Why You Should See Great Falls, MD

You could be forgiven for being a little confused about why there is a Great Falls in Virginia, as well as a Great Falls in Maryland. This post will clear that up for you and explain why you should see the Great Falls, MD.

Where Are the Great Falls, MD?

The Great Falls consist of several waterfalls and rapids along the Potomac river. The confusion arises because the Potomac river is 405 miles long and runs from the Potomac Highlands in West Virginia to the Great Falls in Maryland.

Great Falls, MD is part of the Chesapeake & Ohio (C & O) Canal National Historic Park and they’re located off Falls Road in Potomac. The Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center is where people usually begin their visit. From there, you can go to either, or both, overlooks.

The Washington Aqueduct Observation Deck is a great place to view the upper falls and is to the north of the visitor Center. To the south, the Olmsted Island Bridges offer fabulous views and are the starting point for several hiking trails.

Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center

The Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center is open between 9am and 4.30pm, Wednesdays through to Sundays but the park itself is open every day of the year.

The Visitor Center began its life as Crommelin House in 1831. It was built as a hotel and accommodation for travelers by the Canal Company shortly after work on the C & O Canal began. When it first opened there were many parties and celebrations held in the ballroom on the first floor.

The second floor of Crommelin House contained the sleeping quarters. These were separated into women’s and men’s dormitories. The third floor contained the honeymoon suite.

Named after Dutch canal visitors, Crommelin House is now the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center.

Accommodation at Great Falls, MD


The days of women’s and men’s dormitories are long gone, but there are still many accommodation options available.

As official non-profit partner, the C & O Canal trust offer lockhouse accommodation beside the canal. All the lockhouses sleep up to 8 people and have been refurbished to look as they 60, 90, and 150 year ago.

There are 6 lockhouses in total and each represents a different stage in the canals development. These get booked up quickly, so you need to plan your trip well in advance.

Camping is available in designated areas of the park. Quiet hours are between 10pm and 6am and all pets must be leashed. Single campsites allow two tents and up to 8 people. Hiker-biker campsites allow up anywhere between five to ten tents, but please check the signage for each.

Things to Do at Great Falls, MD

Although the park is open 365 days a year, due to weather conditions, not all attractions are open all the time.

Before planning your trip, check with the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center to see what sites are available.

Canal Boat

Due to construction, the boat rides will resume in 2019, so now is a great time to begin planning your trip. If there’s more than 10 of you taking a canal boat ride, reservations should be made well in advance. Tickets can be bought at the visitors Center and the Charles F Mercer is available for private hire.

The Charles F Mercer holds 65 people and takes you for an hour-long ride down the historic C & O Canal. During the boat ride, park rangers in period clothing tell stories of how the people working and living on the canal lived in the 1870s. A highlight of the ride is experiencing the lock rising 8 feet.

The Billy Goat Trail

The Billy Goat Trail is actually 3 trails in 1, labelled A, B, and C. All three trails add up to 8 miles and C is the easiest hike of the trail. The Billy Goat Trail runs from Great Rocks Tavern to Carderock and cell phone reception isn’t always available.

Billy Goat Trail A is the most difficult and it pays to check the weather report before you start. Trail A is slightly less than two miles long but there is some rock-climbing needed and some of the surfaces can be slippery. You also need to keep an eye out for ticks, snakes, and poison ivy.

While the trail runs along the Potomac river, it’s not safe for swimming in or wading. Even standing on the rocks next to the river can be dangerous as they are usually slippery. Dogs are only allowed on trails B and C and they must be leashed at all times.

Safety is extremely important on the trails so please make sure you are dressed appropriately for all weathers and have plenty of water with you.

Activities Along the C & O Canal

Throughout the year, many activities and events are held along the C & O Canal and you might want to plan your trip to Great Falls to coincide with one of these events.

Here is a small sample of the activities that were enjoyed in 2018:

  • Georgetown Alley Crawl: this is a one hour walk that explores how the streets appeared and disappeared in the old factory district of Georgetown.
  • Civil War History Talk at Great Falls Tavern: Park volunteer Jim Buchanan delivers a talk about how the Confederate Army tried to destroy the canal.
  • John and Jacqueline in Georgetown: this is a one-hour walking tour that passes the nine different locations that John and Jacqueline Kennedy lived between 1949 and 1964.
  • Dulcimer Music at Great Falls: traditional songs performed by the Mountain Dulcimers of Northern Virginia
  • Georgetown’s Herring Hill: this is a 1.5-hour walking tour that explores the area that was the African-American quarter.

Activities specifically for winter include ice-fishing, hiking and cross-country skiing.

Park Ranger Programs

Park ranger programs are run throughout the year and children of all ages love them. The Meet the Mules program is particularly popular and are offered in spring, summer, and fall. The children will learn how the mules help to power the canal boats.\

The park rangers run 60 to 90-minute walking tours every day and they share their knowledge about the natural environment and history of the area. Lock demonstrations occur daily and show how the lock system works along the canal.

After you’ve seen how the locks work you can join a guided tour of the lockhouses. These are open most weekends during spring and fall and are educational as well as fun. The tour shows you what life was like in the 1870s.

Activities for the Kids

canal kids in the park

The kids can take part in a nature scavenger hunt that allows them to tick off various birds, animals, and insects, on a card.

Or they can borrow a backpack filled with fun outdoor activities. They can become a Let’s Move Outside Junior Park Ranger by being actively involved in National Park activities.

be a junior ranger

Junior Ranger activity books help the kids learn about protecting the wildlife, plants, and historic sites in the area. The Junior Ranger motto is Explore, Learn, and Protect!

Kids can learn songs, participate in online programs and earn badges and their parents may learn a thing or two as well.

Other Attractions at Great Falls, MD

There are far too many attractions at Great Falls to list them all here, but you can rest assured that your visit will be an exciting one. You can expect to see wildlife including box turtles, white-tailed deer, squirrels, chipmunks, coyotes, and bats.

The Washington Aqueduct Observation Deck is a great place to spot a Bald Eagle, a Turkey Vulture or a Red-tailed Hawk. Other birds you might find along the canal include the Indigo Bunting, Carolina Wren, Northern Cardinal, Downy Woodpecker and Tufted Titmouse. And of course, there’s butterflies, frogs, and insects to meet.

The reasons you should see Great Falls, MD are many and after you’ve made your first visit, you’ll return many times more. For family vacations, honeymoons, kid’s adventures, and education - Great Falls, MD has it all.

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