Great Falls may not be the largest park run by the NPS, but what it lacks in size it certainly makes up in beautiful views, scenic trails, and accessibility. Situated on 800 acres along the banks of the Potomac River, you can reach the park by traveling about 30 minutes North of the national mall. The park also includes a bit of history as the remains of the Patowmack Canal can still be seen. The Patowmack was the first canal in the United States that used locks to raise and lower boats. It received partial from George Washington who was interested in providing small barges the opportunity to skirt around the falls. In the early part of the 20th century, this location was developed into an amusement park with an electric trolley taking guests down to the falls, picnic grounds, a dancing pavilion and a carousel. The park was transferred to the National Park Service in 1966.
Today, the park is well known to locals, but most visitors to DC and Virginia drive right by it as it would mean having to take a brief side trip off of the route between Dulles International Airport and downtown DC. Great Falls remains an ideal location for picnics and long hikes through the woods as you can spend hours walking the 15 miles of hiking trails on the property. It’s also an ideal location for landscape photographers as it is located in Northern Virginia, which is easily one of the most gorgeous areas of the country. While the park is beautiful at all times of the day, it becomes even more so during sunrise and sunset. The challenge for photographers is that the park hours do not accommodate these times, especially during the Summer. The Summer hours that were posted during my brief visit were 7:30 AM – 8:30 PM, which, at that latitude, cuts out all of Sunrise during the Summer and most of the sunset.
This was the challenge, then, that faced my buddy George and I as we drove hopefully up to the gates at 5 AM a couple of weeks ago. George mentioned that they sometimes leave the gate open at different times during the year, and we were hoping that we might get lucky. But the gate was definitely closed when we arrived leaving us to come up with another solution. Refusing to give up, George stared for a while at google maps and eventually came up with what looked like a solution. We headed back out the way we came and found an open parking area for a recreation area known as “Difficult Run.” Once we were parked, we grabbed our gear and set off down the trail directly across from the parking entrance. George was able to get walking directions for the trails off of google and about 20 minutes later, we emerged through the trees across from Overlook #3 just in time to see the sky light up in front of us:
Though the trolly that used to take guests down to the water’s edge is long gone, there are still ways to get down to the water’s edge for those who don’t mind picking their way carefully down rocky culverts. George and I didn’t really check with any of the park rangers before doing this, but we both agreed that this idea might be frowned upon as it would be fairly easy to get hurt on the way down. It would also be an extraordinarily bad idea to head down there during a storm or during flood conditions as that water is moving very quickly even during the Summer months when the water levels are a bit lower. It is worth pointing out that George and I stayed away from the water’s edge for the most part, and stayed far away from the faster moving cascades.
For those who wish to make the trip down, the lower vantage point offers several views that are not available from the three overlooks above.
As we left, it occurred to George and I that the information about alternate parking locations might not be widely known as there were only two other photographers shooting in the park as we left at around 6:30 AM, still an hour before the park would officially open. If you are headed to Washington DC or Northern Virginia and have an extra morning to shoot, consider stopping by on your next visit.
From Maryland via I-495
Take exit 44 for VA-193 (Georgetown Pike). Turn right onto VA-193 west at the stop light at the top of the ramp. Drive about three miles and turn right onto Old Dominion Drive at the stop light. The entrance to the park is about one mile down the road.
From Virginia via I-495
Take exit 44 for VA-193 (Georgetown Pike). Turn left onto VA-193 west at the stop light at the top of the ramp. Drive about three miles and turn right onto Old Dominion Drive at the stop light. The entrance to the park is about one mile down the road.
From DC and Virginia via the George Washington Memorial Parkway
Take the 14th Street, Memorial, Roosevelt, or Key Bridge to the George Washington Memorial Parkway north. Take the exit for I-495 south (to Virginia). Use the right lane to exit onto VA-193 (Georgetown Pike). Turn right onto VA-193 west at the stop light at the top of the ramp. Drive about three miles and turn right onto Old Dominion Drive at the stop light. The entrance to the park is about one mile down the road.
From Virginia via VA-7 west (Leesburg Pike)
Turn right onto Towlston Road. Turn left onto Old Dominion Drive. The entrance to the park is about one mile down the road.
If you have a question about directions, please contact the park at 703-285-2965.
If the park is closed, consider parking at the Difficult Run Parking area and hiking in. The hike is about 20-30 minutes long. The parking area is shown on the map below: