Hiking the Popular River Trail Hike in Great Falls Park

by | Jan 21, 2017 | National Parks and Public Lands, Outdoor Recreation

As I recently mentioned, I have decided to participate in the 52 Hike Challenge in 2017. Today, for Hike 1 of the challenge, I completed part of the River Trail hike in Great Falls Park, Virginia. While the first part of the River Trail was really busy (near the overlooks), the rest of the trail was sparsely traveled – as one would expect for a late January hike. I hiked 1.74 miles according to my app and it felt really good to get out in the woods again.

Great Falls Park

We’ve visited Great Falls Park numerous times with out-of-town guests. Not only are the falls beautiful, but they are super accessible and great for all ages. As I was solo-hiking today (Hubs caught the cold I had last week), I wanted to venture in a place that I was familiar and would have people around in case I had any problems with my knee.

The Great Falls Park Visitor Center is staffed with National Park Service Rangers, has a bookstore, and Passport to Your National Parks Stamps.

Overlook 1

Overlook 2

The view upriver of the falls from Overlook 2.

The view downriver from Overlook 2 – Mather Gorge is around the final bend.

Overlook 3

The view upriver from Overlook 3, with the previous overlook visible on the left.

The flood marker near Overlook 3 shows the various high water marks of recent floods in the park.

This is a view of the flood pole looking back towards the falls for prospective.

River Trail

The River Trail hike in Great Falls Park technically begins after Overlook 3. However, I always include the overlooks with the trail because you have to pass them to get to the trail when parking at the Visitor Center.

River Trai

The trail on the left leads to the River Trail, while the trail on the right is part of the Patowmack Canal Trail.

Another view of the River Trail hike in Great Falls Park. The trail enters the woods and winds along the Potomac River cliffs.

A well-worn tree branch that is used to help people scale the rocks at an off-trail vista.

The River Trail is marked with green blaze markers. The blaze markers are painted on trees and the rock areas. At times, the trail seems to divert (to view off-trail vistas mainly), but the markers can easily be found.

Mather Gorge from the River Trail

Mather Gorge is the narrowest part of the Potomac River in Great Falls Park/C&O Canal National Historical Park. The gorge is named after Stephen Mather, who was the first Director of the National Park Service. The narrowness of the gorge heavily influences the river during high water, causing flooding upstream.

Mather Gorge in Great Falls Park

The beginning of the Mather Gorge in Great Falls Park, Virginia.

Mather Gorge in Great Falls Park

The water flowing through Mather Gorge is strong and swift. When flooded, water reaches the top of the gorge, as you can see from the large log that was deposited on the rocks across the river in the C&O Canal National Historical Park.

Mather Gorge in Great Falls Park

The obligatory hiking selfie.

Mather Gorge in Great Falls Park

While no one was on the river today, we have witnessed standup paddleboarders in this spot on two previous trips.

Mather Gorge in Great Falls Park

Facing downriver near the end of the Mather Gorge.

Mather Gorge in Great Falls Park

The Stephen Mather dedication plaque on the edge of Mather Gorge in Great Falls Park.

Wildlife in Great Falls Park

Today, I got to enjoy watching three different turkey vultures. The first was handing around the rapids near Overlook 1. The second and third vultures were perched in a tree between Overlook 3 and the wooded portion of the River Trail.

A turkey vulture flying above the falls.

A turkey vulture about to land on the rocks in the middle of the Overlook 1 falls.

Two turkey vultures perched high in a tree along the River Trail.


52 Hike Challenge Update

While I am committed to the 52 Hike Challenge, I am already behind by completing my first hike this late in January. I plan to make up my two missed hikes, but I was caring for my ill Mother back home in Wisconsin and then fell ill with a bad cold upon my return. My plan is to make up the hikes during the spring and summer when there is more daylight and we can complete a short hike after work.

By Sara Beth

Sara Beth is a wanderlust soul who is focused on simplistic and mindful living. She is passionate about National Parks, road trips, and board games. Her early years were spent in the Driftless Area of Wisconsin. After graduating from university, she moved to Las Vegas, fell in love, and adopted a dog. Today, she lives with her husband and their dog in the suburbs of Washington, DC.

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  1. Lauren

    You go, girl! Like you, I am behind on hiking this year–demonstrating my usual grace, I strained my leg just before New Year’s. But I too expect that I’ll be doing more than one week per week in the summer, so I’m not too worried yet. Great pictures, too. Been a long time since I was at Great Falls.

    • Sara Beth Davis

      I hope you are healing well, Lauren! With every hike, I play a guessing game of how bad my knee will hurt and have decided to just go for it! I look forward to hearing about your hikes soon. :)


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