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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.
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.
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.
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.
You may also enjoy these articles about Great Falls Park:
- Great Falls Park River Trail Hike
- Great Falls Loop Hike: Run Ridge and River
- Potomac Hike: Riverbend to Great Falls Park
- Great Falls Park After the May 14th Storm
- 3 Places to Visit After a Fairfax County Deluge
- 8 Great Things to Do in Great Falls Virginia