A morning’s bicycle ride on the C&O Canal Towpath from Georgetown are the Great Falls, a spectacular, rushing cascade of water plunging down rugged rocks in the middle of the Potomac River. Side trails from the towpath, including an interpretive boardwalk loop onto Olmstead Island, offer splendid views from the Great Falls Overlook. 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.
Across the Potomac River
Across the Potomac River, in Virginia, is Great Falls Park, a separate unit of the National Park Service, also well-worth a visit on a return visit to the region. 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.
Great Falls Tavern’s visitor center is open 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, with reduced hours during the winter. Parking is $20 for noncommercial vehicles.