Great Falls, Potomac MD

I drove out to the Maryland side of Great Falls on a Saturday to hike with my dog along the Billy Goat Trail, one of the DC area’s best hikes. Of course the day I chose to go out there, the trail was closed due to flooding. So, I settled for the easy walking path that skirts the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath, which is a point of interest unto itself

Great Falls Potomac C&O canal

The C&O canal

I parked in a lot off MacArthur Boulevard and across from the Angler’s Inn. There’s a bridge (see below pic) right off the parking lot that takes you across the towpath. Obviously this bridge was not here when the canal was in use.

I continued along the towpath west all the way up to the Great Falls Overlook. On the way, there was lot of nice scenery and a big lake called Widewater on the right as I followed the towpath trail. In some areas, Widewater is bounded by steep rocky cliffs on its far side.

Widewater potomac great falls

Rocky edge of Widewater

In the middle of the trail along Widewater, there’s a little bridge from which you can look down and see some good wildlife like turtles, fish, frogs, and birds. I snapped these picture of a turtle and what my brother thinks is a Black-crowned Night Heron:

turtle at Great Falls Potomac

Painter turtle?

Black-crowned Night Heron at Great Falls Potomac Maryland

Black-crowned Night Heron

The further I went, the purpose of the canal becomes more obvious. It has to do with the geology of the DC region. This area of the East Coast of the USA is part of the Fall Line, a geologic feature running roughly north/south down the US Atlantic Seaboard that marks the boundary between more ancient harder rock and newer sedimentary rock of the Coastal Plan. Rivers such as the Potomac have worn away the new sedimentary rock of the Coastal Plain faster than it has worn away the older rock to the west. This is in part why there is an elevation change. The fall line is the reason why many U.S. cities are where they are, including Paterson, NJ; Trenton, NJ; Richmond, VA; and Augusta, GA.

Because the fall line marks an elevation change as you go westward from DC, this had implications for trade. If you were a boat captain back in the 1880s and you wanted to bringĀ  goods westward from Washington, DC to, Cumberland, MD, you couldn’t just travel westward along the river in its natural state, because you’d be going up hill and through waterfalls. So, the nation built a canal skirting the Potomac River with a series of locks (see pictures below)

Great Falls Potomac canal lock

Take a look at the above picture. If you were a boat captain traveling to Cumberland, you would steer your boat into this space, the wooden gate would close behind you, causing the water under you to fill up like a bathtub. What happens to your boat when the water below you rises? Your boat rises with it, so you’re now on a higher level corresponding to the higher elevation. Once you’re up, the gate opens and the water pours naturally out of the bathtub that was created. I’m not an engineer but I think I got the general principle of locks correct.

This canal extends all the way to Georgetown, DC, another great spot to learn about how locks work.

Great Falls Potomac

C&O lock

Once I passed this area, there were some great views of the Potomac River to my left. Because of the flooding, the river was raging and quiet violent in its flow. I now understood why the Billy Trail was closed. I could see how someone could slip down a rock and end up in the river.

Potomac River

A rushing Potomac River

I stood at Great Falls overlook and snapped a bunch of great shots of the river.

Great Falls Potomac MD

Great Falls


Beautiful hike, not strenuous, and would have probably been even better if the Billy Goat Trail had been open. My dog was into it!

Great Falls Potomac MD 2


  • There were a bunch of walkers out that day so if you’re looking for complete solitude this is probably not the place.
  • Great location for birders
  • There are bathrooms located nearby the parking lot




Kevin is based in Washington, DC and writes about his travel adventures in the Mid-Atlantic region and around the world. Through entertaining writing and eye-catching photography, he aims to provide readers with useful information as they plan their next trips.

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