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a good view of the falls
Great Falls Park
Closest available address
9200 Old Dominion Drive McLean, VA 22102
Park is open 7-dusk. Visitor center is open 10-5, spring to fall.
Best time to visit
Summer, Fall, Spring
Great Falls Park is a suburban park about 30 minutes by car from Washington, DC. The 800 acre park borders the Potomac River and is known for views of the namesake Great Falls, a narrow section of the river in which water levels descend steeply. The park also includes remnants of an 18th century canal.
George Washington was a key advocate for a Potomac River canal to improve river navigation. He envisioned that river commerce would help cement ties between Virginia and western settlements. Although Washington did not live to see the Patowmack Canal completed, it did operate for 26 years but was uneconomical. The canal was then replaced by the C&O Canal on the Maryland side of the river, which was in service till 1924. The current park land went through a number of uses over the years including as an amusement park. Conservation efforts began in the 1950s and the park became a unit of the National Park Service in 1966.
The park’s primary draw is Great Falls. There are three overlooks that are an easy walk from the parking lot. Robust cascades and the rugged beauty of the rocks and foliage are impressive to see, especially when water levels are high. The park museum is informative historically and also is worth a visit. Canal remnants and locks are fairly uninteresting. There is a 1-2 mile hiking trail which leads north through the woods to River Bend Park. The main trail parallels the Potomac River but is confusing and poorly marked if you veer inland. Also, there were a couple of spots near the river where footing was tricky. When not packed by local weekenders, the park is a nice setting to admire the falls and river. It’s also suitable for a picnic but falls a bit short as a hiking destination due to unremarkable scenery and mostly flat terrain.
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