Great Falls Park

Where: 9200 Old Dominion Dr., McLean, VA
When: Open daily from 7 am- sunset (visitor’s center open from 10 am- 4 pm). Entrance fee is $10/vehicle.

On December 27, my family, and everyone else’s family, went to Great Falls Park to get outside and take advantage of the unseasonably warm weather El Nino gave us for Christmas this year. I’m not sure about you, but I can’t decide how I feel about it being in the 70s in December. On the one hand, warm weather is nice. On the other hand, if we don’t get any winter weather this year I worry I’ll have missed out on the yearly experience of complaining incessantly about the weather. How does one proceed?

Anyway, what you need to know about this warm weather is that it will most certainly cause a delay getting into the park if you don’t get there early enough. My family scooted into the park just before 10:30 am and the wait was about four cars long. When we were leaving around noon, the wait was considerably longer. The National Park Service kindly warns visitors of this on their page, but in case you don’t want to poke around over there, just know that on a nice day, the line to get into Great Falls Park can, and has, stretched all the way out to Georgetown Pike, the length of which line will result in about an hour long wait to get up to the gate. So earlier is definitely better if you can swing it.

The park was crowded the day we went, and I was tickled to see later that many local Instagram accounts I follow were posting pictures from either Great Falls Park or the Maryland side of the falls at the Billy Goat Trail. It seems every family in Virginia looked at each other that morning and said “I don’t know, want to go to Great Falls?” It’s highly possible I saw some of you there and didn’t know it. Hi! I was the one crabbing at my toddler for whining about her wet shoes after she jumped in a puddle.

The last time we had gone was over the summer (June 30, thanks to my handy dandy iPhone photo-dating) and the falls looked quite different from 6 months ago:

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The lush greens tucked around the falls during the summer have of course given way to a starker, more ascetic look in December:

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Still lovely! All good things!

There’s three separate spots to view the falls, each with a slightly different view than the others. This was the third spot, located furthest from the falls, which gives you a more panoramic view. The first spot is right on top of the falls practically, which is quite titillating.

Nearby is a stick that shows the high water levels from previous years:

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I have a rich imagination that tends to the dramatic, so in my mind, with all this seemingly never-ending rain we’ve had lately, I figured surely the falls would be roaring lions of tumbling rapids and we would have met a notch on this pole. Then I was brought back down to earth by seeing that no, we had not even reached the paltry water levels of 1985. In my mind we were easily at 1937. The reality was there were a few standing puddles and the falls were no more gushing and wild than usual and I need to really dial things back.

After you’ve viewed the falls, there’s a variety of trails you can take to explore the park. If you’ve got kids with you, stop into the Visitor’s Center on your way in and grab a Junior Ranger booklet (or visit this page and print one out to take with you). Using the map and the instructions in the book, kids can tour the park filling in responses to the questions within and then, after showing their completed booklet to a ranger at the Visitor’s Center, earn a Junior Ranger badge. I did the packet for kids age 5-7 with my daughter during our summer visit and she loved it! It’s a fun, interactive way to keep kids interested in the park and paying attention to what’s going on around them.

Once you’ve got your Junior Ranger booklet, hit the trails!

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The Canal Trail takes you the route of the old Patowmack Canal, which was built to help ships bypass the falls as they made their way down the Potomac River. Along this trail you can see remains of the locks that would lift and carry ships past the falls.

The Matildaville Trail takes you by the ruins of the little town of Matildaville, which was built to house the canal-workers who built the Patowmack Canal. Both the canal and Matildaville lie in unused ruins now because ultimately the entire project proved to be expensive and unsustainable. The NPS page says that the canal was only usable one to two months a year, and the tolls collected from ships during that time were not enough to keep the canal running. Ultimately the entire enterprise was handed over to Maryland in 1828 and the town of Matildaville was abandoned. It’s tough on these streets canals.

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There’s plenty of picnic tables available at Great Falls Park, so pack a lunch if you like, but be aware that there’s no trash cans in the park so you’ll need to take your trash with you. Pack In, Pack Out.

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How cool is this tree? It’s circled with years and years worth of carved graffiti. I mean, don’t add to it, technically this is a travesty, but since it’s all already there, you might as well look at it and admire how neat it looks.

Dogs and strollers are welcome at Great Falls Park, so bring them if you like! Wear good walking shoes. I want to believe this is obvious but I saw a girl lingering around the Visitor’s Center wearing heeled booties and a leather jacket and a clutch, either unwilling or unable to engage in any activity within the park due to her attire. I actually wonder about that girl. Did the people she was riding with completely mislead her as to what Great Falls Park was? Did they say they were going to the mall and then detour to the national park? Life is full of mysteries. Some questions have no answers. Wear your boots or walking shoes.

Make a day of it:

Going back down Georgetown Pike toward the village of Great Falls, you can stop at Grange Playground and let the kids do some climbing, or grab a cone at Great Falls Creamery. Going up Georgetown Pike another 8 or so miles will deposit you at Clemyjontri Park, one of the best playgrounds in the area, designed to be fully inclusive for people of all abilities.

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