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There is more than one way to see Great Falls and the great fall colors that encompass this natural marvel on the Potomac River.
But, unless you’re an experienced kayaker, you have to first pick a side of the river — and a state — from which to view it. No footbridge spans the Potomac River between the national parks in Virginia and Maryland to offer a view of the falls, and it’s a 20-minute drive around the river from one visitors center to the other (though both parks are just a 30-minute drive — without traffic — from the heart of Washington, DC).
Great Falls National Park in Virginia offers 15 miles of wooded trails and three picture-perfect overlooks of the dramatic falls for which the park is known. The park actually exists to preserve remnants of the Patowmack Company canals and the ruins of a town called Matildaville, former park ranger David Dyre said, “but most people actually come to see the falls.”
Just across the Potomac in Maryland, the C&O Canal National Historical Park also exists because of an impressive manufactured canal. But, where the park offers views of the Potomac’s Great Falls, the natural cascades overshadow its manmade waterways.
The canals were constructed to provide boat passage where the Great Falls would not easily allow it. One look at the falls and it’s easy to see why George Washington and others thought it would be easier to build a complex series of canals than to navigate a vessel through these fury-filled waters.
Here, the Potomac River narrows from nearly 1,000 feet just above the falls to between 60 and 100 feet as it rushes into Mather Gorge below. This causes the water to build up speed as it splashes over steep and jagged rocks jutting out of the river, causing cascading rapids and several 20-foot waterfalls.
The river roars both beautifully and dangerously through this section as it drops nearly 80 feet in elevation in less than a mile. All of this makes the Potomac’s Great Falls the steepest and most breathtaking fall line rapids of any Eastern river.
When it comes to taking in sweeping views of the falls and fall colors, visitors on either side of the river have several options. It doesn’t take much walking to reach the first of three overlooks on the Virginia side, which is located a quarter-mile into the park.
“I would imagine that more people come to Great Falls and just take off on the trails rather than going to the visitors center first,” said Dyre, who added that the center is a great place for visitors to orient themselves to the park’s 10 different trails and historical elements.
Most of the trails are 2–3 miles long and can be hiked in less than two hours. The Patowmack Canal Trail begins at the upper parking lot and follows the path of the national historical landmark, which was started by George Washington in 1785 as one of the country’s first canals linking the East to its Westward goals.
The River Trail begins in the shaded picnic area and offers spectacular views of Mather Gorge below the falls, though its path does require some scrambling over rocky terrain. The Old Carriage Road and Swamp Trail are mostly flat while the Ridge and Matildaville trails feature some hilly sections and varied terrain.
Pets are allowed on all of the trails at Great Falls National Park if on a leash and if owners clean up after them. Both the Virginia and Maryland parks are “trash-free,” meaning there are no trash bins, and visitors need to be prepared to pack out any trash they produce.
The C&O Canal park offers access to a bevy of trails for bikes, hikes and even horses. The 4.7-mile Billy Goat Trail, which is divided into sections A, B and C, is one of the most popular options offering views of the falls alongside challenging hiking conditions. Dogs are not allowed on section A of the trail, which traverses rocky terrain on Bear Island and involves scrambling over and around several boulders. Sections B and C are less strenuous and do allow dogs.
On a trip to the falls early last October, several trails on the Maryland side offered breathtaking views of both the falls and peak colors in the trees. We had several children and a couple of dogs with us, and thus stuck to a flat, wide trail that runs along the west side of the C&O Canal. The trail offers views of rocky sections of the Potomac and opportunities to detour closer to the river on shorter spur trails.
Breaking away from the group with my dog and husband, we found that the more wooded and elevated trails on the east side of the C&O Canal offered surprisingly sweeping views of Great Falls at a few overlooks. The Gold Mine Loop in the midst of the forested area spurs onto several forested trails — and the ones with “overlook” in the name offer great views.
We did spend some time removing ticks from our dog and ourselves after venturing into these woods, so long pants, sleeves and hats are recommended.
The trails are busy on weekends in the fall, and for good reason. Be sure to bring your camera to catch fleeting hues of red, orange and yellow in the trees — and wildlife like blue herons, turtles and eagles.
“Before I started working at Great Falls, I’m not sure I ever recreated here,” Dyre said. “It’s definitely a secret of Washington, DC.”
The natural wonder that has long kept boats at bay now draws adventurous kayakers to the falls year-round. The steep drops that make the falls too dangerous for swimmers or inexperienced boaters make this location an international draw for experienced, thrill-seeking kayakers.
Though more than a few onlookers who see these kayakers’ hitting the falls call them in to the authorities, their runs are perfectly legal if they have the appropriate equipment and enter the river in approved spots. Most of the kayakers who frequent this location are highly trained athletes who compete in competitions at national and Olympic levels. That said, this stretch of the river has also claimed its share of lives.
Signs in several languages in both parks warn that hikers (or their dogs) should not enter the water, which claims an average of seven lives a year. Walkers on trails should be especially mindful of their footing as slipping into certain stretches of the water can quickly become dangerous.
As Steve Hendrix of The Washington Post put it in a story about a particularly deadly 2013 summer on this portion of the river, “a rare combination of geology, hydrology and demography have combined to create a brutally effective drowning machine.”
But, for those of us who wouldn’t think about setting foot in the falls — let alone navigating a piece of plastic down its 20-foot waterfalls — watching the kayakers do so can be quite entertaining (if a little unnerving).
During a trip with my family to the falls a few days after Thanksgiving, we stumbled upon some kayakers careening down the falls, unfazed by frigid temperatures. We had parked on the Maryland side of the park near the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center and taken the wooden walkway to Olmsted Island.
The small island in the middle of the Potomac River is a bedrock forest and home to several rare and endangered plant species, which is why signs ask visitors not to venture off the wooden trail. A family of deer grazed the wintry landscape not far from the trail, which was dotted with spots of bright green moss and red berries, while geese honked in formation overhead.
The short trail opens up to an overlook platform with expansive views of the falls — which is where we saw the kayakers.
We waited in anticipation as one of them set up his camera on the peak of a rock and focused it on the falls above. Soon, a red-bottomed kayak crested the first in a series of waterfalls, expertly navigating the contours of the water. The currents seemed to swallow and spit out the kayaker several times. We shivered from the overlook as the kayakers packed up their cameras and then hiked the side of the rock face back to the beginning of the falls.
Apparently these first runs had just been a warm-up.
Next, a neon green kayak appeared at the top of a steeper set of falls, one of which featured about a 15-foot drop. Each of the other three kayakers took a turn, diving off the edge of the falls and landing beneath them. My zoom lens caught plenty of the action as they flew off each cascade, then walked their kayaks back to the top for another run.
We watched until our glove-covered fingers felt frozen. On the way back, we wondered whether the kayakers’ endorphins helped keep them warm as the cold water of the falls engulfed them time and again.
Whether endorphins or the unique views, I was sure something would bring us back to Great Falls.
For information about visiting Great Falls, including directions and maps, visit the websites for Great Falls National Park and the C&O Canal National Historical Park.
Article originally published on the Bay Journal website on October 3, 2014.