The name “Great Falls” generically refers to the section of the Potomac River about 15 miles north west of Washington, DC where the river makes a dramatic drop from the Piedmont region to the Coastal Plain.
This beautiful location just outside of the city features a bend in the river where it hits some amazingly rocky and deadly geography and is noisy and gorgeous.
The river divides Virginia from Maryland. So when folks say, “hey, let’s meet at Great Falls” you need to clarify which side of the river you’re referring to because there isn’t a bridge nearby.
We’ve spent a lot of time on the Maryland side of the falls exploring from the Great Falls Visitor Tavern down to the Carderock area. When we lived in the area years ago, my wife and I would head out for great day hikes on the Billy Goat trail. Lately as we’ve returned to the DC-area on various trips, we’ve been exploring the C&O Canal by bicycle with our kids.
We recently had a chance to check out the Great Falls Park on the Virginia side of the Falls and it was awesome. The view of the river from the overlooks on the Virginia side is a bit different to me, as if you can see farther upstream but I may just be misremembering what the Maryland side looks like.
In any case, if you’re looking at going, here’s a quick breakdown of what I see are the major differences:
Maryland side of Great Falls:
- Home of the Chesapeake and Ohio National Historic Park
- You can access from downtown DC via bike by riding the canal towpath from Georgetown right up to the Great Falls area
- There are a few boardwalks jutting out over the river that allow you to hike out over the falls and get a very immersive experience.
Virginia side of Great Falls:
- Home of the Great Falls Park
- You get a wider view of the river
- You can drive the George Washington Memorial Parkway along the Potomac River up from DC. This is one of my favorite roads in the area and there are multiple parks to stop off and check out along the way.
Both sites have snack bars and rest room facilities and plenty of parking. They also both have a lot of hiking trails along the river. I believe the VA side has a much larger picnic area with outdoor grills which the MD side does not have.
The biggest factor for consideration is whether or not you’re planning on bringing or riding bikes. If so, the Maryland side offers a lot more bike riding (up and down the towpath) than what I was able to find on the Virginia side.
Either way, it’s a super cool area to explore on foot or bike, no matter which side you visit!