Just half an hour outside the nation’s capital lies one of the nation’s natural hidden gems, Great Falls National Park. A great place to watch the raging rapids in the Spring, have an afternoon barbecue in the Summer or enjoy the spectacular foliage in the Fall, Great Falls National Park is worth tacking on to a Washington, D.C. visit during most non-winter months of the year.
Here’s our guide to everything you need to know to prepare for a day exploring this national beauty.
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Great Falls National Park: What to Bring
If you’re suiting up for an adventure in Great Falls National Park this is what you’ll need:
For a fall visit, long pants are key to avoid ticks and stay warm. I particularly love these flexible jeans from Patagonia.
To venture past the three initial viewpoints, hiking boots are a must. However, you don’t need very heavy-duty ones, and these lightweight Danner Jag Hiking Boots are great.
With variable temps, especially in the Fall, a breathable fleece like the classic Synchilla Fleece from Patagonia is perfect to keep you warm as a cool breeze rolls off the falls.
Finally, as temps dip further in fall, you can never go wrong with warm beanie like this one from Backcountry.
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Getting to Great Falls National Park
Great Falls National Park is located in Mclean, Virginia, and can be found on Google maps here. Without any public transportation leading to Great Falls National Park, the Park is best accessed by personal car or rideshare like Uber. Once inside the Park, there’s no real use for a car as it’s mostly all walking trails.
Hours of Operation
The Park is open from 7am until 30 minutes after sunset, and the visitor center is open from 10am to 4pm. They do ticket if you overstay after it gets dark, so it’s not worth staying much after sunset. But trust me, sunset is worth staying for!
Tickets to enter Great Falls National Park cost $15 per vehicle, and are valid for one week. If you live nearby, it’s worth getting an annual pass for $30, or if you plan on visiting more than one or two other National Parks this year it’s definitely worth getting the NPS annual park pass for $80!
Things to Do
There are tons of great activities to do in Great Falls National Park. Our favorites include:
- View the Falls
- Go for a walk on the river trail
- Have a picnic
- Go rock climbing
- Go kayaking – if you’re going to do this make sure you know where to put in and take out, you don’t want to get into an area of the river where you could get in trouble! Best to stop by the visitor’s center first.
You can find out more information about all of these activities and the rules and regulations surrounding them on the official Great Falls National Park Website.
Best Time to Visit Great Falls National Park
Due to its proximity to Washington D.C., the park can often get very busy and tends to get especially crowded on weekends and holidays with nice weather. Because there is limited parking, and people don’t leave that quickly, it is worth avoiding these crowds or you could end up waiting for over an hour just to get into the park!
Typically, arriving in the early morning from 7:00-9:00 am is best, and visiting on weekdays definitely helps avoid the crowds.
However, if you are constrained to visit Great Falls National Park at a peak busy time, or just miss the window to get there early, I would suggest instead driving to Riverbend Park. It is often less busy and is actually just upriver from the falls. You can even walk along the Potomac Heritage Trail right along the river all the way to Great Falls National Park.
In terms of the best time of year to visit, Fall and Spring tend to be the best weather with the most beautiful foliage, and of those seasons, May and September are particularly great months. Great Falls National Park is a beautiful place to visit year-round though, and I would encourage visiting no matter the season!
Best Viewpoints in Great Falls National Park
There are three main viewpoints within a 10-minute walk from the Great Falls National Park visitor center. Theses have been developed by the Park Service for you to view the falls. Viewpoints 2 and 3 are also handicapped accessible.
After these viewpoints, it is no longer possible to view the Falls, however, there are some particularly cool overlooks of the riverbed that are worth exploring. We recently discovered the one pictured below after Viewpoint 3, while walking along the River Trail.
Just follow the trail and look for an opening in the fence with a path like this:
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