Access: $10 entrance fee for Great Falls Park
The manicured parklands and wide biking paths along the calm Potomac near the Kennedy Center and the Tidal Basin in Washington DC give little hint of the violent, churning waters the river experiences just a handful of miles upstream. Between the Piedmont and the Tidewater, along the fall line of the Atlantic seaboard, the Potomac River drops 76 feet in a mile, forming one of the most impressive sets of river rapids on the continent. Just downstream of the Great Falls, the Potomac carves out a scene of nearly equal drama to the falls: vertical rock walls confine the river to a narrow, charging course through Mather Gorge. Equivalently astonishing is the ease in which most visitors can access these sights: a short hike with minimal elevation gain allows hikers to see the Virginia side of the falls and walk the length of the rocky canyon. This hike follows sections of the River Trail and Matildaville Trail to make a brief but enjoyable loop that is a perfect afternoon outing from DC.
The Maryland side of Great Falls is probably better known and more often visited: it's hard to beat the direct view of the river's main channel from Olmsted Island or to one up the the Billy Goat Trail's rock scramble along Mather Gorge. The Virginia side offers an equally enjoyable hike along the Mather Gorge, albeit without the rock scramble that contributes to the excitement of the Billy Goat Trail.
I hiked this trail on a warm New Year's Eve with two of my very good friends from the University of Virginia. We met up in Northern Virginia near Merrifield and followed the Beltway to the exit for Georgetown Pike and Great Falls, which is just south of where I-495 crosses the Potomac on the American Legion Bridge. If you are coming to Great Falls Park from DC itself, you can get to Georgetown Pike by following the George Washington Parkway west to its terminus and follow signs for Georgetown Pike. Once off the Beltway, we followed Georgetown Pike west for four hilly and windy miles to Old Dominion Drive. We turned right onto Old Dominion Drive and followed the road to its terminus at Great Falls Park. The park is operated by the National Park Service, although it is not technically a national park; it falls under the administration of the agency's National Capital Parks.
We headed south from the large parking area past the visitor center to the wide trail that paralleled the river. Soon after passing the visitor center, we came to the first overlook of three overlooks of the Great Falls. We checked out all three, spending time at each to admire the roaring rapids of the Potomac at high water. During low water, two distinct levels of falls are visible in the center of the river; however, during our visit, after a week of heavy rains, the waters of the Potomac were full enough that the drops were barely noticeable as the river churned its way downstream. In many spots, the high water led to spectacular spray on the roaring Potomac.
|The Great Falls of the Potomac|
|Boat capsizing at Great Falls|
We left the Third Overlook and began to follow the River Trail, which split off to the left from the wide, gravel Patowmack Canal Trail that we had followed earlier. The River Trail offered few views of the river early on as it wound through the rocky terrain and forest a few yards back from the rim of Mather Gorge. At a few spots, the uneven terrain on the trail might require a brief bit of rock scrambling for some, but it is something that most hikers would be able to handle with no problem.
A few hundred yards along the River Trail, we came to the first good view of the river and the gorge. Here, a plaque proclaimed the name of the canyon and noted that it was named after the first director of the National Park Service. Mather and his deputy director, Horace Albright, were key in forming the current familiar definition of national parks as places meant for conservation, recreation, historic preservation, and science.
|The entrance of Mather Gorge|
|Kayaker battling the Potomac|
The canal path turned back into the River Trail, bringing us back to cliffs alongside the Mather Gorge after passing the canal cut. This was the most thrilling stretch of the hike: for the next quarter mile, the trail followed the rim of the gorge, offering continuous views of the river and of the rocky cliffs. The gorge walls were at their steepest here, with a nearly vertical drop from the edge of the trail to the now-more-placid Potomac.
|Mouth of Mather Gorge at Cow Hoof Rock|
Today, Matildaville is just a set of stone foundations; in the early eighteenth century, it was a town next to the canal that relied on trade and operation of the Patowmack Canal. Just as George Washington championed the Patowmack Canal, another towering figure in Virginia history, Lighthorse Harry Lee, was instrumental in the establishment of the town, which was named after Lee's wife, Matilda. The town eventually lost relevance after the Patowmack Canal's usefulness wore out and was burnt to the ground by the mid-19th century.
After passing all of the stone foundations that remained at Matildaville, we came to the Old Carriage Trail, which we merged onto and followed to the right back to the visitor center and the trailhead, ending an easy and thoroughly enjoyable half-day hike.