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Visit Great Falls Park Virginia for stunning waterfall views, excellent hiking, fascinating history, picnics, and more outdoor fun, just 15 miles from Washington DC. Great Falls Park is one of the most popular natural destinations in the Northern Virginia area, frequented by locals and tourists from around the world.
Dramatic Waterfall Views at Great Falls Park Virginia
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.
Great Falls Park Virginia has three waterfall overlooks, two of them accessible via ramps. Visitors get easy access to stunning views of the falls from several angles. The view changes dramatically with the seasons and water levels.
The narrowing of the riverbanks through Mather Gorge leads to dramatic flooding events after particularly large rains or rapid snow melts. A flood pole marks the years in which major storms pushed the water outside it’s banks. The most recently marked flood occurred in 1996, when a January blizzard was followed by rapidly warming temperatures and rain. Flood water swamped the park Visitor Center and entry road, leading to closures and repairs.
Less drastic flooding provides an opportunity to see the falls transformed into a raging river, the rocks barely visible above the water. It’s hard to believe that this video from Overlook 1 and photo from Overlook 2 capture the same views as above.
Outdoor Fun at Great Falls Park Virginia
Hiking is a favorite activity at Great Falls Park. A network of easy to moderate trails offer viewpoints, history, geology, and fun throughout the park.
Our favorite hike is the River Trail, which follows the Potomac River’s journey toward Washington DC. It’s a short, level but rocky walk to more stunning views as the water is squeezed through Mather Gorge. Changing water levels are equally dramatic in the gorge. A flooded torrent in spring becomes a fast-moving but peaceful spot to kayak in summer.
Other park trails explore the woodlands and historic sites in the park. This 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.
Here are two more favorite hikes in Great Falls Park Virginia:
When water levels are low to moderate expert kayakers shoot the falls and navigate the gorge. (Note the orange kayak being carried up the rocks below.) In summer, you might even see rafts and stand-up paddleboards in the river. One thing you will not see is swimmers as the Potomac current is extremely dangerous and swimming or wading is forbidden.
Rock climbing is also a popular park activity for experienced climbers. Be sure to register at the park office before you head out. And if you’re hiking, avoid climber’s ropes in the gorge and never throw anything over the cliffs.
A large picnic area near the Visitor Center is a popular spot for family and friends to gather. There are barbecue stands, picnic tables, and nearby restrooms year-round, and a concession stand in warmer months.
Tips for Your Visit to Great Falls Park Virginia
Great Falls Park is a very popular destination, especially on spring and summer weekends. If you plan to visit the park on a beautiful Saturday or Sunday, arrive early or prepare to wait in entry lines of an hour or longer. Better yet, if you get a late start and encounter long lines, head to one of these Great Falls Park alternatives instead.
You’ll pay an entrance fee at Great Falls Park Virginia as it is part of the U.S. National Park system. In 2017, the entrance fee for non-commercial vehicles is $15 for a three-day pass. Bikes, pedestrians, and equestrians pay $5. Note that the fee does not cover entry to the Maryland side of Great Falls.
If you live in Washington DC or the Northern Virginia region and plan to make repeat visits, consider purchasing an annual National Park Pass. The annual pass covers Great Falls, Shenandoah, and other National Park sites across the country.
This is a popular park for walks and hikes with dogs. Dogs are welcome on all trails in the park as long as they remain on a six foot or shorter leash at all times. There are no off-leash areas in the park, and dogs are not permitted in the Visitor Center or on ranger-led programs.
The beautiful viewpoints and dramatic views that make Great Falls Park so popular also make it dangerous. Keep a close eye on children, especially along riverside trails. Unless you are an expert kayaker, stay out of the water. Even wading is not allowed in the river, and swimming is strictly forbidden. Unfortunately, some visitors ignore the warnings and enter the river. Emergency rescues and drowning deaths occur every year.
You’ll find tasty restaurants and more great hikes and parks in the town of Great Falls Virginia: 8 Great Things to Do in Great Falls Virginia.
The park is a beautiful destination throughout the year. Gather with friends to spend the day. Take a hike with family or your furry friend. Stop by for a look at the waterfalls after a big rain. You’ll always find something beautiful to see and plenty of outdoor fun at Great Falls Park Virginia.
This article was published in 2016 and updated in 2017.