The River Trail hike at Great Falls Park in Northern Virginia offers some of the best waterfall and nature views ...
Great Falls Virginia is one of the most popular natural destinations in the Washington DC area, frequented by locals and tourists from around the world. The Potomac River courses through dramatic waterfalls, rapids, and a narrow gorge at Great Falls Park. Residents and visitors flock to Great Falls VA for scenic views, hiking, picnicking, history, and outdoor fun. Great Falls is managed by the US National Park System, which maintains excellent facilities and hosts ranger-led events at the park.
At the Great Falls of the Potomac, the river drops 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 Mather Gorge. The combination of dropping and narrowing as the river passes over jagged rocks creates a dramatic series of waterfalls and rapids. It’s a stunning, and easy to reach, slice of nature only 18 miles from busy Washington DC.
Here are 8 great things to do in Great Falls Park Virginia, plus tips and essential information for your visit. We also have tips on where to eat, where to stay, and things to do in and near Great Falls Virginia.
1. See Dramatic Waterfalls at the Great Falls of the Potomac
There are three waterfall overlooks on the Virginia side of Great Falls Park. Visitors get easy access to stunning views of the falls from several angles, and the view changes dramatically with the seasons and water levels.
- Overlook 1 is a rocky area close to the largest waterfalls. The falls are dramatic, but you’ll have to climb on the rocks (staying behind the rail) for the best views. You can wave to people on the Maryland side of Great Falls, across the river on Olmsted Island.
- Overlook 2 is accessible via steps and a ramp to a large platform. This overlook offers a great view of the falls and the Potomac River.
- Overlook 3 is accessible via a level dirt path to a large platform. Sweeping views of the falls upriver are accompanied by interpretive signs about the changing Potomac River. A pole near the platform marks the highest flood levels over the years.
Compare photos for a sense of how dramatically the Great Falls Virginia view can change. The photo above captures the water level on a quiet summer day. The photo below shows a raging Potomac River after a March storm and snow melt.
2. Explore Great Falls Hiking Trails
Great Falls Park hiking trails cover 15 miles of the park on a mix of dirt and rock surfaces. The best Great Falls trails navigate the river-side cliffs and historic areas of the park.
Great Falls River Trail
Our favorite Great Falls hike follows the River Trail to dramatic views of Mather Gorge and the southern end of the park. You could hike the whole 1.5-mile trail, or turn back at the Mather Gorge sign, or Sandy Landing. Return on the Matildaville Trail for a nice loop hike. If you hike the whole River Trail, stop at Cow’s Hoof Rock for a picnic and views up the gorge. The River Trail is rocky and exposed to the cliffside in places. Use caution and watch children closely.
READ MORE: River Trail Hike in Great Falls Park VA
Hike Into Great Falls Park from Difficult Run
You can also reach the Great Falls River Trail and Cow Hoof Rock from the Difficult Run parking area outside the park. This route combines a portion of the Fairfax Cross County Trail along Difficult Run, with the Ridge and River Trails in Great Falls Park. Add in a segment of the Matildaville Trail to create a partial loop hike.
READ MORE: Great Falls Loop Hike: Run Ridge and River
North River Trail to Riverbend Park
The North River Trail is a mostly level and easy hike that follows the Potomac River 1.5 miles to Riverbend Park. The trail offers nice river and canal views, and is a quieter alternative to the popular Mather Gorge route. Near the Visitor Center, the North River Trail follows a long section of the canal George Washington’s company built to direct boating traffic around the falls (more info below). Further on, you’ll pass Aqueduct Dam, which is a good turnaround point if you want a shorter hike.
3. Enjoy Dramatic Views of Mather Gorge
Head to the Mather Gorge plaque for an excellent view of the gorge in both directions. You can reach the plaque via the River Trail or follow the more level Patowmack Canal Trail. The gorge is named after Stephen T. Mather, who served as the first Director of the National Park Service. Hike the full River Trail (see above) if you want to see Mather Gorge from several viewpoints.
4. Learn About Great Falls Park VA at the Visitor Center
Stop in the Visitor Center for some background on the geology, history, and nature of Great Falls Park. There are displays and two short videos that will explain George Washington’s role in creating the Patowmack Canal and the park’s later fame as a popular trolley destination. The Visitor Center also has information about the region’s early inhabitants. There is a small activity area for children and a souvenir shop. Restroom facilities are located at the ground level, beneath the Visitor Center.
5. Explore History at Great Falls Virginia
Learn about the history of the park at the Visitor Center, then visit the remains of the Patowmack Canal anal the small town of Matildaville.
Great Falls Virginia was part of George Washington’s ambitious project to build a navigable canal from Ohio to the Chesapeake. He hoped the river route would help to unite the fledgling country through trade.
To make the river navigable by even shallow draft boats, the Patowmack Company had to dredge portions of the riverbed and skirt five areas of falls. By far the most demanding task was building a canal with locks to bypass the Great Falls of the Potomac.
At Great Falls Park, you can see several segments of the Patowmack Canal and remains of the locks that lowered boats to the river below Mather Gorge.
The small town of Matildaville was constructed to support the building of the Potowmack Canal. The name honors the wife of Revolutionary War hero “Light Horse” Harry Lee. Today, there are only a few remains of the once-thriving enterprise.
6. Relaxed Outdoor Fun at Great Falls Park Virginia
It’s easy to spend a relaxing day in Great Falls Park. There is a large picnic area near the Visitor Center that is very popular on weekends. Picnic tables and grills are available on a first-come first-served basis. You can also purchase food at the Snack Bar during summer months, and find a picnic spot with a view of the river.
It’s always a thrill to watch kayakers navigate the Great Falls of the Potomac. Kayaking is especially popular during summer when the water levels are more manageable. Even then, Great Falls kayaking is only for experts who have the skill and training to navigate the treacherous rapids and falls. Watch for kayakers from all three overlooks and along Mather Gorge.
7. Active Outdoor Fun at Great Falls Park Virginia
Hiking is the most popular outdoor activity in Great Falls Park VA. See the section above for our favorite hikes in the park.
Rock Climbing is another popular activity at Great Falls. Sign in to the Hiker’s Log at the Visitor Center then head to the area between Overlook 2 and Sandy Landing to pick your route.
There are several trails open to bicycling and horseback riding, but we rarely see bikes in the park. The biking trails at Great Falls Park are set back from the river and don’t offer good views of the waterfalls or the gorge.
Several private outfitters offer guided rafting and kayaking trips in the Potomac River Gorge. Outfitters generally put in from the Maryland side of Great Falls, which offers easier river access.
Note that wading and swimming is banned in the Potomac River Gorge. Anyone entering the water is subject to a hefty fine and grave danger. People underestimate the power of the Potomac River current, and multiple rescues and frequent deaths occur every year.
8. Visit Nearby Potomac River Parks
There are several excellent parks along the Potomac River in Northern Virginia. These parks offer a great alternative to Great Falls when the park is over-crowded. You can also view and hike along Great Falls and Mather Gorge from the Maryland side of the Potomac River. Great Falls Maryland is part of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park.
Follow the links for information about these Northern Virginia parks on the Potomac River:
Essential Information for Your Great Falls Virginia Visit
Where is Great Falls National Park? The park is in McLean Virginia, but that’s not its official name. While Great Falls is managed by the Park Service, it is not a separate National Park. Rather, it is part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway.
- Great Falls Park Virginia is about 18 miles northwest of Washington DC at 9200 Old Dominion Drive, McLean VA. DC to Great Falls Virginia Map
- Great Falls Park VA hours are 7:00 AM to 30 minutes after sunset, daily, year-round. The Visitor Center is open 10:00 to 4:00 daily.
- Admission to Great Falls is $10 per vehicle for a three consecutive day pass. Individuals entering on foot, horse, or bike are $5.
- Tip: Since Great Falls Park is part of the National Park Service, fees are waived on National Park Free Entrance Days. If you plan to visit multiple parks in a year, the National Park Pass is a fantastic value.
- Leashed dogs are allowed throughout Great Falls Park.
There is no public transportation to the park. Reserve a Zipcar and make Great Falls part of a day trip around the Washington DC area. Ample car parking is available, but it does fill on weekends when the weather is good. Wait times to enter the park can reach an hour or more. If you arrive and the line is long, consider heading to one of these alternate nearby Northern Virginia parks.
Where to Eat in Great Falls Virginia
There are many dining options in the town of Great Falls; here are a few of our favorites:
The popular Old Brogue Irish Pub has been serving traditional Irish fare to locals and visitors for many years. In warm weather, the outdoor patio is one of our favorite spots to refresh and cool down after a hike at Great Falls or Riverbend Park.
Bollywood Bistro, like it’s counterpart in Old Town Fairfax, offers a lovely ambiance, contemporary Indian cuisine, and friendly service, at it’s Great Falls location.
Mookie’s BBQ is a casual spot for tasty barbecue and a cold craft beer.
The venerable L’Auberge Chez Francois, has been a popular, family-run destination since the Great Falls location opened in 1976. Hidden on a quiet country road, L’Auberge serves award-winning lunch and dinner with a French country feel. It’s more upscale than the options above, and is perfect for a special occasion or to impress visitors.
Where to Stay Near Great Falls VA
There is no lodging or camping in the park, but there are plenty places to stay near Great Falls VA. The Hyatt Tysons Corner makes a great base for exploring Northern Virginia and it is right next to a metro stop so you can easily visit Washington DC. The Ritz Carlton Tysons Corner is similarly located. Check rates and availability near Great Falls Park now.
Great Falls Virginia is just a short drive from Washington DC but feels worlds away. Great Falls Park is a wonderful escape to beautiful nature, interesting history, and lots of outdoor fun for every age. Find more information and follow Great Falls Park: web | Facebook | Twitter.
What’s your favorite destination or activity in Great Falls Virginia? Share your tips and feedback in the comments below.