Just 15 miles upstream from the nation’s capital, the Potomac River gets all kinds of wild and crazy. At Great Falls, the river gathers speed and plunges over a series of 20-foot drops, resulting in one of the most spectacular waterfall settings in the country. It’s surrounded by an 800-acre mini National Park—with trails to hike and cliffs to climb—that gives Metro D.C. mountain hounds an easily accessible post-work escape just outside the Beltway gridlock.
Paddle the Falls
Paddling Great Falls is reserved for only the bravest of boaters. The main line drops a daunting 50 feet in just one-tenth of mile, creating a tumultuous ride through a series of class V+ rapids. According to American Whitewater, 30 people have drowned at Great Falls since it was first run in 1975. Just below the Falls, a run through Mather Gorge offers a much more manageable scenic stretch of class III-IV whitewater.
Urban Trail Time
After a long day at the office, you can blow off some steam on the park’s 15 miles of trails. Try the five-mile loop hike that connects the Difficult Run, Swamp, Ridge, and River Trails—a scenic jaunt that includes rocky shoreline and overlook views. After your hike, grab a cold one at The Tavern, just off the Georgetown Pike.
Climb the Ladder
The steep cliffs that lead down to the Potomac banks offer some tasty top-rope treats (bolting not permitted) for D.C.-area climbers. The park’s craggy faces feature a variety of routes that range in length from 25 to 75 feet with a high concentration of intermediate options between 5.8 and 5.12 at classic cliff areas the Dihedrals and Romeo’s Ladder. Beginners are better served across the water on the Maryland side at Carderock with a smattering of lower angle faces that come in between 5.5-5.7.