By Russ Henderson

Great Falls National Park is an 800 acre jewel of a park, situated adjacent to the Potomac River and just 17 miles from the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. After passing a seemingly never-ending procession of estates that appear to spawn BMW, Mercedes and Lexus convertibles, you need to keep a sharp eye out for signs to the park. Using the directions to the park off of their web site is helpful, and a GPS is very useful. If you were just driving in the area, you wouldn’t even know there was a National Park nearby, as the standard road signs for Great Falls Park are spare. Judging by the number of joggers and bicycle users, as well as a notable lack of visitors before 10 a.m., the park is used by locals as their personal recreation area.

There is no charge for entrance with a National Park Access Pass. This pass is free for the asking to individuals with permanent disabilities, and you can request one at the information desk in the Visitor Center. If you are not familiar with this card, I have provided a link at the end of the article for information. Allow 45 minutes to an hour in the Visitor Center to view a 15-minute movie about the history of the park, and to see the exhibits documenting the workers who built the Patowmack Canal. The National Park Service purchased the land, parts of which were owned by Fairfax County and the Potomac Edison Power Company, in 1965. The park is open daily during the spring through the fall from 7 a.m. until dark, with the Visitor Center and bookstore being open from 10 a.m. through 5 p.m. daily for the spring through fall seasons. Call the park for winter hours at 703-285-2965. The Visitor Center offers free maps of the Patowmack Canal that describe items of interest. It’s worth getting this map to know what you are looking at, as signage about the points of interest seem to be missing or located adjacent to the ruins, not on the trail for those of us not able to walk the foot paths.

I would estimate about half the trails in the park are maintained as accessible, with excellent access to the viewing areas for the falls and to the picnic area which has charcoal BBQ’s provided on a first-come, first-serve basis. The viewing overlooks for the falls are .25 and .38 miles from the parking area. You will want to be sure to take your binoculars and a camera as kayakers can occasionally be seen going over the falls, which is quite a site and is only navigated by very experienced boaters. The park claims there are 163 species of birds that can be seen in the park throughout the year, ranging from waterfowl such as geese, herons, kingfishers, to a variety of songbirds. As with any outing to unfamiliar areas, visit the park’s web site to get a feel for what all is available. I have provided it at the end of this review.

The Patowmack Canal Trail north of the Visitor Center is an easy trail to navigate, following the north end of the old canal. While not graveled for its full length, it proved to be easily negotiated on a dry day. Do not take this on a wet day, as it will easily turn to mud the further you go towards the north end of the park. It truly is amazing the amount of labor needed to complete a canal project such as this, as can be seen in the rock wall visible on the far side of the canal. This reinforced retaining wall served as the canal-side wall for the twenty feet thick, ten feet high dike separating the river from the canal. Keep an eye out for heron guardedly walking the water that still runs through this part of the canal, searching for their next meal while keeping a wary eye on visitors. The trail turns impassable for scooters and wheelchairs before reaching the park boundary, but you can get far enough to have a great view of the Aqueduct Dam and the river.

The Patowmack Canal Trail south of the picnic area is an easy ride in a wheelchair or scooter. Unfortunately, it seems this part of the park has not been as well developed for accessible travel, and rain can make it impassable due to mud puddles. At the #6 trail marker you can take a right and explore the west side of the canal boat holding basin. There is a bridge to cross, which has a lip of about 1.5 inches. This may require some help to get over depending on your tires and if it erodes throughout the year. (Your other option is to go straight at this marker, taking the next trail on the right to get to the Lower Guard Gate. Turning around and returning over the same route will allow you to avoid the bridge.) Follow the trail until you come to the Lower Guard Gate, trail marker #8. From here you will need to take a left to get back on the east side of the holding basin as the trail becomes impassible for wheeled travel. This will bring you back towards the visitor center along the well-kept Patowmack Canal Trail.

The Old Carriage Road is an easy ride for scooters and wheelchairs, but be aware of loose gravel as you start up the slight incline from the restrooms. If you have someone with you and it’s dry you shouldn’t have any problems, although this road is not listed on the Park website as being accessible. With its beautiful leafy canopy even the slightest breeze has a welcome cooling effect, and this road should be especially colorful in the fall. I turned around at the intersection for the Quarry cut-off road, as I was lacking any information regarding the road past this point.

The falls viewpoint #3 has a plaque stating that there are 30 distinct plant communities in this region, three of which aren’t found anywhere else in the world. This brings up one of my biggest disappointments about this park. Signs along the trails describe the various canal and building ruins, but there are no signs describing the trees and plants you will see as you explore the park. This is information most visitors would definitely find interesting. I would suggest contacting the park by phone at the number listed above to see if any of the √íRangers Choice√ď tours which are offered can be set up to be accessible. They aren’t listed as such on the park web site, but it’s worth a try. I plan on doing this if time allows a return trip to the park later this year, as a Park Ranger will be able to provide information about the unique local tree and plant life of the area.

When researching web sites related to Great Falls National Park, many writers talk of the peacefulness and the ever-changing feel of the park due to changing river levels and foliage in the park. I could wax poetic about the peaceful persona of the park and how it can rejuvenate the soul just by going there, but I won’t. Others have said that repeatedly. All I really feel the need to say is that Great Falls National Park is well worth the effort to find, especially those looking for a morning escape from the stresses and intensity of the D.C. area.

Great Falls National Park web link

Access Pass information web link