Mather Gorge in winter, Great Falls Park

Great Falls Park River Trail Hike

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.

Mather Gorge GFNP funinfairfaxva

Mather Gorge at Great Falls Park

 

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.

The River Trail in Great Falls Park, Virginia, offers dramatic Potomac and Mather Gorge views on a moderate hike with wonderful 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.

Great Falls trolley display Great Falls VC display

Behind the center (exit down the ramp in back) you’ll find the canal remains and the beginning of this hike.

Patowmack Canal sign Great Falls

Patowmack Canal sign

 

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.

Great Falls NP in winter

Great Falls March 2015

Great Falls NP, Oct 2014

Great Falls October 2014

Great Falls NP, Halloween 2012

Great Falls, Halloween 2012

 

Here’s a video we took after heavy rains in 2013

Great Falls Park VA Mar2013 #funinffx #flood #GFP

A video posted by Fun In Fairfax (@funinfairfax) on

 

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.

GFNP flood marker

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.

GFNP River Trail rocks

River Trail at Great Falls

 

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.

GFNP icy River Trail

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:

Beautiful Mather Gorge, a great hike only 30 minutes from Washington DC #loveVa #travel @greatfallsparkvanps

A video posted by Fun In Fairfax (@funinfairfax) on

Eventually you’ll come to a plaque and another nice view of Mather Gorge.

Great Falls Mather overlook

Icy Mather Gorge overlook

 

Mather Gorge view

Mather Gorge view

 

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.

Great Falls winter bridge

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.

GFNP Sandy Landing view

View from Sandy Landing

 

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.

Maryland's Billy Goat Trail

Maryland’s Billy Goat Trail

 

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.]

Great Falls winter canal

Great Falls winter canal

Great Falls canal walls

Great Falls canal walls

 

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.

Great Falls sycamores

Great Falls sycamores

Great Falls snowy path

Great Falls snowy path

 

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.

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15 Responses to “Great Falls Park River Trail Hike”

  1. McCool Travel March 13, 2015 at 1:50 pm #

    Beautiful pictures.

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