Great Falls National Park is a natural jewel situated just 14 miles northwest of our nation’s capitol. The park is part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway and covers some 900 acres on the Virginia side of the falls. On the Maryland side is the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Parkland, which stretches for 184 miles from D.C. to West Virginia. Both sides offer excellent vantage points with easy access, including wheelchair, to the falls by way of level paths and overlooks. The falls have a total vertical drop of some 76 feet in less than a mile and are comprised of several major cascades, the largest of which is 33 feet. The Potomac here is rated as a class 5 whitewater, which is considered a serious risk, and an average of seven people die every year in its powerful grip.
Native Americans and early colonists used the falls as a trading place, but George Washington saw it is a natural barrier to opening up trade to the West. He presided over the construction of the Patowmack Canal, the oldest in the United States, to bypass the falls. Today, the ruins of it and the accompanying town that sprung up, Matildaville, are just two of the many photo opportunities you’ll find.
The climate of this section of the Piedmont in the summer is usually in the low 90s with high levels of humidity; a late-afternoon thunderstorm isn’t unusual. Winter temperatures average between 22 and 41 degrees, with an average snowfall of around seven inches in January. In the spring and fall, temperatures are usually ideal, with May being the wettest month, coming in at a little over four inches of rain. The Park Service staff is diligent in keeping the park roads plowed during snowfalls, allowing the adventurous to be rewarded with a particularly exceptional view of the falls.
Even before you exit your vehicle in the parking area, you’re greeted by the sound of thundering water. You’ll feel the power of it before you can see it. Use a wide-angle lens from any of the three overlooks to take in the grandeur of the most spectacular and steepest fall line rapids of any river in the eastern United States. Don’t be content yet, because there are so many images within the big picture that you'll want to capture them all. Put on your telephoto and the real fun begins. Little jewels of light and motion amid the jagged beauty of the rocks surround you. Polarizing and neutral-density filters are recommended, plus a sturdy tripod.
Take a hike down the River Trail to Mather Gorge, and don’t be surprised to find rock climbers on the sheer cliffs while kayakers paddle the turbulent waters below. Be sure to wear good hiking boots, as this trail can be difficult. Because the falls create open water in the winter, it’s a favorite destination for waterfowl. Bald eagles aren’t uncommon here and in the adjacent River Bend Park to the north.
Great Falls National Park is beautiful at any time of year, but if I had to choose one time to visit, it would be spring. The weather is usually lovely, the dogwoods are in bloom and wildflowers are abundant—just calling for a macro lens to capture their beauty. It’s also the most popular time, so expect crowds. In the winter, you can often have this marvel to yourself.
Contact: Great Falls Park, (703) 285-2965, www.nps.gov/archive/gwmp/grfa/. There’s a $5 entrance fee, and the park is open from 7 a.m. until dark.
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