Great Falls
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Great Falls and Mather Gorge

Welcome to Great Falls, Virginia. Here, near the Nation's Capital, the Potomac River builds up speed and force as it falls over a series of steep, jagged rocks and flows through a narrow gorge. This dramatic scene makes the falls and Mather Gorge, named for the first National Park Service director, Stephen T. Mather, a popular site with local residents and with tourists from around the world. The river here was a trading place for American Indians and early colonists, and it is still a gathering place. History buffs and geology enthusiasts find plenty to interest them—in the remnants of George Washington's canal and in the natural structure of the gorge. People come here to take a walk, picnic with family and friends, and enjoy the view.

The Patowmack Company was organized in 1784 to construct a series of five canals to make the river navigable. George Washington presided over the effort, a dream of his since his youth when he surveyed the river and its tributaries. Washington was convinced that such canals would stimulate trade between the East and the Ohio Valley and bind the country together in a framework of trade and mutual interest.

Construction began on this canal system (one of America's first) in 1785 and was completed in 1802. The canals at Little Falls above Georgetown and at Great Falls required locks, a challenge for the company's engineers. Canals that skirted unnavigable features, such as falls and rapids, were dug at Seneca Falls and Harpers Ferry; elsewhere the company dredged the existing riverbed.

During the 26 years that the canal system was in operation, flour, corn, whiskey, furs, tobacco, iron ore, and timber were poled down the river on flatboats from as far away as Cumberland, Maryland, a market center in the Allegheny Mountains. The flatboats were about 75 feet long, five feet wide, and pointed at both ends. It took about three days to travel the 190-plus miles from Cumberland to Georgetown. Most boatmen dismantled their boats, sold them for the lumber, then walked back home.

In 1790 the town of Matildaville was sponsored by "Lighthorse Harry" Lee, an American Revolutionary War hero and friend of Washington. The town, near Great Falls, flourished for nearly 30 years but declined in the 1820s. In 1828 the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company bought the old Patowmack Canal and its rights and began construction of an ambitious canal system—a water highway—that would link Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh, Penn. By 1850 labor disputes, money problems, and rivalry with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad halted the canal at Cumberland, Md. The C&O Canal operated until 1924 but eventually lost out to the railroads and newer modes of transportation, which could haul larger loads much faster than the canal boats.

Today, footpaths lead through the quiet woods to remnants of Matildaville and the Patowmack Canal.

What to See and Do

park map
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The park is open every day except December 25. The park opens at 7 a.m. and closes at dark. There is an entrance fee. Your receipt, valid for three days, includes admission to the Maryland side of Great Falls, part of C&O Canal National Historical Park.

Visitor Center Stop here first. Park staff can help you plan your visit. Exhibits tell the story of the Patowmack Canal and other park features. Books and maps are for sale.

Seeing the Falls The falls are a short walk from the visitor center. To see the falls safely, stay on the overlooks provided. The overlooks date from the early 20th century when the land was a private amusement park, and visitors arrived by train from Washington, D.C.

Guided Programs Programs are conducted year-round. These include history and nature walks to points of interest.

Hiking and Exploring The blue-blazed River Trail offers views of the Potomac River and Mather Gorge. Other trails lead through quiet woodlands and past historic structures. Trail maps are available at the visitor center.

Horseback Riding and Bicycling You may ride horses and bicycles only on designated trails. Bicycles and horses are not allowed in the courtyard area or on the Patowmack Canal Trail. Ask for details.

Picnicking Picnic tables, some with grills, are available, but they cannot be reserved. There are no picnic shelters. You may bring your own grill, but please use charcoal or artificial fuels and deposit ashes in the red containers. Ground fires are prohibited. A snack bar is open seasonally in the park's courtyard near the visitor center.

Please Recycle Deposit cans, bottles, and recyclables in marked containers in the picnic area. Deposit paper and other trash in waste cans.

Whitewater Boating The river here is for experienced boaters only. Boaters must enter the river below the falls at Fishermans Eddy or farther downstream.

Anglers You can fish for bass, catfish, or carp. A Virginia or Maryland fishing license is required for those over age 16.

Rock Climbing Several stretches of rock offer adventure for this challenging sport. Climbing can be extremely dangerous and should be attempted only by experienced climbers with proper equipment. Please register at the visitor center or lower parking lot before climbing.

Volunteer Share your talents with others. There are openings in visitor services, maintenance, and historical research. Ask at the visitor center for information.

Safety and Regulations

Regulations are enforced for your safety and for the park's protection. Remember, your safety is your responsibility. • Swimming and wading are prohibited. • Stay away from the river's edge control your children at all times. The river is dangerous at all levels. • When water goes over a fall or dam, the current underneath runs faster than the surface. This causes water to curl backward trapping any object, including people, in the backwash. Almost everyone who ends up in this "Killer Hydraulic" drowns. Stay away! • Copperheads (poisonous snakes) live in the park. Watch where you put your hands and feet, particularly in rocky areas. • Pets must be leashed at all times. • No camping or overnight parking allowed. • Vehicles must stay on paved roads. • Picking wildflowers, injuring, capturing, or feeding wildlife, or destroying or removing cultural or natural objects are prohibited. • Alcoholic beverages are not allowed.

Nearby Parks

North of Great Falls Park is Riverbend Park, administered by Fairfax County Park Authority. Some trails of these parks merge. Riverbend Park has a visitor center and nature center.

Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center is across the river in Maryland. This is part of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, and its historical and natural history themes are allied with Great Falls Park. The C&O park offers many recreational activities. You can reach Great Falls Tavern by returning to I-495 (Capital Beltway), traveling north across the Potomac, and taking exit 41 toward Carderock.

Ask at the visitor center for information about these and other parks near Washington, D.C.

Source: NPS Brochure (2002)


Great Falls Park — 1966

For More Information
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Link to Official NPS Website

Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards expand section


Geologic Map of the Potomac River Gorge: Great Falls Park, Virginia, and part of the C&O Canal National Historical Park, Maryland USGS Open-File Report 2000-264 (Scott Southworth (compiler), Carrie Fingeret and Thomas Weik, 2000)

Gold Veins Near Great Falls, Maryland USGS Bulletin 1286 (John C. Reed, Jr. and John C. Reed, 1969)

Junior Ranger Handbook (Ages 5-7), Great Falls Park (2010)

Junior Ranger Handbook (Ages 8-12), Great Falls Park (2010)

Potomac Portage: Great Falls Park and the Potomac Divide (Gregory M. Katz, January 5, 2016)

Potowmack Company Canal and Locks Historic Structure Report (Ricardo Torres-Reyes, May 1, 1970)

The River and the Rocks: The Geologic Story of Great Falls and the Potomac River Gorge (1970)

Handbooks ◆ Books expand section


Great Falls Park Virginia

Last Updated: 01-May-2021