Great Falls Park is located in McLean, Virginia, which is a short 15 miles from Washington D.C. If you love the outdoors, stopping here should be on the top of your list when you visit Fairfax County. This park offers many great things to do outdoors such as hiking, biking, horseback riding, fishing and more! But before we get to the fun details, let’s learn a little more about the park.
This scenic park is home to one of the nation's first canals, the Great Falls of the Potomac, as well as hiking trails along Mather Gorge's dramatic clifftops. The park’s treasure is the Great Falls of the Potomac River where rushing water is forced over steps of jagged rocks. However, many park goers also enjoy the historic remains of the Patowmack Canal. This National Park is set in Fairfax County making it widely accessible to locals and visitors looking to explore its beauty while visiting the Nation’s Capital.
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Park hours are 7 a.m. until dark, every day. Currently, the visitors center is closed. Trail maps are available at the entrance station. All outdoor areas are open including trains, picnic areas, overlooks and green spaces. When entering the park by foot, bicycle, or horse, the fee is $5 and $20 for a vehicle permit. Great Falls Park is located at 9200 Old Dominion Dr, McLean, VA 22102 and can be contacted by phone at (703) 285-2965.
1. Meet A Ranger
The best way to familiarize yourself with Great Falls Park is to connect with a Ranger and attend one of their ongoing programs. Most Ranger-led programs are offered throughout the year, so check their schedule by calling the park at 703-285-2965 or visit their Schedule of Events page. Ranger-led educational programs are a great way to explore the park for school groups, scout groups, and more. If you are interested in a ranger-led program for your group, please call the park for more information or visit their Groups page.
2. Take A Hike
Great Falls Park has fifteen miles of hiking trails, five of which are multi-use for horseback riding, hiking, and biking. Trail maps are available at both the entrance station and the Visitor Center. Hikers are encouraged to carry water throughout the year, especially in warmer months, when high temperatures and humidity make it more difficult to stay hydrated. The Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, which includes hiking, biking, and boating routes throughout the Potomac watershed, runs through the park.
3. Go Fish
Fishing is permitted with either a Virginia or Maryland state fishing license for all fishermen over the age of 16. The park does not issue licenses, so get yours before you arrive. For in-depth information on the fishing regulations, you may contact the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which administers the Potomac River. Line fishing is allowed, but net fishing is prohibited. Fishermen may not enter the water at any time. Swimming and wading are prohibited in the Park. Please remove all trash, unused bait, fishing line, and hooks from your fishing site. Trash bags are available at the Visitor Center and park entrance station.
4. Horse Around
The park has about ten miles of multi-use trails open for riding. Trails open to horseback riding are the Old Carriage Road, Difficult Run, Mine Run, Matildaville, and Ridge Trails only. Please contact the park for up to date information on individual trail conditions before riding. Riding is not permitted on the Patowmack Canal Trail, Falls overlooks, and the River Trail. Trail rides are not offered by the park. Visitors who would like to ride must bring their own horses and keep in mind that weekend parking during good weather is extremely limited.
5. Fowl Shots
Don't forget your binoculars and bird guides! Depending on the season and the time of day, you have a chance of viewing some of the 163 species of birds that can be found here. Among them are waterfowl such as ducks, geese, and herons. Other species include songbirds, woodpeckers, vultures, and kingfishers. This large variety of birds makes Great Falls Park an excellent location for birding. Nature Photography classes are also offered on the first and third Sundays of every month from 10:00AM until 12:00PM, call the park for more information.
6. Climb Away
Climbing sites begin downstream of Overlook #2 and end near the emergency boat ramp at Sandy Landing. No climbing is permitted in the historic canal cut. Routes range in length from 25 to 75 feet. Difficulty ranges from 5.0 up to the highest rated climbs at 5.14. Most of the routes are in the 5.5 to 5.9 range. All climbing is top-rope and no anchors may be drilled into the rock. Bring enough anchor material to have two independent anchor systems and allow about thirty feet of material from the edge to your anchor and you will be set to move to almost every climbing area in the park. Contact the park for more information.
7. Take It All In
Perhaps the most frequent activity at the park is simply relaxing and viewing the majestic falls from one of the three available overlooks. All three Falls overlooks are within a ten minute walk from the Visitor Center. Overlooks 2 and 3 are wheelchair accessible. The River Trail offers the best opportunities to view the Potomac River. The trail is located downstream from Overlook 3 and is a moderate hike that is fairly busy during good weather. If you want to go against the stream, head upriver from the Visitor Center and hit the trails along the banks of the Potomac. Keep going and you find that they'll eventually meeting up with trails in Riverbend Park.
8. Captain A Boat
Whitewater boating is the most common type of boating the park, with the use of whitewater kayaks and canoes. The section of the Potomac River flowing through the park vary from Class II (moderately easy) to Class VI (extreme). Most boaters who come here are experienced and know that they boat at their own risk. The Potomac River has many challenging currents, standing waves, and hydraulics. Boaters should use a Personal Flotation Device (PFD) and helmet while they are on the river. You really should know what you're doing when attempting to boat on this section of the Potomac. BE CAREFUL. Contact the park for more information or visit the American Whitewater website.