One of the reasons I love living in Washington, D.C., is the number of natural attractions within a 100-mile radius of the District. In addition to its sprawling urban parks, there’s also the Potomac River that empties onto the nearby Chesapeake Bay and the foothills scattered around the states of Virginia and Pennsylvania that are perfect for hiking, cycling, and all sorts of water-related activities. One of those natural and picturesques spots lie just 20 minutes west of Washington, D.C.
Great Falls Park is a scenic national park that serves as a favorite outdoor getaway for many Washingtonians with activities such as hiking, cycling, horseback riding, and white water kayaking available to partake. The park is part of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail and is a popular destination for young and old alike. If you’re planning a Great Falls Park day trip, come early because during peak times, the queue of cars just to get in can literally take hours.
Great Falls Park Day Trip
All in the Family Destination
One of the best things about a Great Falls Park day trip is that it really is a place that everyone in the family will enjoy. Younger kids would entertain themselves playing Frisbee or kickball at one of its many open spaces while the older ones can join one of the ranger tours, which takes them on one of the easier trails and introduce them to the unique features of the park. Great Falls Park is also animal friendly. Many of the park’s trails, including the scenic Ridge and the historic Matildaville trails allow pets to join their owners while hiking. Finally, there are plenty of picnic tables, some with grills, that are available on a first come and first serve basis. Families who prefer to have a low key outdoor experience can pack as many burgers and hotdogs they can consume and still enjoy the natural beauty of the park without lifting much of a sweat.
Things to Do for the Adventurous
While it’s true that Great Falls Park is a popular destination for families, it also attracts a number of adventure seekers who are looking to improve their whitewater boating skills and outdoor rock climbing abilities. Experienced kayakers bravely take on the Potomac Gorge and paddle their way down to Mather Gorge. The rapids on this section of the Potomac River vary depending on the water levels but generally average around 3-4 according to the ratings set by the American Whitewater organization.
Another exhilarating activity available for thrill seekers involves conquering their fear of heights. Great Falls Park also happens to be a favorite outdoor rock climbing spot. All the climbing is top-rope and climbers are required to register at the visitor center and have a partner at all times. The majority of the sections are accessible via a walkway near Little Falls gauge. These climbs are relatively short, raging from 25-75 feet from top to bottom, but despite the seemingly short distances, they are considered class fives, which means they aren’t easy so take caution at all times. Keep in mind that sharp edges and raging rapids are what await the careless climber.
Fans of Natural Beauty
It’s incredible how much of Great Falls Park remain untouched despite its proximity to urban living. The park is home to at least 30 flora and fauna that’s unique to the area including the Eastern spring beauty flower and the endangered yellow nailwort. Visitors can make the most of their Great Falls Park day trip by combining a hike on both the River and Old Carriage Road trails. The former takes you along the path of the Potomac River where you’ll get to have plenty of opportunities to sit, relax, and watch the river flow. If you’re lucky you’ll get a front row seat to watch whitewater kayakers take on the river’s might or cheer on climbers below trying to reach the end of the line. It is the harder of the two but also has the best views of the Great Falls.
Old Carriage Road on the other hand is a relatively easy hike that takes you right in the heart of the park where you’ll get plenty of shade and opportunities to bird watch. The entire 1.6-mile trail is filled with tall and leafy white oak trees that look particularly beautiful during autumn.
If you’re a visitor staying in Washington, D.C., and looking for quick nature getaway, consider a Great Falls Park day trip. Its proximity to the capital, its plentiful activity options, and beautiful scenery makes it a perfect choice for everyone in the family.