Great Falls overlook view in winter

Saturday Postcard: Great Falls of the Potomac

The Great Falls of the Potomac is both serene and turbulent after a snowstorm, with snowmelt from the Shenandoah raising water levels, while a blanket of white covers the rocks and trails.

Great Falls of the Potomac Postcard FuninFairfaxVA

Great Falls of the Potomac after the Blizzard of 2016

 

Located in northern Virginia on the banks of the Potomac River, only 15 miles from Washington D.C., Great Falls Park is one of the most popular natural destinations in the area, frequented by locals and tourists from around the world.

At the Great Falls of the Potomac, the river drops 76 feet in less than a mile, while the banks narrow from 1000 feet wide to only 60 to 100 feet as the river passes through narrow Mather Gorge. The combination of dropping and narrowing as the river passes over jagged rocks creates a dramatic series of waterfalls and rapids. Three overlooks, two of them accessible via ramps, give visitors easy access to stunning views.

Mather Gorge Great Falls Virginia water levels

Mather Gorge, Great Falls Virginia changing water levels

 

The Great Falls of the Potomac is both serene and turbulent after a snowstorm, as snowmelt raises water levels and a blanket of white covers rocks and trails.

The narrowing of the riverbanks through Mather Gorge also leads to dramatic flooding events after particuarly large rains or rapid snowmelts. A flood pole marks the years in which major storms pushed the water outside it’s banks, most recently in 1996 when a January blizzard was followed by rapidly warming temperatures and rain. Less drastic flooding provides an opportunity to see the falls transformed into a raging river, the rocks barely visible above the water.

In warmer weather, expert kayakers shoot the falls and navigate the gorge, and hikers enjoy gorgeous views along the river and through the woodlands. Great Falls Park is packed with history too. It was the site of George Washington’s ambitious project to build a navigable canal from Ohio to the Chesapeake, in hopes of better uniting a fledgling country through trade.

Patowmack Canal sign Great Falls

Later, the park was a popular amusement park, reached by cable car from Georgetown. Remnants of both the canal and the town of Matildaville are accessible from park trails, and the Visitor Center offers displays and movies that highlight the history and geology of the park.

Great Falls Park
9200 Old Dominion Drive
McLean, VA 22102
703-285-2965
Map

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  1. Saturday Postcard: George Washington Birthplace NM, Virginia - Fun in Fairfax VA - February 6, 2016

    […] Scenic Drive: Georgetown Pike & George Washington Memorial Parkway […]

  2. 8 Epic Virginia Trails to Hike and Bike Less Than 2 Hours from DC - May 25, 2016

    […] for a half-mile walk on the boardwalks and bridges of Olmstead Island to a lovely view of the Great Falls of the Potomac. For a more challenging hike full of rock scrambles and incredible views, hikers flock […]

  3. 5 Fantastic Northern Virginia Scenic Drives - FuninFairfaxVA - September 20, 2016

    […] at Great Falls Park for waterfall views and a hike along Mather […]

  4. President's Day Weekend Fun in and Near Northern Virginia - Fun in Fairfax VA - February 13, 2017

    […] Great Falls Park, Great Falls, Virginia […]

  5. Shenandoah National Park Day Trip Planner: Things to Do in the Central District - April 24, 2017

    […] The Central District is our favorite area to explore on a Shenandoah National Park day trip. There is so much to see and do along Skyline Drive that we return frequently to try new trails and enjoy the changing seasons. If you plan to make repeat visits like us, buy an annual National Park pass. You’ll recoup the $80 price in just a few visits and can use it at Northern Virginia area parks like Great Falls. […]

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