President Theodor Roosevelt called it “the most beautiful place around here.” Great Falls, shared by Virginia (today the Great Falls National Park) and Maryland (part of the C&O Canal National Historical Park), is our Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls, rolled into one and scaled way down. It is a spot where the normally sleepy Potomac rushes and spills over jagged rocks and then squeezes into the narrow Mather gorge (named after Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service). George Washington called the Potomac “one of the finest Rivers in the world.” Here is the spot where it shines.
The cataract complicated navigation, so The Patowmack Canal (the 18th-century spelling of “Potomac“) was built around the waterfall on Virginia’s side in late 1700s. Remnants of that largely failed enterprise are still seen today (the failure brought about the C&O Canal across the river in 1820s).
I haven’t really hiked the two parks (VA and MD trails) but do love the scenery. My preference is for Virginia’s side with its three dramatic overlooks, mere minutes’ stroll from the Visitors’ Center (I especially like Overlook #3, handicap accessible). Get here early to beat the traffic and enjoy. Here’s what the Great Falls autumn looks like, VA-style: