Weekend Backpacker: Washington, D.C.
Watching the Potomac River roar over the steep and jagged rocks at Great Falls before tumbling through Mather Gorge is worth a trip in itself, but both sides of the Potomac in this areathat is, the Virginia side and the Maryland sidecan wind up being more than just a day trip.
Recommended trip: Great Falls Park, Virginia, and the C&O Canal at Great Falls, Maryland. In Virginia, Great Falls Park offers whitewater boating, rock climbing, fishing, cycling, and 15 miles of hiking trails, many of which have spectacular views of the falls and Mather Gorge. A short trip to the Maryland side of the river and you have access to the 184.5-mile C&O Canal Towpath, which you can hike, bike, or ride on horseback. There is also the opportunity to take a mule-drawn canal boat ride along a mile of the canal.
Getting there: To get to Great Falls, Virginia, take Interstate 495 to Exit 13 (in Virginia) to Georgetown Pike. Follow Georgetown Pike four miles to Old Dominion Drive. Turn right into the park. To get to the Maryland side, go back to Interstate 495 and take Exit 41 (in Maryland) toward Carderock.
Permit information: No permits are required, but there are day-use fees at the parks ($4 per vehicle and $2 per cyclist or hiker). Park passes, such as the Golden Eagle or Golden Passport, are accepted.
Maps: Maps can be acquired at the parks or through their headquarters and are also available at some local outfitters.
Practical information: The rocks are extremely dangerous around the falls, as are the rapids. Only experts should attempt to whitewater boat here and care should be taken in climbing on the rocks. Make sure you have plenty of water if hiking or cycling.
Recommended guides: C&O Canal Companion (Johns Hopkins) by Mike High, 184 Miles of Adventure by the Boy Scouts of America, and Towpath Guide to the C&O Canal by the American Canal and Transportation Center are all good guides to the C&O Canal Towpath.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication