The iconic waterfalls of Great Falls Park, seen here on July 13, 2018, were formed by floods resulting from large amounts of ice and snow during the last ice age. (Photos by Kaitlyn Dolan/Chesapeake Bay Program)
A deer feeds on a rock outcropping in Great Falls Park in Potomac, Md. Deer are the largest mammals that can be found in the park.
Two men rock climb on the Virginia side of Great Falls National Park, as seen from Potomac, Md., on July 13, 2018.
Great Falls Park in Potomac, Md., on July 13, 2018. The oldest of Great Falls' signature formations are roughly 550 million-year-old sandstones and mudstones.
A great blue heron attempts and fails to catch a fish in the C&O Canal in Great Falls Park.
A kayaker paddles on the Potomac River. Great Falls is often used as an area to train for white water kayaking, but there are restrictions as to how close to the falls kayakers can go.
Billy Goat A Trail sends you toward the Potomac River, over rocks and through wooded areas to stunning views of the falls. Rock formations like this are formed from the constant flow of water over the rock face.
An eastern fence lizard suns itself on a rock. Male fence lizards have patches of blue scales on their underbelly which they display when trying to mate.
Two beavers eat on a canal lock in Great Falls Park. Beavers are the largest rodents in North America ranging from 30 to 60 pounds and have teeth that continuously grow throughout their life.
A couple walks along the Canal Trail in Great Falls National Park in Potomac, Md., on July 13, 2018. The Canal Trail is flat and wide, perfect for walking and biking.
by Kaitlyn Dolan
July 19, 2018
Visitors of all ages and skill level can enjoy the many sites along the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal, but Great Falls is a particularly popular one. From Maryland, visitors can walk the canal trail to Olmstead Island and take a boardwalk trail to an overlook to view the falls. Enter from Virginia and take the River Trail to look at the falls from three different locations.
Along with beautiful views of the falls, the C&O Canal has a variety of trails ranging in accessibility and difficulty. Take Billy Goat Trail A for a challenging hike over rock face and for some scrambling. For a more relaxed hike, take the C&O to Billy Goat Trail B or C. Accessible trails include Overlooks Two and Three and the Patowmack Canal Trail. Pets kept on a six-foot leash are welcome in the park, but note that dogs are not allowed on Billy Goat Trail A.
The geologic history of this great hiking spot only adds to the interest. Rocks formed from sandstones and mudstones 550 million years ago were carved by melting snow and ice during the last ice age. The rush of water over the rock face created what is now referred to as Mather Gorge. Great Falls also characterize the fall line, where the Piedmont Plateau and Atlantic Coastal Plain meet and high cliff faces give way where in less than a mile the river drops 76 feet. Rapids and swift moving water give way to serene bends and turns in the river as it approaches Washington D.C. When walking through the park, keep an eye out for smoothed rocks and rounded boulders to indicate that you are standing where the river once flowed.
Outside of hiking, Great Falls also offers a historic canal boat tour, camping, rock climbing, kayaking, biking, walking, hiking and fishing. No matter what you’re doing, keep an eye out for wildlife, which is abundant in the park. Great blue herons, beavers, deer, turtles, fish and more can be easily seen from the Canal and River Trails.
Plan your visit to Great Falls.
About Kaitlyn Dolan - Kaitlyn Dolan is a recent graduate of Rochester Institute of Technology where she studied photojournalism and received a minor in social inequalities. Her capstone work focused on the revival and preservation of Onondaga Iroquois traditions. Growing up in New England, Kaitlyn formed an appreciation for the environment at an early age while spending time outdoors with her father. A PADI rescue diver, Kaitlyn is currently working towards her master diver certification. She is a lover of yoga, plants, dogs and tea.