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Virginia’s Great Falls Park is one of our favorite places to impress out-of-town guests, but it’s also a great solo hike on a quiet weekday morning. No matter how often we visit, we never tire of walking the River Trail, which follows the Potomac River along the falls and through Mather Gorge.
The views are beautiful and the River Trail is pleasant year-round with two exceptions:
- when flooding from high rains and snowmelt close the park
- on warm weekends when the park is overrun with visitors—especially during the Cherry Blossom Festival and school breaks
On any other day of the year, the River Trail is a beautiful, moderate hike that delivers a wonderful combination of views, nature, and history.
Great Falls Visitor Center and Overlooks
Stop in the Visitor Center for some background on the geology, history, and nature of the 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.
Behind the center (exit down the ramp in back) you’ll find the canal remains and the beginning of this hike.
A short walk away are three overlooks, each offering a close-up look at the river as it cascades over the falls. (Overlooks 2 and 3 are accessible but overlook 1 is very rocky.) It’s fascinating to see the water level change throughout the year, from the lows of summer to the raging waters after spring rain and snow melt.
Here’s a video we took after heavy rains in 2013
When we visited on a warm day in January there were kayakers running the main falls; note the boat being carried over the rocks in the first picture. A little while later he shot the large waterfall to the left of the big rocks; others were coming down the falls on the opposite side.
This Washington Post article has some incredible photos of people kayaking the falls after the recent snow. Crazy!
Before you leave overlook 3, take a look at the high water marker and try to picture your surroundings inundated by flooding. We remember the water covering part of the entrance road in the ’96 flood.
River Trail to Sandy Bottom
The blue-blazed River Trail follows the Potomac south as the rock walls narrow to form the beautiful Mather Gorge. Bear left as you enter the woods, leaving the canal behind. The dirt path is mostly level, but there are rocky sections which gives kids some extra fun.
It’s a fairly easy hike on a dry day, but can get tricky when the path is covered in ice and mud, like when we visited after a recent snow and ice storm.
For most of the hike, you’ll be walking above the river along Mather Gorge. Carefully explore the rocks overlooking the river for beautiful views, but keep a close eye on any youngsters. The cliffs are high, steep, and dangerous.
Here’s a video of the view up and down the gorge in June 2016:
Eventually you’ll come to a plaque and another nice view of Mather Gorge.
You can often watch kayakers, and sometimes rafts, navigating the gorge from this area. Once we watched a helicopter flying through the gorge on a a training run. Sadly, there are several rescues and deaths every year in this section of the Potomac, where the current is often underestimated by fishermen, hikers, and boaters.
After the gorge overlook, the path crosses a bridge then continues along the cliffs.
There are plenty of spots to stop for lunch and enjoy the view (carefully!) before the path turns in and crosses the canal cut, where the Patowmack Canal re-entered the river. Sections of the trail are rocky here and there is a steep, paved section leading down to the Sandy Landing emergency access point.
You may be tempted by the water on a hot day, but stay out; the current is extremely strong and dangerous. If it’s a nice day you’ll likely see people on the opposite side of the river. They are hiking the fantastic Billy Goat Trail from Maryland’s Great Falls Tavern.
Sandy Landing Back to Great Falls Visitor Center
When you’re ready to head back, climb up the paved path to the trail marker. We like to double back on the River Trail, then take the left fork onto the Canal Trail. Alternatively, you can return on the Matildaville Trail in about the same distance.
If you follow our route you’ll take the left path when you reach the remains of the Patowmack Canal. It’s an interesting section and is an easier walk on a level dirt path. [A note to parents—please keep children off of the canal walls. We all want to preserve history.]
The trail back to the overlooks is lined with trees, including beautiful sycamores with their mottled white bark. They look especially dramatic against a blue winter sky.
We hope you have a chance to hike the River Trail at Great Falls Park on a clear day when the number of visitors is small. It’s one of the places that remind us why we love living in Northern Virginia.