July 2012: Great Falls Park

Fairfax County, Virginia

To George Washington the Great Falls of the Potomac were an obstacle that needed to be overcome to open the Ohio Valley to lucrative trade. The Patowmack Company was chartered in 1784 to construct a laborious series of five canals that were completed in 1802. It was considered the greatest engineering feat in early America. The canal prospered for only a quarter-century. In the early 1900s John McLean and Steven Elkins acquired the lands surrounding Great Falls and built an amusement park. Tourists traveled along a trolley from Georgetown to the park to see the hydrospectacular in the rocky river. The venture was an immediate success but eventually fell victim to the intermittent flooding of the Potomac. Potomac Edison Power Company came along with plans to construct a hydroelectric dam here but the area geology could not be tamed to complete the project. Finally in 1966, through an agreement with Fairfax County, the National Park Service acquired 800 acres of land to create Great Falls Park. 

The star canine hike at Great Falls is the River Trail that will take your dog to the edge of the 79-foot falls and the steep-walled Mather Gorge. The path travels through the remains of Matildaville, a thriving town from the long-ago canal age, as well as remnants of the Patowmack Canal. The blue-blazed trail twists through a rocky alpine-like environment not often seen in Northern Virginia. Another unique habitat in the park - also hiker-only - is the Swamp Trail that explores an ancient terrace of the Potomac River for about one mile. Your dog will enjoy the level terrain and multiple stream crossings on this ramble. The bulk of the park’s 15 miles of trails are on old carriage roads and roadbeds that also allow horses and sometimes bikes. But these routes are wide and well-graded that make for an excellent canine hike. The trails slip under quiet treetops and historic structures.

Near Overlook #2 is a High Water Mark Pole that marks the depths to which the Potomac far below can flood. The most recent marking is from January 21, 1996 when the river rose 85 feet in 48 hours. That mark is about eye-high to a beagle - it was only the fifth largest flood of the past 100 years. For the highest mark you’ll have to look overhead to see where the waters of the Great Potomac Flood of 1936 reached.

Take Beltway Exit 44 for Route 193, Georgetown Pike, and head west. About three miles down the road, you will come to a traffic light at Old Dominion Drive where you will see a sign for the park. Make a right at the light. Old Dominion Drive will dead-end at the entrance station, about one mile down the road.