That correct. Take off your hat, your blocking the view. The view is beautiful but in reality it is also a natural obstacle making a north bound trip on the Potomac impossible. Historically George Washington had a plan to develope a canal system to allow navigation northward on the Potomac River.
Not my favorite form of water sport, but it is for many others. It's a rush to see them go over the falls, but I'm sure it's more of a rush for them to go over the falls and then try to paddle back up the falls. Some make it, some don't.
For more Great Falls fun, you can drive 20 minutes back down to I-495, cross the Potomac and head up the Clara Barton Parkway and MacArthur Blvd to the Maryland side of the Great Falls, which is inside the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park. The Maryland side of the falls is equally as spectacular as the Virginia side, although there is only a single overlook of the falls. There are also more trails and hiking opportunities, and the beautiful C&O Canal. To find out more, visit my Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park Page.
Difficult Run is a beautiful tributary of the Potomac River. Much of the run lies outside Great Falls Park, though the run's final confluence with the river is within the boundaries of the park. Sections of this stream are protected in Fairfax County's Difficult Run Park. A trail runs from the Difficult Run parking area along the stream down to the Potomac River. I haven't hiked the entire length of that trail before but I hope to do so someday. Trails starting from the parking area also lead into 1.5 miles to the Great Falls Visitor Center.
There are over 15 miles of hiking trails at Great Falls and many other ways to explore the park. So if you see some guy wearing a hat out on the trails, it might just be me.
There are maps available online and at the visitors center. There is also a small museum that has brief documentary on the history of Great Falls.
There are many rocks you can climb on to get different views of the falls. Here are several pictures that I took from different rock advantage points. Don't forget your camera. You will want to take pictures of the natural wonders all around you. I also took some video's with digital camera while I was here and they turned out beautiful on my PC.
Relaxation is the key word here. Just sitting on a rock and listening to the river flow can make a relaxing afternoon away from the hustle of Washington DC. Also with all of the humdity here in the Baltimore Washington Metro area, the cool effects of the cascading water are a welcome relief on a hot summer afternoon.
If your a lot braver than me you might want to try your hand at paddeling a kayak into the rapids. There were several men in kayaks the day I visited Great Falls. I enjoyed watching them splash around in the rapids, and although it looked like it would be a real rush to try it out myself, I found it safer and dryer just watching from a distance.
This trail isn't particularly scenic, but it does lead to the Matildaville Ruins. The trail winds through forest, with occasional clearings on the trail. It's a very easy trail, with no steep grades anywhere. Still, it can be icy in winter, so watch out. The trail starts from the Visitor Center and leads south for about 1.5 miles until it reconnects with the River Trail.
At the Overlook 3, there's an interesting High Water Marker which showed the flood levels of the Potomac River in different years. According to the marker, in 1936, floodwaters would have submerged Overlook 3 under 10 feet of water.
The River Trail parallels the Mather Gorge through the entire park, offering some of the best views on the Virginia side of the river. The trail starts near Cow Hoof Rock and follows the gorge upstream to the visitor center at the falls, about 1.5 miles long. You can make a loop of this hike by taking the trail for the first 1/2-mile, then taking the Potowmack Canal Trail back to the visitor center. In winter, the trail can be icy, and at some points, the trail is rocky, but you get some good views.
This road/trail runs from the Difficult Run parking area to the visitor center, and is about 2 miles long. It doesn't provide any good views, but it's a good trail to hike to get into the park. The road also allows access to the Matildaville and Ridge Trails. Watch out for horse waste.
The Potomack Canal gave birth to the town of Matildaville, which was built on the canal and prospered shortly while the canal was in operation. Houses, storage buildings, and stores were once built here. But after the canal fell out of use in 1828, the town was abandoned in 1830. Today a few scant ruins of the town remains, but most of the area has been reclaimed by native vegetation.
The Potowmack Canal runs through the center of the park. It was constructed by George Washington in the late 18th century to boost trade to the western territories by the Potomac River. Using a system of locks, the canal would raise ships heading upstream 70 feet to the river above the falls. However, the canal stopped operating in 1828 after competition from the C&O Canal across the river, and has eventually decayed. You can now hike along the remains of the canal along the Canal Trail, which leads a little over 1/2 a mile from the visitor center.
Cow Hoof Rock is accessible either by taking the River Trail south 1.5 miles from the Visitor Center or hiking .5 miles from the Difficult Run Trailhead. We tried to do a loop by heading to Cow Hoof Rock from Difficult Run and then taking the River Trail north to the Visitor Center, but as we found, there was a lot of snow left on the ground from a large snowstorm about 2-3 weeks before we hiked. Worse, there was ice. Heading north on the River trail from the junction of the Ridge and the River Trails at the southern part of the park, the trail descends steeply and at that time was very slippery and icy. We managed to descend between the junction and get to about 20 feet from Cow Hoof Rock in 20 minutes (and we're talking about 150 yards distance here). I slipped and fell right before reaching Cow Hoof Rock, and the last 20 feet of trail to the rock looked extremely treacherous, so we headed back and took a new route. It's sort of disappointing, though. If you look in this photo, the snow-covered rock in front is Cow Hoof Rock.
Still, despite the fact we couldn't get to the rock, there were still really great views of Mather Gorge and the Potomac River. I'm going back and hiking this again someday (though not in winter).