Facing the C&O Canal National Historical Park across the Potomac River on the Virginia side, this is where the steep, jagged falls of the Potomac roar into the narrow Mather Gorge, the rocky narrows that make the Potomac churn. No matter the time of year, the views of the falls and river are spectacular, and more than 160 species of birds make their home in and around the 800-acre park.
Great Falls Park is a favorite for outings; here you can follow trails past the old Patowmack Canal and among the boulders and forests lining the edge of the falls. There are three overlooks in the park, two of which are handicap accessible. Horseback riding is permitted—maps are available at the visitor center—but you can't rent horses in the park. Swimming, wading, overnight camping, and alcoholic beverages are not allowed, but you can fish (a Virginia or Maryland license is required for anglers 16 and older), climb rocks (climbers must register first at the visitor center or lower parking
lot), or—if you're an experienced boater with your own equipment—go white-water kayaking (below the falls only). As is true all along this stretch of the river, the currents are deadly. Despite frequent signs and warnings, there are those who occasionally dare the water and drown.
If you're planning a picnic in the park, be sure to bring an extra bag to carry out your trash as the park is now trash free. A tour of the visitor center and museum takes 45 minutes. Staff members conduct special tours and walks year-round.