Called the “Niagara of the South” and known as the “Waterway to the West”, Great Falls Park is part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, which is 32 miles long, encompassing two wildlife refuges and several historic sites and recreational areas over 800 acres. It’s located 12 miles from Washington DC but will transport visitors to a world of outdoor adventures. On the Maryland side is the C&O National Historic Park, Each year over half a million people explore Great Falls Park.
The Patowmack Canal Company was created in the late eighteenth century by George Washington as a way to improve access and trade along the Potomac River. Maryland and Virginia fought over jurisdiction for many years until Washington helped broker an agreement to allow commerce for both areas. The canal ceased operations in 1858 when the park became a home to an inn, amusement park, and even a carousel. Much of those structures were destroyed in the mid twentieth century and the National Park Service took over in 1966.
Traveling with Kids:
Most of the park is handicap (and stroller) accessible. The overlooks have handicap ramps and the paths are fairly clear.
There are tons of picnic tables along with the paths and plenty of green space to stretch your legs. Bring a frisbee or some gloves and a ball.
Restrooms are located at the lower level of the Visit Center and the women’s restroom has a baby changing table. There is also a snack shack, offering typical drinks, burgers, hot dogs, fries and snacks.
Make sure your child picks up a Junior Ranger booklet- he or she can earn a badge and other rewards for completing various activities and research.
Dogs (leashed) are allowed.
There is a $10 fee per car. If you have a child in the fourth grade, make sure you get him or her the Every Kid in a Park pass and you can get into any national park for free. Check here for park hours and Visitor Center hours.
Make sure you wear sneakers; you’re in a park with some uneven terrain.
Five Can’t Miss Spots in Great Falls Park:
1. Start at the Visitor’s Center. There is a small gift shop and information center. Make sure to collect all FIVE stamps for your National Parks passport. There are several interactive exhibits that explain the history and geography of the area, including “Flooded with Variety” (touch screens and maps), “Working and Living on the Canal” (narration of daily life), and “Kayaker’s Gear” (have the kids pretend by sitting inside the kayak). The auditorium shows two short films about the history of the park. We learned a lot from the twelve-minute film on the background of the park. Ask rangers to play either film anytime during the day. Little children will like the kids’ area, which includes seasonal displays, touch boxes, and puzzles. The display of National Parks Junior Ranger badges is impressive.
2. Visit all three overlooks to get breathtaking views of the falls. The 2nd and 3rd overlooks are handicap accessible. The third overlook (located farthest from the Visitor Center) has the best views, especially of the 76 foot cascades. Make sure to check out the flood markers and measure yourself against the high flood marks.
3. Take the trail where you can see the remains of the some of the five locks used to make the canal system. There is still 1(?) in tact that you can get up close to (?)
4. Visit Matildaville, the nineteenth century village that housed supporters and works of the canal system. Some of the ruins of structures and buildings are still standing today.
5. Get your steps in by walking, running, biking, hiking, fishing, or even horseback riding on some (or all) of the fifteen miles of trails through the park. Check here for suggestions and locations.
Nearby: About a ten-minute drive is the city of Tysons. There are two major malls, plenty of shopping and dining options. We tried the Silver Diner (there are several locations in the greater DC area) but the line was too long (I forgot it was a Saturday). Practically next door was Café Deluxe which had super yummy omelets and beignets (kind of like the French version of a munchin’) and quickly accommodated our party of ten- we had a great lunch with cousins who live nearby.