Just 15 miles from the bureaucratic hustle and bustle of Washington DC, there lies an entire national park. Sure, at 800-acres, it's a small national park, but a national park nonetheless. Home to ancient Native American petroglyphs, plummeting Potomac waterfalls, a rich colonial and canal history, and roughly 15 miles of hiking trails (including DC's best day hike), Great Falls National Park is a small recreation area that packs a big punch. And with world-class whitewater and stellar rock climbing, there's a wide number of ways to experience the best that it has to offer. Here are some of our favorites.
The Billy Goat Trail is one of the most popular day hikes in the greater DC area. This hike has it all—easy access, a variety of trails to explore, and it's moderately difficult but not overwhelming. Plus, it has sweeping views of the Potomac River, and offers plenty of places to stop and rest, eat lunch and take in the scenery along the way. Trail A—the longest, most difficult, and most popular—is full of rock scrambles and definitely requires paying attention. To many, this added difficulty is what makes the hike so rewarding. Scrambles bring you upwards to overlooks that peer across to the Virginia side of the river where rock climbers learn to clip and climb, while small river-kayaking groups brave white water rapids beneath them. Turkey vultures fly above, as might the occasional bald eagle. Birders, bring your binocs and bird guides! There are more than 160 species of birds living in the park. Trail maps are available at both the entrance station and the visitor center.
Five miles of trails, including the Old Carriage Road, Ridge, and Difficult Run trails, beckon bikers to Great Falls all year long. There are bike racks located behind the visitor center and at various spots throughout the park where you can lock up your bike to explore on foot as biking is not permitted on the popular Falls overlooks, at the Patowmack Canal, Mine Run, or Matildaville Trails. Connect to the nearby C&O Canal , to extend your path ride into Maryland, or back down the river to Georgetown in DC.
The Potomac River is a playground for some of the best whitewater kayakers in the world. Class 1 (easy) to 6 (extreme) rapids cross a two-mile-wide stretch of the river, inviting people to learn, improve, and go big on whitewater. Using self-propelled watercraft, boaters attack challenging currents, standing waves, and hydraulics. A Personal Flotation Device (PFD) and helmet must be worn on the river at all times. Canoes use air bladders in the boat to give them added buoyancy. This river has a lot of attitude, so it is important to know your skill-level before getting on the water. Swimming, wading, tubing, and stand up paddle are not allowed in this section of the river.
Great Falls Park in Virginia and Carderock just across the Potomac River in Maryland are two of the best places around DC for honing outdoor climbing skills . This area is popular for scaling because of the varying routes stretching from 25- to 75-feet, and the difficulty levels that range from from 5.0 up to the highest-rated climbs at 5.14. Expect top-rope, anchor-free climbing and watch for park alerts so that you're equipped for changes in water levels that can affect access. The majority of starting points are accessible by following a walkable pathway.
5. Viewing The Falls
Named after the Great Falls of the Potomac River, this cascading series of 20-foot falls has the steepest fall line rapids of any river in the eastern United States. There are three overlooks, all just a short walk from the visitor's center, where you can take photographs , and soak up the scenery. Exercise caution when near the river, it is known for its powerful undercurrent and safety laws are consistently enforced.
The National Park Service is celebrating their centennial anniversary in 2016, and that network expands far beyond official National Parks, Great Falls being a perfect example of that. If you're in the DC area during 2016 and want to celebrate 100 years of the National Park System, add this one to your roster. See you out there!