Located in Fairfax County, Northern VA, Great Falls is one of Virginia’s most beautiful and suburban communities. Its 25 square miles is home to beautiful wooded nature reserves, local businesses, makes for perfect suburbs of Washington, D.C. (Great Falls sits 14 miles northwest of DC), and is home to over 15,000 people.
With so much beautiful scenery and sense of community, there is no surprise that Great Falls is home to a number of national park services, one of their most popular being Great Falls Park.
Whether you’re spending the day with family, visiting friends, or just stopping by, Great Falls Park offers experiences for any occasion.
The Patowmack canal is one of many popular places that Great Falls Park has to offer, for both historic and scenic reasons. As one of the oldest canals in the United States, it was first proposed to George Washington at the in the late 18th century in order to make the Potomac River more navigable.
However, aside from its history, the Patowmack canal is also one of many popular Great Falls hiking trails. The Patowmack trail is a little over one mile long, but is jam packed with beautiful scenery.
Throughout the trail, you pass three overlooks that Great Falls Park has to offer.
You’ll also get to see some of the original canal locks that were built by George Washington in 1785. If you get a closer look, you can also see some of the engravings that have lasted since construction!
If you’re interested in visiting the Patowmack Canal, simply begin at the visitor’s center and follow the trail from there!
Great Falls Park Hiking Trails
Great Falls VA hiking is considered the best in the DMV area, especially within the park.
The Patowmack Canal Trail is one of the trails that Great Falls Park has to offer, but it certainly isn’t the only. Aside from the Patowmack Canal Trail, Great Falls Park offers 6 other trails (stop by the visitor’s center for a trail map if you’re not already familiar with these trails).
The River Trail
Beginning from the visitors center and about a quarter mile down the Patowmack Canal Trail, you’ll be able to turn left and take The River Trail.
This is a 1.5 mile long trail and is one of the most scenic trails Great Falls Park has to offer. This trail runs adjacent to and 50 feet above the Potomac River.
The River Trail is full of landmarks such as Cow Hoof Rock, one of Great Falls Park’s most impressive overlooks. You’ll also cut through Mather Gorge, which we will be talking about soon!
Old Carriage Road
After entering the park, take an immediate right and follow the directions towards the beginning of Old Carriage Road Trail. This trail is a one-way, 1.6 mile trail that ends at Georgetown Pike, and was originally used to access the historic Matildaville.
While The River Trail is more of a hike, Old Carriage Road is easier and perfect for an afternoon stroll.
The broad, wooded trail is mostly level until it intersects with Matildaville Trail and takes you over a ridge and down to Georgetown Pike.
Many people love this trail for its pleasantness and also report that it is the best trail for birdwatching.
Similar to Old Carriage Road, the Matildaville Trail is immediately right following the entrance station. Matildaville trail is relatively short, only 1 mile long, and intersects with both the River Trail and Old Carriage Road
Also similar to Old Carriage Road, Matildaville trail is often acclaimed for its numerous opportunities for birdwatching.
However, the terrain on this trail is not like that of Old Carriage Road. It starts off fairly level but quickly climbs in elevation.
Additionally, this trail is far more narrow and tends to be more muddy, so make sure to bring your hiking boots if its rained recently.
Ridge Trail is a little more intense a somewhat harder to access. To access Ridge Trail, you can hike down Old Carriage Road for a mile, or also hike down both River Trail and Matildaville Trail.
This trail is considered more difficult because of its narrow path, muddy and rocky terrain.
Ridge Trail follows the ridge between Old Dominion Drive and Difficult run, and drops around 200 feet in a third of a mile.
After about 2 miles, you can continue on Ridge Trail, or turn right to merge onto Difficult Run Trail.
Difficult Run Trail
Contrary to what its name suggests, Difficult Run Trail takes you to a quieter part of the Potomac.
At ¾ of a mile, this trail takes you on a shady walk along a stream that empties into the Potomac.
The only challenging part is a steep, rocky section just as the stream opens into the Potomac, but if you make it down, you’ll be met by a small beach with a wide view of the river.
Be sure to know, however, that it is prohibited to swim in the Potomac as the waters can be dangerous, so enjoy the view!
The Swamp Trail is perfect for those looking to relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery.
The trail extends a little less than a mile and runs through low-lying areas of forest. These areas can often get muddy, but there are raised walkways and bridges to use for those areas that are more prone to gathering water.
During the spring, Swamp Trail offers an incredible array of wildflowers, while birdwatching is prevalent year-round!
Bonus Option: The Billy Goat Trail
Located on the other side of the Potomac River in Maryland is the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Park, home to the popular Billy Goat Trail.
The Billy Goat Trail is one of the most popular trails in the DMV and is split up into three sections, offering adventures for all ages.
This trail is located just southeast of the Great Falls Tavern Visitors Center, and accepts Great Falls Park passes.
Before attempting to conquer the Billy Goat Trail, make sure you know what to expect from the trail and how to come prepared!
The Mather Gorge is located right at the bottom of Great Falls and is part of both Great Falls Park and The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Park.
Just 12 miles away from the White House, the Gorge is 100 feet wide and one of the most secluded and remote parts of the Potomac River.
The water falling from Great Falls creates a fast and steady current, making it an attractive spot for kayakers, paddlers, white water canoers and other water activities alike.
Mather Gorge rafting is a local favorite, and there are plenty of local businesses that will host you for a day trip. There are also of plenty locals who host kayaking and canoeing day trips.
For example, Potomac PaddleSports is a popular company that hosts these types of trips
Aside from all the water activities the Mather Gorge hosts, you also have the opportunity to hike right next to it for a portion of Section A of the Billy Goat Trail.
For experienced hikers, Section A of the Billy Goat Trail also offers opportunities for more challenging routes with better views of the Gorge.
While hiking, kayaking, white water rafting and so many more activities make Great Falls Park one of the best in the nation, many people solely come for the rock climbing.
The Mather Gorge consists of 60 foot cliff faces and over 200 climbing routes perfect for top roping rock climbers of all experience levels.
Similar to the water activities in the Mather Gorge, there are local businesses that offer rock climbing classes and trips.
However, if you’re deciding to go without an instructor, make sure you wear loose fitting clothing and bring the right gear.
If you decide to climb on your own, you’re advised to double check to make sure the rock is sturdy before climbing!
For more information before you start, check out the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s rock climbing Great Falls VA guide
Great Falls Park: the best outdoor activities in the DC Area?
Great Falls Park is a great destination for any visitor, and offers a wide variety of experiences for all age levels.
However, Great Falls Park is only a portion of what the area of Great Falls has to offer.
Great Falls is constantly attracting more and more permanent residents, and offers great property investment opportunities