Gawking at awe-inspiring waterfalls should be on every traveler’s list. Standing at the Great Falls Park guard rail and watching the frantic falls pound the rocks below on the Potomac River, I am transported out of the pandemic. I could have been standing on a cruise liner or staring down a mountain cliff. All I hear is the deafening sound of water. The park is located in Great Falls, Virginia.
Due to the 6-foot distance requirement, everyone tries to find their corner even if it is just a porthole on a straight line. It is only 9:15 am on a Sunday morning but the 800-acre National Park is already filling up. Everyone wants to escape the four walls of their abode and bask in the autumn sun.
There are three overlooks at the park which provide premium views of the waterfalls. (This is not below-decks, no-window-view sightseeing at Great Falls.) I gaze at the wonder of mountains, cliffs, trees, water and the cascading falls below.
Normally, I don’t get to be around awe-inspiring waterfalls every day or month, or even year. But the pandemic has sent me rushing headlong into any nature expedition since the spring. I can feel patient even when I know that there are no easy answers or solutions to our present woes. Time in nature is soothing. I can look into the foam rising from the billowing waves crashing on the rocks and trust the chaos of Mother Nature.
Sierra founder John Muir cherished his time in the wilderness: “I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.”
“As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing.”
Close to Washington, D.C.
In the middle of this pandemic, I can’t climb Yosemite. I also won’t get on a plane to visit the wilds of Alaska or tramp through a petrified forest in Arizona—all getaways for Muir. But I can see these local awe-inspiring waterfalls. Listening to the birds, I feel such comfort. I am in the heart of nature yet only a 30-minute drive from my D.C. condo.
Consequently, it gets a lot of local visitors. Great Falls is a destination that is close to residents in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington DC. It costs $20 per vehicle or $15 per motorcycle to visit. (If you walk or bike to the park, the individual fee is $10). But there are five free days a year where the fee is waived. You can also buy a $35 individual annual pass.
People come to Great Falls to explore extreme sports (like white water rafting or rock climbing). There is a $200 fine if a park ranger catches you swimming or wading in the falls. The 30+ feet river currents are deep and deadly. A sign warns that “an average of seven people a year drown in this area …” It is posted near Overlook 1.
Visitors also pursue hiking, kayaking and dog walking. Family picnics are a big draw. But mostly people come to see the Great Falls.
Indeed, the majesty of the falls will draw you like a magnet to the edge of the cliff.
“At Great Falls, the Potomac River builds up speed and force as it falls over a series of steep, jagged rocks and flows through the narrow Mather Gorge. This dramatic scene makes the falls and Mather Gorge, named for the first National Park Service Director, Stephen F. Mather, a popular site with local residents and with tourists around the world.”—National Park Service
Home to Powhatan Indians
Most visitors probably are unaware that the Potomac River was a trading place for local Powhatan Indian tribes and colonists. In fact, it dates back nearly four centuries. Since 1966, the Great Falls Park is protected as a U.S. National Park (NPS). “The preservation of the Patowmack Canal is part of the National Park Service’s continuing efforts to protect and preserve special resources with national significance. The Archeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 protects the Patowmack Canal, Matildaville ruins, and any historic artifacts within Great Falls Park. This law prohibits excavation, removal, or displacement of any archaeological resources,” according to the NPS.
The choices are endless on this sunny Sunday morning. I can walk, hike or climb. But I just sit on a bolder, transfixed by the surging waters. I keep my eyes on a drama that is being enacted on the Potomac River. No tickets required. Three female kayakers attempt to row up the river. The sound of the rippling-then-crashing white waves sounds like a symphony orchestra warming up to play.
But the stream won’t permit the three kayakers to row past the small falls. One woman, attired in a pink jacket with a tiger print kayak, turns her boat in circles. Her oars glide left and right quickly.
Finally, she swings past it. “Whoooo” she shouts out as she suddenly briskly turns the front of her kayak (the bow) to head downstream. Below her waits her friend who is dressed in a canary yellow jacket and tangerine helmet. The third friend rides down to meet them. Reunited they head into the broad river toward the next tiny waterfalls. This is a nature show available for all the hikers standing or sitting on the rocks above can watch.
Next I watch a young couple shimmy up a cliff that stands alone right in the Potomac River. The base is a straight shelf. They scoot their butts up to reach the slanted pinnacle. Here they rest momentarily and watch the awe-inspiring waterfalls. But it must be nerve-wracking because they stay less than five minutes.
Suddenly, a flash diverts my attention. Ahead a blackbird sweeps through the sky. It indents the pale blue sky like it is stapled in place. I am surprised I do not see more birds. They are glorious to watch fly as they spread their wings wide.
My Hiking Plan
After resting awhile, I resume my hike. I plan to stop at each overlook, including Fisherman’s Eddy, then hike down River Trail. The Patowmack Canal parallels the Great Falls. The water passes into Mather Gorge before going toward the Potomac River and the Maryland side of the Falls. Time to change trails.
For example, I will cut across the forest to reach Matildaville Trail which is named after the ruins of the Patowmack Company’s headquarters and construction site. It once featured the company superintendent’s house, a market, gristmill, sawmill, foundry, inn, ice house, workers’ barracks, boarding houses, and a few small homes. From there my path will take me past Sandy’s Landing and Cow Hoof Rock before it verges onto Ridge Trail. Across the water lies mysterious locales, such as Bear Island. (I don’t see any bears.)
Difficult Run Trail
Although my legs are starting to ache, I can’t resist exploring the Difficult Run Trail. The trail parallels the Potomac River and the awe-inspiring falls. I frequently see a lone hiker who sits on a rock to read. You could hide here all day. The sound of rushing water compliments the crunch of my shoes hitting crumbling leaves.
As I look down through the thick grove of trees, I see a bright yellow halo of trees changing from green to yellow. Then I walk to the dead end which empties onto the park’s entrance road. I don’t want to walk on the asphalt so I turn back and retrace my steps. (I can vouch it’s aptly named. It is quite a hike back uphill.)
Picnic Tables Available
Now I am getting hungry. I am past the 3.5-hour mark on my hike. I discover a picnic table ahead. It is situated near a hilly top terrain that descends to the banks of the Potomac River. It shows years of abuse by lovers who carved in their intertwined initials. I also think someone with a can of pink paint sprayed it. The oak tree bears the sheen of pink stain in its bark.
There is also the soft green moss that grows on the side of the tree. Stray autumn leaves skydive from branches above, blanketed on a breeze. A yellow leaf sweeps past my face to dive-bomb in the ground. I decide to rest momentarily here and read a poem. This would have been the perfect place to eat a picnic lunch but I didn’t pack one. I had no idea that I would stay so long at the park. I will know next time to pack a sandwich. I am famished.
Meanwhile, on my way back to the awe-inspiring waterfalls, I see two equestrians out for their morning ride. Horseback riding is permitted on the Old Carriage Road, Matildaville Trail, Mine Run Trail, and the Ridge Trail. Equestrians can ride an eight-mile route. All the trails are connected together for one continuous ride. It must be a lovely place to ride all the dark forested paths. I wonder if horses like the awe-inspiring waterfalls?
I continue to greet all the dogs who are taking their humans for a walk. It is a glorious sight to see so many pups out on the trail. I wish that I had an adventure cat who wanted to go out on walks. But my Siamese cats prefer their window ledge perch. They just want to watch the birds fly by.
Great Falls National Park charges $20 per vehicle for parking. But if you buy an annual or Lifetime National Park Pass, you can park for free.
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