The dog-friendly Great Falls National Park located in Great Falls, Virginia is a magnet for Washingtonians on the weekends. Pack up the dog leash, grab your backpack and head out for an adventure with your furry best friend.
Golden retrievers believe any day spent in nature is “golden time.” My 1-year-old dog (Parker) loves to scramble over the rocks since he is “Spider Pup.” We also love to hike the woodland paths at Great Falls National Park.
The park is located 30 minutes from Washington DC so it is ideal for visitors who want to take a break from visiting the museums and spend a day hiking.
“Great Falls Park has many opportunities to explore history and nature, all in a beautiful 800-acre park only 15 miles from the Nation’s Capital.”U.S. National Park
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Great Falls National Park Fees
Since the parking lots fill up quickly on the weekend, I try to arrive by 9 a.m. The park charges $20 per vehicle, $15 per motorcycle, and $10 “walk up/bike up.” Individuals 15 years of age and younger are admitted free of charge. The permit is good for seven days. It is also valid for entrance into the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park.
You can also buy a $35 individual annual park pass or an America the Beautiful Pass. But I get to park for free as I purchased the Senior Lifetime Pass when I turned 62 years old. It is the deal of the century.
“This pup and I had a pretty pawsome day.”
He is a hoot as he dives into the grasses and plants to sniff the delectable odors of nature. I almost give up on going on a hike because my dog is having so much fun being a “sniff detective.” But I remind him with a pull of his leash that he promised me a 5-mile hike.
Old Carriage Road
Parker and I typically head directly from the parking lot to Old Carriage Road. This was the original road used by the settlers to Matildaville.
There is a wide flat road so expect to see a lot of dog walkers, hikers, and families with strollers. You won’t have to hike any inclines so it is perfect for beginners.
Dogs are required to be on a leash at all times, so you don’t have to worry about any canines surprising your dogs. Usually, owners with reactive dogs will guide their dogs to the side of the path and ask them to sit.
But many owners ask me whether their dog can meet Parker. This means stopping so the two dogs can sniff each other’s noses.
If you want a more secluded path, I suggest you veer to the left fork in the road when you reach the Ridge Trail junction. It is located about one mile down Old Carriage Road.
You have to climb up a hill and then descend along a grassy trail. At times, you can see the river flowing below through the trees.
Parker is adamant that we stop at the picnic table located in a grove of streets. He climbs on the top of the table while I sit on the bench. Naturally, we need to take a selfie!
Stray burgundy leaves skydive from branches above, blanketed on a breeze. An orange leaf sweeps past my face to dive-bomb into the ground. I wish I had brought a thermos of coffee and a book. This is a great place to hang out with your dog.
Difficult Run Trail
Near the end of Ridge Trail, you will see a sign for Difficult Run Trail. Not surprisingly, you may also pass a runner racing by you. This is a stunning trail that you won’t want to miss. The trail parallels the Potomac River and the awe-inspiring falls.
But be warned! There are a lot of big rocks studded in the trail so you have to scramble at times. If it is a rainy or cold day, the rocks can be slippery. It is a good idea to wear hiking boots so you can navigate the terrain.
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 running shoes hitting crumbling leaves.
As I look down through the thick grove of trees, I see a bright halo of trees changing from yellow to orange and red. I wish there was a bench to stop with Parker when we reach the waterfalls on the left side of the trail.
The trail dead ends at Old Dominion Drive so Parker and I turn around to head back.
On the path back to our car, we could veer right to hike Matildaville Trail. The junction is located off Old Carriage Trail. The 2.2-mile trail takes two hours to hike.
It 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.
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, 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.
If you (or your dog) aren’t excited about hiking, you can just visit Great Falls National Park to see the waterfalls. 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 saved the waterfalls for Parker’s big surprise. As soon as we reach the edge, he stands up on his back two feet with his paws on the rail. Everybody around me laughs to see this Golden get so excited by the thundering waterfalls.
I also gaze at the wonder of mountains, cliffs, trees, water, and the cascading falls below. This is my way to disconnect from all the stress and competing obligations of work. I treasure my time with Parker at Great Falls National Park.
Time in Nature
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 the waterfalls and birds and winds sing.”John Muir