Great Falls Park
Adam and I recently moved to Alexandria, Virginia and just in time for the changing colors of fall. Being from Texas I have never been able to fully experience all four seasons – just like the leaves it is a nice change. They say Virginia is for lovers and lovers are we – and we love this state already! Just look at how beautiful driving here is…
We were finally able to spend a day out to explore this beautiful state and decided to do some hiking at Great Falls Park, a small National Park near our Nation’s Capitol. Great Falls Park is a beautiful place for both history buffs and outdoor enthusiasts. Located in this park is where the Potomac River builds up speed and force as the water falls over a series of rocks and flows through a narrow gorge. This dramatic landmark brings millions of people to come and see it or even better yet, kayak in the Potomac Gorge! At Great Falls Park is the historical site of the Patowmack Canal, founded by George Washington to improve the Potomac River for access with trade and settlement. Along the park, guests can find signs of historical events with more information to help them learn more about our Nation’s history.
Admission into the park is $10 per vehicle or $5 per person via walking, bicycle or equestrian and guests can pay by card or cash. We went on the prettiest Sunday afternoon with temperatures around 75 degrees. We arrived around 11:45am and had to wait around 5 minutes to enter the park. When we left the park at 3pm the line to get inside the park was over 2 miles long! Needless to say the earlier you can get to the park the better – less traffic on the road and trails. When you pay at the gate you also receive a small brochure with a map of the park, but I recommend going inside the visitor center talking to a ranger at the desk and ask for the advised trails with a more detailed map. Most likely the ranger will help guide you as they did for us. Great Falls Park is only open till dusk and therefore have no campgrounds, but there are nearby parks that do have campgrounds. This park is great for hiking, biking and horseback riding on trails, kayaking the Potomac Gorge, and rock climbing.
The Great Falls Park also has a concession stand with some hot meal choices like chicken fingers, drinks and snacks. We always enjoy packing our own lunch to enjoy at a scenic spot we see fit, but the concession stand is a really nice perk especially if guests are there for the entire day.
There is also a refill water bottle area to the left of the concession stand that is also beneficial. We used it to refill our bottle for the drive home and to stay hydrated. There is a huge green space for children and adults to play activities as well as a lot of picnic tables to sit down at.
The scenic site of the Great Falls that everyone comes to see is extremely close to the visitor center. There are three overlooks to see the Great Falls and they are all within a 5 minute walk from the visitor center and the green space full of picnic tables. Overall, this general area is usually crowded because of the prime locations and popularity.
This was a great spot to see the Great Falls and this overlook is the closest guests can get to the falls. While we were there we saw some kayakers climb up the island of large rocks and then make their way down the rapid river. It was really fun to watch these kayakers make their way up and down the Great Falls. While it looked like fun, I am sure that it was exhausting and hard work which made them all the more impressive. It must be pretty cool to kayak these rapids in the Potomac River….maybe next time.
To be honest this was our least favorite view of the three overlooks, nevertheless it is still nice to see the beautiful Great Falls. This view allows guests to see the right side of the Great Falls better than Overlook 1. With that being said guests cannot see the left side, but if you go to Overlook 1 first then it is not a big deal because you would have already seen it.
This was marked to be the best view of the Great Falls because it is at a farther distance and you can see the falls in its entirety. Though this view is the farthest it truly is a spectacular view. Our favorite overlooks were 1 and 3. Overlook 3 because you can see every part of the Great Falls and Overlook 1 because it gets you close to the action of the rapids.
The River Trail
Length: 1.5 miles, one way (2 hour roundtrip)
Difficulty: Moderate to Hard
Use: Hiking only
The River trail is the most recommended hiking trail of the park and has great views of the Potomac River and Mather Gorge (probably why its called The River Trail). It is a heavily marked trail with either signs or a turquoise rectangle painted on rocks and trees to help guide people. With the foot traffic and signs, it would be hard for someone to get lost on this trail.
It is around a 2 hour round trip trail, give or take. It actually took us 2 hours one way because we were enjoying all the scenic views, taking pictures, and eating our packed lunch. This trail was a really fun hike – as stated some rock scrambling, bridges to cross, and areas to explore.
Along the trail there are several little nooks and crannies that are always to the left of the trail – take note that it is probably part of The River Trail. All it takes is a little curiosity and a leap of faith to make your way over or down some rocks to find natural beauty.
One of the first places we explored was almost like a beach, but instead of sand it was small pebbles. This must have been a popular area because what we thought was a hidden gem was well populated. A lot of these scenic view areas to the left of the trail have high cliffs, with heights as low as 25 ft. to as high as 75 ft. and you can see the other side of the park with Maryland hikers. Some of our best views were in isolated areas we went to based on curiosity of what we could find. Most of those times we found some great spots.(Chances are you will see other hikers go off path and therefore it is easy to find these different areas off the trail). The best part about this trail were the small paths that lead into something unexpected. It allowed us and the hikers amongst us to really explore and enjoy the adventure.
The trail ends about ten minutes after Sandy Landing and the further we hiked the trail the less populated it became. When we reached the end of the trail we turned right to Ridge trail that then led to Matildaville Trail and we took this trail back to the visitor center.
Length: 1.1 miles, one way (2 hours roundtrip)
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
Use: Hiking and horseback riding
The Matildaville Trail runs almost parallel the entire time to The River Trail and sometimes so close to The River Trail you can see other hikers or recognize that you have already been in this area. Other times it is surrounded by tall trees and the trail is tranquil in the forest.
Along the trail, hikers will pass ruins of the old town of Matildaville – it is quite amazing to be able to walk in an area where America’s first settlers lived.
While Adam and I were hiking we found the longest and strongest vine hanging from the tree that was shaped in a “U”. It was sturdy enough to put our full weight on the vine and have a little fun swinging back and forth.
People should be aware of horse manure as this trail is used of both hiking and horseback riding, though we never saw any horses we came across a lot of manure. The trail went a lot faster than The River Trail and we finished it within an hour. We always enjoy the hikes with spectacular views, but we also enjoy hikes like these where it is peaceful and we can talk and think out loud to each other. Sometimes our greatest plans come from our hiking adventures. In fact I think we decided to start saving for a house during this trail.
More pictures of our hike