WHAT IS IT? The Virginia side of the Great Falls of the Potomac River and Mather Gorge.
BEAUTY (9/10) The Great Falls are as stunning as any waterfall west of the Mississippi; as stunning as any set of churning cascades. There is something overwhelmingly beautiful about a piece of nature that man could not surmount.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (3/10) It was George Washington’s dream, yes, the George Washington, to create a water highway connecting the cities of Washington D.C. and Pittsburgh, Pa. He and his surveyors, however, were stymied by the power the Great Falls of the Potomac.
Great Falls Park contains remnants of the Pawtomack Canal, the first successful attempt to bypass the Potomac’s swift current. The Pawtomack Canal opened in 1801, two years after Washington’s death; financial difficulties closed it shortly thereafter.
In 1836, old George’s D.C. to Pa. waterway-dream would finally be realized with the opening of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. The C&O Canal ran along on the eastern shoreline of the Potomac and now constitutes the C&O Canal National Historic Park.
CROWDS (7/10) A warm but not too humid afternoon brought plenty of casual visitors to the Park. Many, us included, , stopped to gaze at the Falls and take a short stroll before continuing along the Parkway. Several fishermen were taking advantage of the Fisherman’s Eddy, a short distance south of the Falls.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (5/5) Great Falls Park is located an easy four miles from D.C. Beltway Exit 44, the Georgetown Pike Exit. Take the Georgetown Pike (Maryland Route 193) west for three miles until you get to Old Dominion Drive. Follow the NPS sign and turn right. Follow the road until its terminus: Great Falls Park.
Two of the three overlooks are short walks from the parking lot. Overlooks 2 and 3 have been recently reconstructed and are now handicap accessible.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5) Titles skew towards helpful outdoors guides aimed at enjoying the D.C. surroundings. Michael should have bought one of these titles while he lived here. There is a kiosk serving food on the interior courtyard facing the first story of the Visitor Center.
COSTS (3/5) $5 will get a car full of your family and/or friends access to either side of the Great Falls Park for 3 days. If you enter the Park by any other means (bike, foot, horse), the cost is $3 a person. Your annual National Parks Pass is valid here.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (3/5) Gab was snubbed when she asked the Ranger at the VC a question about Wolf Trap, another NPS site a few minutes south of Great Falls. His dismissal (and wrong information) didn’t make us eager to engage him any further. We caught sight of another Ranger climbing around the Falls Overlooks. We thought for a second we might be able to join an unannounced Ranger talk or walk, but nothing materialized.
TOURS/CLASSES (3/10) The nice way to categorize the Museum is sparsely populated. We were slightly intrigued by the ancient canoe/kayak hanging on the wall. Intrigued enough to take a picture, but not interested enough to read the explanatory panel.
FUN (7/10) It is easy to forget that one is less than 30 miles from Washington D.C. as the roar of the Falls drowns out other sounds, even the white noise of the Beltway. We were mesmerized by the beauty and power of the Falls and took dozens of Great Blue Heron photos.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (7/10) The Great Falls of the Potomac are visible from two National Park Sites, the Great Falls Park in Virginia and the C&O Canal NHP in Maryland. For the Great Blue Heron, the two Parks’ overlooks are separated by less than 1/10th of a mile. For the terrestrial-dependent visitor, however, the trip around the Falls and over the I-495 bridge from Va. Park to Md. Park is about 10 miles.
Which side is better?
View-wise, it is debatable. Michael liked the Virginia vista, Gab preferred Maryland.
Both of us, however, preferred the hikes, the towpath, the museum and the charm offered by the C&O Canal NHP in Maryland. But remember, in Maryland, the walk to see the Falls is considerably longer and steeper than the hop out of your car and the Falls are right there choice offered by Great Falls Park. If a mile-long hike through the sticky humidity of a D.C. summer sounds unappealing, then make the drive to Virginia.
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