15 miles from Washington, D.C., 800-acre Great Falls Park straddles a spectacular, waterfall-filled section of the Potomac River, and is a favorite destination for travelers on the C&O Canal Towpath. The park features miles of riverside hiking trails, including an interpretive boardwalk loop at Great Falls Overlook where the river cascades 20 feet over rugged rock outcroppings. The prominent Great Falls Tavern, once a gathering place for canal boatmen, later a private social club, and always a popular watering hole for tourists, now houses a National Park Service Visitor Center. A replica canal boat, the Charles F. Mercer, takes visitors on guided canal tours within the park near Lock 20.
This natural landmark has attracted people for thousands of years as a trading post, fishing spot, and inspirational outpost. In 1785, George Washington’s Patowmack Canal Company utilized mostly enslaved labor to construct and eventually operate at Great Falls one of five skirting canals designed to make the Potomac River navigable to the Ohio River Valley. The company went bankrupt and turned over its assets to the newly formed Chesapeake and Ohio Canal company in 1828. Visitors can still spy the ruins of these early locks, and evidence of black powder used for blasting through 60 feet of solid rock, on intersecting footpaths. For many years, the falls were harnessed to operate mills and generate hydroelectric power, and in 1930, plans were put into place to preserve parkland around Great Falls, which is now today’s national park unit.
Great Falls Park is open dawn to dusk. The visitor center is open 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, with reduced hours during the winter. Parking is $20 for noncommercial vehicles.