Edited by: Keri Stooksbury
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Great Falls Park showcases one of the nation’s first canals as well as Potomac’s Great Falls. This park has a rich history and a gorgeous landscape filled with towering cliffs, raging rapids, and remarkable trails.
Here you have endless opportunities, including hiking, kayaking, horseback riding, and phenomenal tours led by park rangers. Each year, over 330,000 adventurers travel to explore and marvel at the beauty of this American park.
How To Get to Great Falls Park
Where Is Great Falls Park?
Great Falls Park is located in McLean, Virginia, just 30 miles from Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital. This park is located along the Potomac River. It stretches over 800 acres of land and water.
Great Falls Park Opening Hours and Seasons
Great Falls Park is open year-round, with the exception of December 25. This park can be explored from 7 am to 30 minutes after sunset. While this park is open year-round, roads, trails, and the visitor center may close depending on weather conditions.
Nearest Airports to Great Falls Park
There are 2 major airports near Great Falls National Park. Each airport option is under 20 miles from the park. Let’s take a look at the options for flying into the Great Falls area.
Dulles International Airport (IAD)
Dulles International Airport is 16 miles from Great Falls National Park in Dulles, Virginia. It takes approximately 20 minutes to get to the park from this airport.
Airlines serviced by Dulles International Airport include Allegiant, American, Delta, United, and Virgin Atlantic. With nonstop flights to 77 domestic and 62 international destinations, Dulles makes traveling to Great Falls Park a breeze.
Plenty of car rental kiosks and ride-share services are available at Dulles International Airport to help you with the last bit of your journey to the park. With a long list of services, airlines, and destinations, this airport makes an excellent choice for flying into the Great Falls area.
Reagan International Airport (DCA)
Reagan International Airport is 20 miles from Great Falls National Park. The park is about 30 minutes from the airport.
This airport offers nonstop flights to 100 domestic and 5 international destinations. The airlines serviced by Reagan include well-known carriers such as American Airlines, Delta, Frontier, Southwest, and United Airlines.
There are rental car kiosks, ride-share services, and Metro access from DCA. Once arriving at this airport, you are just a hop, skip, and jump from the adventures at Great Falls Park.
Driving to Great Falls Park
Great Falls Park is accessed from I-495. Travelers will take exit 44 onto Route 193 West and continue for 4 miles. The park is located on Old Dominion Drive.
Taking the Train to Great Falls Park
The best option for visitors who want to arrive at Great Falls Park by train is to use the Metro. There are stations in Spring Hill and Greensboro, which are both approximately 5 miles from the park. Once arriving at the Metro station, visitors must arrange a rideshare service to make it to the park entrance.
Getting Around Great Falls Park
Driving through Great Falls Park is not allowed. Adventurers will park at the visitor center and then explore the park on foot or by cycling. The park’s website offers printable and interactive maps to help visitors in planning their Great Falls itinerary.
What To See and Do in Great Falls Park
Great Falls Park has a long list of activities for adventurers to enjoy during their visit. From wildlife viewing to guided tours, and from kayaking the raging river to hiking trails, there’s something that will appeal to every visitor. Let’s explore some of the top activities available at Great Falls Park.
There are over 150 species of birds that can be spotted in Great Falls Park, making this an excellent location for birdwatching. Some of the birds that can be found in this park include herons, woodpeckers, vultures, geese, kingfishers, songbirds, and ducks.
There are several excellent places to watch birds, most of them along the trails. Don’t forget to pack your binoculars when visiting Great Falls Park to get an even better look at the birds that call this park home.
Paddleboarding, Boating, and Kayaking
There are excellent opportunities for paddleboarding, boating, and kayaking at Great Falls Park. The most popular kind of boating is whitewater boating, where visitors use whitewater kayaks and canoes to travel down the Potomac River.
Boating opportunities range from moderately easy to extreme, so this activity is best for those with experience. These activities are considered extreme, as there have been many drowning incidents and injuries in the Potomac River.Hot Tip:
Be sure to educate yourself on paddling safety and check the water levels before venturing out.
Great Falls Park is a wonderful place for fishing, and many visitors love spending a day reeling in a catch from the river. All fishing should take place on the shore of the Potomac River. Anyone over age 16 must have a fishing license from Maryland or Virginia.
Some fish frequently caught in Great Falls Park’s waters include largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, blue catfish, and bluegill, but several other fish species make their home in these waters as well.
If you plan to fish in the waters of Great Falls Park, be sure to clean up your area and properly dispose of all trash, unused bait, and all fishing gear in order to protect the land and water and continue providing a healthy habitat for the park’s animals.
Great Falls Park Visitor Center
A stop by the Great Falls Park Visitor Center is the best way to begin your adventures at Great Falls Park. This visitor center features a 10-minute video sharing Great Falls Park’s history. There are also trail maps, tours, park information, and park staff and volunteers who are eager to help you map out your Great Falls itinerary.
The Great Falls Park Visitor Center also features a variety of displays about the geography of the park area, plant and animal life, geology, and the Patowmack Canal. One popular area in the visitor center is the interactive children’s room which offers puzzles, hands-on projects, and coloring activities so that even the tiniest adventurers can get excited about Great Falls.
Before heading out to explore, you might want to purchase souvenirs or concessions at the park bookstore and concession stand.
Great Falls Park offers a variety of ranger-led tours and programs, which are exceptional ways to learn about the natural and cultural history of the park.
Families, school groups, scout groups, and others enjoy touring different areas of the park with a knowledgeable ranger or park volunteer. Visitors are encouraged to interact with the tour leader and ask any questions that come about during the tour.
The most popular days to participate in the guided tours at Great Falls Park are Saturdays and Sundays, where visitors can learn the story of Captain George Pointer, the most iconic man associated with Great Falls, and the history of the Patowmack Canal.
Another popular guided tour at Great Falls Park is the Bird Walk. Visitors are guided by a park volunteer and take a walk throughout the park on a journey that is 2 and a half miles long. This is a great opportunity for bird lovers of all ages.
There’s no better way to explore and learn about the history of Great Falls Park than by participating in a guided tour. These tours are exciting and informative for visitors of all ages and stages and can open your eyes to the interesting stories that make this Virginian Park so unique.
Horseback riding is available in Great Falls Park. This activity is for guests who can bring their personal horses with them.
There are approximately 10 miles of trails available for horseback riding. Some of the most popular areas for this activity include Difficult Run, Matildaville, Old Carriage Road, Mine Run, and Ridge Trail. Exploring Great Falls Park by horseback is a unique way to immerse yourself in the raw beauty of the park.
Picnicking is a popular activity at Great Falls Park. Several areas throughout the park are perfect for setting up a picnic and enjoying a meal with a wonderful view.
Not only is there an abundance of perfect places to lay out a blanket for a picnic on the ground, but several picnic tables and grills are available for visitors who prefer to sit at a table. These picnic tables are near the visitor center, close to Overlook 3.
Rivers and Waterfalls
There are 3 main overlooks in Great Falls Park that provide visitors with stunning views of the river and waterfalls at Great Falls. Each of these overlooks is within a 10-minute walk from the visitor center and only accessed by walking. The overlooks are simply called Overlook 1, Overlook 2, and Overlook 3.
Overlook 1 offers the closest look at the Great Falls. This overlook is left of the south end of the visitor center. Those wanting to take in the views from Overlook 1 will take a short trail that ends at a viewing platform. This is the least accessible overlook and not a good option for wheelchairs and strollers. Light climbing and rocky paths should be expected.
Overlook 2 is a wonderful option for those in wheelchairs or with strollers. This overlook is located on a trail a bit further from the visitor center. Overlook 2 offers breathtaking views of the waterfall and features a wooden footbridge by the Patowmack Canal. A staircase and ramp lead to a wooden platform for taking in the views and capturing photographs of the Great Falls.
Another accessible trail is the one to Overlook 3. This trail goes past Overlook 2 and has 2 platforms for taking in the best views of Great Falls. Another exciting sight at this overlook is the High-Water Marks pole, which shows the heights of past flood levels. This is the final place in the park where the falls can be viewed.
Trails and Hiking
There are 15 miles of trails that wind through Great Falls Park. These trails can be used for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. The visitor center has trail maps available and printable maps are available on the park’s website.
The trails throughout Great Falls Park are unpaved dirt or gravel paths that range from easy to strenuous in difficulty. Some of the most popular trails are the Riverbend Road Trail, the North River Trail to Riverbend Country Park, and Patowmack Canal Trail.
Most of the trails begin near the visitor center and showcase dazzling views of the river, waterfalls, wildflowers, wildlife, and historic ruins. Whether hiking, biking, or horseback riding, the trails at Great Falls offer incredible opportunities for discovering the wonder of this beautiful park.
Best Times To Visit Great Falls Park
Great Falls Park is a beautiful place to visit year-round. There are better times than others to plan a trip, especially if there is something particular you want to see or an event you’d like to participate in. Below you will find some of the best times to visit Great Falls Park.
Best Time To Visit Great Falls Park for Ideal Weather
Since Great Falls Park must be explored on foot or by bike, weather can significantly impact your trip. If you want to plan a trip around the weather, the best time to visit is in September. The temperatures range from the upper 50s to the upper 70s in September, and this month is one of the lowest precipitation months throughout the year.
Best Time To Visit Great Falls Park To Avoid the Crowds
Visiting Great Falls Park without crowds can enhance your trip quite a bit. The least crowded time to visit Great Falls Park is in October. There are fewer crowds, and the park is changing from summer to fall. The trees bursting with color, the comfortable temperatures, and fewer crowds make October an excellent time to visit Great Falls Park.
Best Time To Visit Great Falls Park for River and Waterfall Viewing
The river and waterfalls at Great Falls Park are mesmerizing, no matter when you are able to see them. For stunning sights of the river and waterfalls, plan a trip in March. Once the snow has melted, the water in the river rages and provides wonderful opportunities to catch spectacular views of the water at Great Falls Park.
Cheapest Time To Visit Great Falls Park
Visiting Great Falls Park doesn’t have to crush your budget. The cheapest time to visit this park is in October, which happens to be the least busy month. An October visit can save hundreds of dollars on airline tickets and lodging accommodations.
Annual Events in Great Falls Park
There are many events, such as ranger-led programs, that take place regularly at Great Falls Park, but there aren’t any events that take place annually.
Where To Stay In and Near Great Falls Park
There aren’t any lodging options for staying within Great Falls Park’s boundaries, but plenty of options are nearby. Whether you prefer staying in a quaint suburb or a lively city, you can find exactly what you’re looking for within 30 miles of the park. Check out the options for lodging near Great Falls Park.
Inside the Park
There are no options for lodging within the boundaries of Great Falls Park. Camping is prohibited at this park. The only accommodation option is to set up a base camp near the park.
Towns Near Great Falls Park
Several towns near Great Falls Park make ideal places for a base camp during your visit. Each town is filled with excellent options for lodging and entertainment. Take a look at the 2 most popular towns for visitors to stay at when visiting Great Falls Park.
Great Falls Park is nestled in McLean, Virginia, making McLean the closest option for a home base. This town is just 10 miles from Washington, D.C., and has many accommodations, dining, and recreation options.
McLean has an abundance of luxury hotels, budget-friendly inns, and private rentals within its boundaries. Whether you seek supreme comfort or affordability, you can find a solution for your lodging needs in this town.
There is no shortage of restaurants in McLean. Cafes, gourmet restaurants, authentic cultural cuisine … this town has it all. Most of the restaurants are locally owned, so diners are in for a unique experience with one-of-a-kind dishes that can’t be found in chain restaurants.
Entertainment and recreation abound in McLean. Guests who stay in this area enjoy visiting the farmers market, art galleries, the theater, and the parks. There’s a lot of history in this town, so walking tours and sightseeing are another popular way to spend the day in McLean.
Tyson’s Corner, Virginia
Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, is 5 miles from Great Falls Park and is a wonderful option for a home away from home during your Great Falls vacation. This town is not only close to the park but also to Washington, D.C., for those who want to explore beyond the park.
There are several options for lodging in Tyson’s Corner. From elegant hotels with every luxury to more affordable chain hotels, from quaint bed and breakfasts to affordable rentals, this town has it all.
Food enthusiasts are in for a treat, from upscale restaurants to classic mom-and-pop diners. No matter what you crave, there’s a restaurant that will satisfy your hunger and leave you with a smile in Tyson’s Corner.
Tyson’s Corner is also a popular shopping destination. There are several shopping centers and boutiques for those who want to take home something special. For recreation, visitors typically visit Great Falls Park and some of the nearby attractions, museums, and galleries.
For a quiet stay with plenty to see and do, staying in Tyson’s Corner is a great option when visiting Great Falls Park.
Where To Eat in Great Falls Park
There aren’t any options for dining inside Great Falls Park other than a seasonal snack bar in the visitor center. There are several options for dining near the park.
L’Auberge Chez Francois
L’Auberge Chez Francois is a top-rated French restaurant just 5 miles from the park in Great Falls, Virginia. This restaurant is a great option for visitors who want to take a break from their park adventures and enjoy an exquisite dining experience.
The menu at L’Auberge Chez Francois features remarkable culinary creations with high-quality cuts of meat, freshly-caught seafood, fresh produce, desserts, and an impressive wine menu. Customers rave about the lobster dishes, meals featuring wagyu beef, and chocolate truffles for dessert.
If you are looking for an authentic taste of France, you won’t want to miss the opportunity to dine at L’Auberge Chez Francois when you visit Great Falls Park.
Mookie’s BBQ is located in McLean, Virginia, 4 miles from Great Falls Park. Mookie’s serves classic barbecue favorites for lunch and dinner daily.
Diners can choose from a variety of smoked meats, including pulled pork, chicken, brisket, and smoked sausage. The menu includes sandwiches, platters, soups, salads, desserts, and favorite side items. Popular menu items include the Pitmaster Sampler, Mookie’s Burger, the BBQ nachos, and the homemade mac and cheese and BBQ beans.
For a quick bite or a family meal, check out Mookie’s BBQ when taking a break from your adventures at Great Falls Park.
The Old Brogue
The Old Brogue is 2 miles from Great Falls Park. This restaurant serves a wide variety of food and drinks and offers live entertainment.
This restaurant serves traditional Irish fare as well as classic American favorites. Some of the favorite dishes on the menu include fish and chips, Katie’s Cottage Pie, Irish Bangers, and the traditional Irish beef stew.
For a unique culinary experience, be sure to dine at The Old Brogue during your visit to Great Falls Park. Not only will you be treated to a phenomenal meal, but the live music and relaxing ambiance will help you to reset after a day of exploring the park.
Great Falls Park Facts
1. A New Park
Great Falls Park is part of the National Park Service and was opened for public access in 1966. The land has been protected by NPS since 1960.
2. Original People of the Park
The original inhabitants of the Great Falls Park area were the Paleo-Indians. Later, the area served as a significant trading hub for other indigenous tribes, including the Powhatan, Iroquois, and Piscataway.
3. Patowmack Canal Company
The Patowmack Canal Company was established in 1785 to clear the river and create one of the nation’s first canal systems.
4. George Washington’s Role
George Washington spearheaded the development of the canal construction in 1785. Once he was elected as the nation’s first president in 1789, he passed the torch to a good friend named Thomas Jefferson. Washington kept a close watch on the work that was being done to bring the Patowmack Canal Company to fruition.
5. National Civil Engineering Landmark
The Patowmack Canal Historic District was declared a National Civil Engineering Landmark in 1969. This prestigious honor was awarded by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Just a short drive from the bustling city of Washington, D.C., Great Falls Park has so many beautiful things to see and experience. Take in the breathtaking views of the Potomac River and get involved in some recreation. Book your trip to Great Falls Park and discover why so many visitors come to this park each year.
Featured Image Credit: NPS
Frequently Asked Questions
An entrance pass is required for all guests visiting Great Falls Park. Passes are valid for 7 consecutive days and range from $10 per person to $20 per private vehicle.
Wi-Fi is unavailable at Great Falls Park, and cellular services are limited.
Dogs are permitted at Great Falls Park if owners abide by the regulations. Dogs should always be leashed and cleaned up after, and owners need to be aware of restricted areas such as the Potomac River.
Vehicles are prohibited in Great Falls Park and must be left in the parking lots. The only way to view the falls is by walking or biking one of the trails to the overlooks.
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