Updated on August 11, 2023 by Julie McCool
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.
The highlight of Great Falls Park is the waterfalls that give the park its name. The images and videos below show how Great Falls Park waterfalls, rapids, and views change through the seasons.
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Learn more about the park in our complete guide to Things to Do at Great Falls Park VA.
Great Falls Park Waterfall Viewpoints in Virginia
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 squeezes through Mather Gorge. As the Potomac drops and narrows it passes over jagged rocks that create a dramatic series of waterfalls and rapids.
Great Falls Park waterfalls in Virginia are easy to view from three waterfall overlooks. Visitors get easy access to stunning views of the falls from several angles. The view changes dramatically with the seasons and water levels, as shown in the images below.
Great Falls Overlook 1 is rocky, so use caution climbing around for different views of the falls. Overlooks 2 and 3 are wheelchair accessible via ramps, and have large viewing platforms.
Overlook 1 is closest to a large section of rocks that jut out from the water.
Overlook 2 is a little further downriver, and has a nice view of the falls and churning rapids.
Overlook 3 is a bit further still and offers a sweeping view of the Great Falls Park waterfalls and the Potomac River.
This relief map created by the National Park Service shows the position of the Great Falls Park waterfall overlooks on the Virginia and Maryland sides of the river. I added notations to make the locations easier to find.
Great Falls Park Waterfalls and Changing Potomac River Levels
The riverbanks narrow dramatically below the falls, as the Potomac River squeezes into Mather Gorge. That squeezing leads to dramatic flooding events after heavy rains or rapid snow melts. Sometimes that water level is so high it tops the overlooks.
Look at the flood pole near overlook 3 to see high water levels in the 1900s. The most recent marked flood was in 1996. 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. When you stand at the overlooks it's hard to imagine the Potomac River reaching these heights.
Less drastic flooding provides an opportunity to see the falls transformed into a raging river. Sometimes, the river is so high that the rocks are 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 shown above.
Compare the same view from Overlook 1 after spring rains in April 2017. The river level is higher than normal, but not close to the raging torrent shown above.
During the summer, the Potomac River water level drops and some parts of the Great Falls Park waterfalls are just a trickle.
Tracking Potomac River Water Levels
The National Weather Service operates a handy website for tracking the flood levels on the Potomac River and other waterways. You can check the Potomac River Little Falls Gauge to see if and when the river is likely to reach flood stage at Great Falls.
The Little Falls Gauge shows current and predicted river levels near Great Falls. When the hydrograph reaches the orange bar, 10 feet, the river is at flood stage. Scroll down the page to see how the reading translates into likely trail closures.
The Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service displays water levels from over 7,000 gauges throughout the United States using observations provided by the USGS National Streamflow Information Program.
The Potomac River is always dangerous at Great Falls Park, but lower water levels allow expert kayakers to 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.
This Washington Post article has some incredible photos of people kayaking the falls after snow. Crazy!
One thing you will not see is swimmers. The Potomac current is extremely dangerous and swimming or wading is forbidden.
Changing water levels are equally dramatic in Mather Gorge. A flooded torrent in spring becomes a fast-moving but peaceful spot to kayak in summer. The photo below compares Potomac River water levels in the gorge in spring and summer
Tips for Visiting 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.
Plan your visit with our complete guide: 8 Great Things to Do in Great Falls Virginia and Tips for Your Park Visit
Check the park website for the latest alerts, occasional closures, and special events.
Here are three of the best hikes in Great Falls Park Virginia:
- Great Falls Park River Trail Hike
- Great Falls Loop Hike: Run Ridge and River
- Potomac Hike: Riverbend to Great Falls Park
Park trails offer dramatic views of the river and explore 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. 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.
Rock climbing is another popular park activity for experienced climbers. For a more relaxed visit, there is a large picnic area near the Visitor Center. It's a popular spot for family and friends to gather on weekends.
Great Falls Park is a very popular destination on beautiful Saturdays and Sundays. You should arrive early or prepare to wait in entry lines of an hour or longer. Better yet, if you encounter long lines, head to one of these Great Falls Park alternatives instead.
Great Falls Entrance Fees
Entrance is $20 per vehicle for a 7 consecutive day pass. Individuals entering on a motorcycle pay $15, and on foot, horse, or bike pay $10. The fee also covers entrance to the Chesapeake and Ohio National Historical Park in Maryland over the same consecutive days.
A $35 annual pass is available, but if you plan to make repeat visits, we suggest an annual National Park Pass. The annual pass covers National Park sites across the country including Great Falls Park in Virginia and Maryland plus nearby Shenandoah National Park.
Great Falls Park is located at 9200 Old Dominion Drive in McLean Virginia, just 18 miles from Washington DC. You can reach the park on a Scenic Drive on Georgetown Pike and the George Washington Memorial Parkway.
The beautiful views that make Great Falls Park so popular also make it dangerous. Keep a close eye on children, especially on 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.
Great Falls Park waterfalls are beautiful all year long. Changing Potomac River water levels offer new views of the falls with every visit. Whether you gather with friends for a picnic, or stop by for a hike, you should always make time to enjoy Great Falls Park waterfalls.
This article was published in 2016 and updated in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020.