Hiking Great Falls

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^^ Is this supposed to be some kind of chain-rope swing?^^

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Hidden deep in the suburbs of DC is the not-so-secret Great Falls Park – a pocket of natural beauty that seems like it should exist somewhere much more remote. We hiked here once before, although we never saw the actual falls — by the time we completed our hike we decided we would rather eat than wait in the long line to get into the park.

So imagine the lines on Memorial Day weekend — arguably one of the stupidest times to visit. We arrived just after noon and waited in the long line to get into the park entrance for about 30 minutes, only to be waved off (along with all the other people waiting in line from all three directions) by a park ranger/cop. Guess that meant the parking lots were full? A sign at the end of the line would have sufficed. Confused, we drove around a bit eyeing illegal spots on the side of the road/on the lawns of rich peoples’ houses to park before finally re-discovering the Diffucult Run parking lot. TIP: If you are planning on hiking you might as well park in this lot and hike into the actual park. It’s a short, relatively easy 2 mile or so hike. Bonus: by hiking into the park you don’t have to pay an entrance fee.

We pretty much hiked every single trail around the falls, as well as all the little trails off the main trails before we finally hit the visitor’s center area which was omg packed with so many people. It felt like a scene from a movie where two rogue travelers walk into some rowdy post-apocalyptic camp. I never really understood why/how people enjoy this version of the outdoors–cooking in a grassy field next to a bunch of other people instead of exploring the trails to get away from the crowds, but I guess to each his own.

After a quick visit to the visitor’s center (awesome 60s era camp-style architecture) and a brief walk to the crowded falls viewing platforms, we made our way back to the trail hiking as fast as possible deeper and deeper into the woods until there were no traces of discarded capri sun packs, dogs without leashes, teens doing stupid and dangerous things on rocks only to be caught by park rangers, kids running around with sticks that suspiciously looked like poison ivy and parents yelling after those kids. The faster and further we hiked, the quieter it became, until finally it was just us again, and massive rocks, and trees, and ruins, and a great big gorge carved by millions of years of erosion.

Previous Memorial day weekends here, here, and here.


OVERVIEW: Great Falls Park // $5 park entrance fee, also valid for the C&O canal, Close proximity to DC + stunning natural beauty = lots of people. There are two sides: the Maryland side and the Virginia side. We only went to the Virginia side. It gets very crowded on weekends and every time we have been we have had to wait in a very slowly moving line. Lots of people come here to picnic as there are plenty of shady areas, picnic tables, and they seem to allow grilling. Food is also available for sale at the concession stands near the Visitor’s Center. There are three platforms to view the falls, #3 being the easiest to get to (not that the others are hard) and the one w/the best overall view.

ACTIVITIES: hiking, kayaking (shudder), rock climbing, trail running. A lot of these trails would make great trail runs. Swimming is not allowed.

TIP: Park outside of the actual park entrance and hike in. We parked in the Difficult Run lot and even though it was crowded we were able to find a spot mid-day. I *think* mostly hikers park here so there is some level of regular turnaround whereas people that park in the visitor’s center lot set up camp for the entire day, grilling, picnicking, etc. If you are trying to get to the Visitor’s Center/Falls from the lot, note that the entrance to the trail is at the back of the parking lot, not the trail near the entrance of the lot.

TRAIL DETAILS: I tend to judge the difficulty of a trail on the type of shoes I wear while hiking it. Flip flops being easy (or maybe just stupid). Leather hiking boots being difficult. I wore some knock-off Keens which means the trails here were easy to moderate. From the Difficult Run parking lot we hiked beside the river (mostly flat, sometimes rocky), then continued upwards on a long switchback for a short elevation gain. This was the most “difficult” part of the trail but if you can climb a few flights of stairs then you will be fine hiking this section. Around mid-“climb” there is a random picnic table which seemed like a good place to have lunch. We followed the Ridge Trail (mostly flat) to the Matildaville Trail (somewhat downhill then flattens out) which takes you past ruins of a town that once existed during the building of the canals. The Matildaville Trail led us right to the Visitor’s Center where we explored the falls before hiking back out on the River Trail. This portion of the trail was rockier and had a lot more people climbing about. There were several places to hike down to the water to some rocky beaches or sunbathing rocks, but there were always too many people so we passed on that. From the River Trail we took a detour to the Pawtowmack Canal Trail and checked out the ruins, then went back on the River Trail until we had looped back to Ridge Trail. This last part of the River Trail was probably the most difficult with a steep, but short, incline. We continued on Ridge Trail until Difficult Run Trail which took us back to the parking lot.
TOTAL MILES: Approximately 6 miles.

GOOD FOR: Kids, trail runners, day hikers, rock climbers, (crazy) kayakers — there’s really something for everyone at any level. Some areas are wheelchair accessible and a wheelchair can be rented for free from the visitor’s center.

VERDICT: Go. It’s beautiful. Despite the crowds (unless that does not bother you) it’s easy to get away from them.

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