There are very few things Maryland and Virginia share, but one of them is a healthy competitive spirit. The neighboring states have different allegiances to cuisine—crabs versus ham; baseball teams—Orioles versus Nationals; and up-and-coming suburban neighborhoods—Rockville versus Clarendon.
Add to that mix the Potomac River and one of the area’s prettiest natural landmarks. Thankfully, this is one that can be appreciated whether you visit from the Old Dominion or the Old Line State, which is surrounded by two great state parks.
Great Falls resides about 15 miles outside Washington, D.C. and began making its mark on the terrain around 35,000 years ago, as the Potomac River began to carve a gorge out of its surroundings. After many millennia of slowly eroding rock away, Great Falls came to be. Now, the Potomac River’s elevation drops nearly 80 feet in under a mile, which makes it one of the steepest river declines in the entire Eastern United States.
It’s also one of the area’s most scenic locations, with the river gushing and crashing around boulders, causing massive sprays of mist. While it may seem like a good idea to stay inside with the sweltering heat of late, the river and rapids make the area around Great Falls much cooler than the steaming city. So don’t let the mercury dissuade you this summer.
There are two ways different ways to experience the rapids, and your choice depends on how you want to spend the day. If you’re looking for a flat jaunt, with a relaxing pace and wonderful views, then the Virginia side of the park is the way to go. If a much more adventurous hike is what you have in mind, where boulders need to be scaled with hands and feet, then the Maryland side of the park is place to be.
The Virginia side of Great Falls is situated in Great Falls Park, in McLean Virginia. The park consists of about 800 acres, right alongside the Potomac River. The park is accessible off of Old Dominion Road, right after its intersection with Georgetown Pike. Admission to the park is $3 is you come via foot, and $5 for cars.
From where you leave your vehicle, it’s a less than a mile walk to the falls over relatively flat terrain. In the park are three different viewing points for viewing the rapids, Overlooks 1, 2 and 3. All three are accessible off the Patowmack Canal Trail, which can be joined just off the main parking lot from the Visitors Center.
South of the overlooks, Great Falls Park has dozens of miles of hiking trails, ones that can take you along the river, or deeper into the park for views of scenic woodlands.
But if a challenge is what you are looking for, then it is best to skip the Virginia side of the park altogether, and head north.
The Maryland side of Great Falls is operated by the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Park. Admission to the park is the same as the Virginia side, and it can be accessed from MacArthur Boulevard in Potomac, Maryland.
There, after parking, a short hike will take you to the Billy Goat Trail, one of the most difficult hikes that can be found in the area. The majority of the hike is actually on Bear Island, in the middle of the Potomac River, and contains three stretches.
Section A is nearly two miles long and has the most strenuous terrain of the hike. It also might be the prettiest, as it takes hikers along cliffs on the edge of Bear Island. It has one particularly memorably steep cliff face, one that hikers must traverse using their hands and feet. Sections B and C are much less arduous, and have fewer ups and downs. The three parts of the trail are connected via the C&O Canal tow path, and can all be accessed individually. From start to finish, the total runs 4.7 miles. But that doesn’t include the trip back up the tow path, which would add another three miles to return to your car. A shorter hike would consist of just Section A, which takes about three hours to complete.
Whether your allegiance lies with Maryland or Virginia, either one makes for an excellent trip to Washington, D.C.’s most scenic natural landmarks.
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