Great Falls Park may not be big, but it packs a punch. The 800-acre National Park Service unit protects the Potomac River at its most dramatic as it narrows from almost 1,000-feet wide to just 100, constricting the flow into a rush through the craggy Mather Gorge. There, the river drops 76 feet in elevation throughout the mile-long canyon, resulting in a near-constant display of cascades and waterfalls trapped between stone walls. Human history surrounding Great Falls dates back 10,000 years with evidence of Paleo-Americans inhabiting the banks. Indigenous peoples, such as the Powhatan and Haudenosaunee, used the falls as a meeting destination until the 1700s. Today, the combination of water, rock and land makes Great Falls a legitimate multi-sport destination, as the park protects more than 15 miles of trails, countless expert whitewater features, and more than 150 climbing routes. And it all sits less than 15 miles northwest of our nation’s capital, making the northern Virginia park a popular respite for denizens of D.C., and a legitimate day- or weekend trip for those farther afield. Views of the gorge along the trails open up in the winter, but Great Falls is a popular destination year-round.
There are 15 miles of trails within the park, offering hikers a chance to explore the rocky outcroppings of Mather Gorge and take in the waterfalls of the Potomac from scenic overlooks. The River Trail is the highlight of the system, running 1.5 miles one-way, along the top of the cliffs above the Potomac. The hiking is difficult and requires some rock scrambling in certain sections, but the views from the 75-foot cliffs are worth the effort. History buffs should follow the 1.25-mile (one-way) Patowmack Canal Trail, which explores the remains of one of the first canals ever constructed in the U.S. It’s an easy, level walk that also delivers hikers to three overlooks of the falls within the gorge. More info: nps.gov
The whitewater inside Mather Gorge is not for the inexperienced, as some of the rapids are rated V+ (since 1975, at least 30 people have drowned here). But for the advanced whitewater paddler, the Potomac’s Great Falls section is a wonderland of waterfalls and surf waves. Most kayakers follow the “Virginia Line” through the gorge, a half-mile stretch with three big Class V rapids that ends with a 20-foot waterfall. More info: americanwhitewater.org