Washington D.C. is a great city to visit with all its museums, federal government buildings and memorials. However it is also filled with millions of people and sometimes the visitor wants to just get away from all the hustle and bustle. Just a 30 minute drive from the center of the city is a natural wonder known as the Great Falls of the Potomac.
The Potomac River is well known as the main body of water flowing past D.C. and George Washington’s Mount Vernon home on its way to Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. But just a short drive up river is an amazing set of waterfalls. On the Maryland side of the river is the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park which encompasses part of the historic C&O Canal as well as great views of the falls. In this area the river drops 85 feet and a series of locks were built in the early nineteenth century to allow barges to bypass the falls.
Ground breaking for the canal was in 1828 and the lock house that would become the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center was started soon after. It served as a rest stop for those traveling the canal and added hotel rooms in 1831. Eventually a small community of over 100 residents grew up around the tavern. Today tourists can hike and bicycle along the 184 mile tow path next to the canal. Once upon a time this is where the oxen walked as they towed the barges from town to town. During the summer months it is still possible to take barge rides that traverse one of the locks.
For an up close view of the falls there is a boardwalk that leads across small islands in the river. This is not one huge waterfall like Niagara Falls but more of a series of drops, with many exposed boulders and several channels cut through the rocks. Because of the speed of the river and the danger of the falls swimming is not allowed anywhere in the park. But the lack of swimming shouldn’t deter a visit to one of the most peaceful spots in the D.C. area.