View of the Potomac River from Great Falls’ Olmsted Walk
Maryland’s Great Falls Park, located just 10 miles upstream from Washington DC, makes for a great day excursion into a land of stunning natural beauty and great geological significance.
One of the park’s most spectacular features is its series of 20-foot falls enclosed by dramatic cliffs bordering Maryland and Virginia. Crashing with fury over a series of steep, jagged rocks, the Potomac River descends rapidly as it flows through the narrow Mather Gorge on its way to the Chesapeake. The sheer drop, which covers 77 feet in less than one mile, makes Great Falls one of the steepest fall lines in the eastern United States.
There are many vantage points from which to view the falls. For visitors looking for a short walk from the parking lot, there is the Great Falls Overlook on Olmsted Island. Perched high on the rocks in the middle of the Potomac, the overlook platform provides spectacular views on the river as it crashes over the bedrock. The overlook is reached via a boardwalk that passes through protected forest then over a series of bridges that arch high over the water. The overlook is one of three located within a five to ten minute walk from the parking lot.
Miles of hiking trails also border the falls area. The Billy Goat Trail, popular with hikers since the mid-1800’s, is located on Bear Island and is made up of three separate trails designated A, B and C. The 7-8-mile circuit cuts a path between the C&O Canal and Potomac River and features lots of rock scrambles as well as spectacular views. Section A is more strenuous while Section B is more moderate. Section C is an easy walk through a mostly wooded area. The trail is accessed from the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center.
Other lesser-known hikes include the easy Falls Road Spur, which passes by the remains of the Maryland Mine (a gold mine from 1868-1939.) The more moderate Ford Mine Trail leads over streams and up into the hills to the mine, while the Gold Mine Loop takes you into the heart of the gold mine tract. The short River, Valley and Woodland Trails wind through floodplain forests and open valleys passing prospectors’ trenches and the remains of Civil War dirt defenses known as earthworks.
Great Falls Park is part of an 800-acre park including dense forests, swampland, ponds and streams. In addition to the falls, the park offers miles of hiking trails near and along the gorge as well as other popular outdoor activities, including white water rafting. Great Falls is operated by the National Park Service and is open daily from 7am to dusk. The park is closed Christmas Day. There is a small snack bar located near the main parking area.