How is this place only 18 miles from DC? Minus a T-rex or two, Great Falls could pass for Jurassic Park. With fierce whitewater rapids, rocky overlook points, and deep swaths of forest, Great Falls Hiking undoubtedly offers one of the best day trips near Washington DC.
Great Falls Hiking: The River Trail
Most hiking at Great Falls can be done in around three hours, but we stretched ours to about four. It’s hard not to stop at each rocky overlook point and take in that particular view of the water. The river is so massive and changing, it can look completely different from one mile to the next.
I was also surprised to find decent patches of beach along the river, complete with seashells and sand. We stopped at one for a beat to down some trail mix and dip our feet in the Potomac.
We did see some people swimming, and jumping from cliff to water. It was tempting, but not worth the risk. Drowning is not uncommon at Great Falls, where erratic currents and uneven terrain have taken out dozens of visitors over the years. Even where the river looks calm, intense activity can be swirling underneath.
We took the River Trail, a 3-mile loop running . In the words of the National Park Service,
“Hikers follow the Potomac River for approximately 1.5 miles, along the tops of the cliffs. In some areas, this trail runs right next to the edge of the cliff, offering spectacular views of the Potomac and Mather Gorge. Cliff heights range from 25-75 feet. Vultures and great blue herons are common sights.”
The River Trail has a good blend of long, leisurely stretches with quick bursts of intense uphill work. Surroundings ranged from rocky cliffs along the water, dense forest, and small fields opened to the sky.
By the end, a few closed trails threw us off the path drawn out on our map. But we made it back easily, with a decent number or direction signs throughout the trails and at intersections.
Great Falls Park Picnic: Wine, Meat, and Cheese.
I usually like eating somewhere local during a day trip, but nothing in the Great Falls area really called to me. So I decided to pack a picnic. Since the parking lot is near the picnic tables, we could leave the cooler in the car while we hiked.
Returning from a long hike to a cooler of berries, meat, cheese and wine? This is like, half the reason we hike.
The picnic area is large and spread out, so even on a Saturday you can probably find a table. Grills are available, for all those who aren’t intimidated by charcoal grills. I saw one guy set his on fire so, feeling vindicated in my decision to steer clear for now.