Destination DC: Great Falls of Potomac

Discover Great Falls of Potomac River

Located fifteen miles from the heart of the nation’s capital, adventurers can fall in love with the spectacular beauty of The Great Falls of The Potomac…where the mighty Potomac River plummets in a series of waterfalls through a dramatic gorge. The drama of the canyon reminds me of the fierce rocky river canyons of the Rockies – making this an unexpected gem so close to DC and the eastern coastline of Maryland and Virginia.

I’ve had Great Falls of The Potomac on my bucket list for a few years and was excited to finally make the trip in June (2023)…Pictures don’t do justice to the power and beauty of this gorgeous National Park site.

Here, the Potomac River builds up speed and force falling over a series of steep, jagged rocks that cut through the narrow Mather Gorge. The falls astound with their raw beauty…

In addition to the natural beauty, this area has a lot of history too. For hundreds of years both the American Indians and early colonists traded here and it became a gathering place. You can see historic buildings and remnants of George Washington’s canal system throughout the park.

The Great Falls Park has several sections on both sides of The Potomac. The majority of the river waters is in Maryland, but the western edge of the park is located on the Viriginia/Maryland Border.

The western side of the falls area is the location of the NPS Great Falls Park Visitor Center and and the majority of the riverfront and waterfall outlooks. This is the prime spot for a day of outdoor adventures. The best part is you don’t have to be a Mt. Everest prepped hiker to enjoy the best views of the Great Falls of The Potomac…The three main viewing areas are a short and easy walk from the park visitor center. My mom was having leg trouble that day and still got the best views without missing a beat.

  • Guide to Waterfall Overlooks:
    • Overlook 1: a rocky overlook close to the largest waterfalls. You do have to climb on rocks to get the best view
    • Overlook 2: ADA accessible and offered a wonderful view of the river and hardscramble of the falls.
    • Overlook 3: provides the best panoramic vista (in my opinion) and is easy to access

You can also pack a picnic – the site has tons of picnic tables perfect for a day relaxing by the water…

For the whitewater enthusiasts this area is no doubt prime time adventure…

Quick Natural Facts:

  • The Potomac River drops over 76 feet in less than a mile. At the same time, the banks narrow from 1000 feet wide to only 60 to 100 feet as the river passes through the Mather Gorge
    • The Mather Gorge is named after a hero of mine, Stephen T. Mather, who was the first National Park Service director

Want to dive into the human history…I recommend exploring The Great Falls from the eastern edge of the river on the Maryland side at The Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center.

  • Quick History Facts:
    • The Great Falls of the Potomac have drawn people to it’s shores for centuries. American Indians used this as a gathering place and trading area with early colonists.
    • The area was an important part of early industry…
      • George Washington looked to build a canal system in the area that would help stimulate trade with the East and the Ohio Valley and bind the country together in a framework of trade and mutual interest…The Patowamack Company was organizaed in 1784 to construct a series of five canals to make the river navigable (presided over by George Washington).
      • During the 26 years that the canal system was in operation, flour, corn, whiskey furs, tobacco, iron, ore and timber were poled down the river on flatboats as far away as Cumberland, Maryland. Cumberland was a market center in the Allegheny Mountains.
      • Flatboats were about 75 feet long and 5 feet wide. It too them around three days to travel the 190 miles from Cumberland Maryland to Georgetown (DC area).
    • Today you can explore the remnants of once vibrant towns like Matildavilla, which was sponsored by Revolutionary War hero, “Lighthorse Harry” Lee.

From the NPS website:

  • The Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center is located at mile 14.3 along the C&O Canal towpath in Montgomery County, MD. The Great Falls of the Potomac have drawn people to the river’s shore for centuries. To American Indians, a gathering place; to George Washington, an impediment to navigation; to thousands of visitors every year, an awe-inspiring site. Throughout the generations Great Falls Tavern continues a long tradition of hospitality. Learn more here.

The Tavern side also has a fun hike – The Billy Goat Trail

Great Falls Park is part of the greater Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park (DC, MD, WV)

Plan your Great Falls Park adventure here

I also recommend this great article from Fun in Fairfax VA

Where to stay: The Falls is easily accessible by car anywhere in the DC area…if you are not planning to hit The Mall area, I recommend staying in Reston or Tyson’s Corner, which is convenient to The Falls…

You can also stay in Georgetown, where you can take a cruise on The Potomac and learn more about the history of The Potomac after a day at The Great Falls area.

Here are my photos:

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