and rapids were not navigable and the worst was the Great Falls area. Five canals would eventually be built with the hardest job site being Great Falls; construction began in 1785 and took seventeen years to complete. In 1828, the C&O canal bought the troubled Patowmack Canal which shut down all but the Great Falls section in the system George Washington thought vital to the country.
Day trippers came to the falls for weddings and other happy excursions in the 1830’s. A tavern was built on the Maryland side in 1828, and mainly served travelers and boatmen, providing both meals and lodging. The tavern ended up being a fun place for city dwellers to escape and adventure by the falls. An amusement park was even opened in 1906 with a rail line direct from Georgetown. The tavern is now the visitor’s center for the Maryland side and no longer serves food and drink.
Riverfront Bike Trail
The park is easily reached from most parts of DC and bicyclists love riding to it from Georgetown. It is a fairly flat, unpaved, but easy trail suitable for all ages.
The park has a free bicycle rental program on the Maryland side; just fill out a form, leave an ID for a deposit, pass a simple riding test and enjoy the bike path for two hours. They even supply helmets! For hardcore bicyclists, there are over 180 miles of trails along this majestic river. The C&O trail runs from Georgetown to Cumberland and is accessible most of the year.
If hiking is your preferred method of seeing the park, both sides of the river have miles of trails. On the Maryland side you will find three parts of the popular Billy Goat Trail: section “A” is rated difficult and requires scrambling over angled rocks and boulders, part “B” and “C” are rated moderate and are 1.4 and 1.6 miles respectively.
The Olmsted Island Bridges Trail is a .25 mile trail to a falls overlook and is rated easy. If you are looking for the easiest falls view walk try the Virginia side that features three popular scenic overlooks, one of which is wheelchair accessible.
White Water Sports
The US Olympic Kayak Team practices here, but the falls can be deadly even for experts. Back in July of 2013 a kayaker was killed on a training run for a big race in these harsh rapids.
Signs are posted telling visitors about the dangerous waters just in case someone is foolish enough to go for a swim. Local sport shops offer beginner lessons for those that want to learn river kayaking safely.
I spoke with James Buck at Potomac Paddlesports who said, “Beginner lesson packages are offered for $585 and give you two years of unlimited Wednesday and Thursday evening lessons as well as four trips on the river.” After these lessons most will be able to navigate thrilling class three rapids.
With steep rock cliffs in and around the park, many rock climbers find it thrilling to scale these rock faces with the river roaring in the background. On more than one occasion, I have seen climbing groups rappelling down to the river’s edge then climbing back up. I find that it is a good spectator sport and see others clicking away with cameras catching the rock climbers in dangerous spots.
Both sides of the river have excellent picnic grounds and even a space for a volleyball net (bring your own). Alcohol is not allowed in the park but feel free to bring your own food and beverages. Dogs are welcome as long as they are always leashed with a rope not more than six feet long and owners pick up after their dogs.
Fall is my favorite time of year to go due to the variety of trees and bushes showing off gold, red, yellow and orange leaves in abundance. Visitors should plan on spending at least an hour or two to get the most out of their visit.
When You Go
The National Park Service website has information on how to get there and enjoy your stay. You can find Great Falls Park on the Virginia side and Chesapeake and Ohio Park on the Maryland side for a fee of $10 per carload, though sometimes the entrance fee station is closed and admission is free. Concession stand is open only seasonally so plan ahead and bring food and drinks if needed.