April 30, 2016

Great Falls Park and Tavern at C&O Canal National Historic Park (Apr. 2016, MD)


Great Falls Overlook

Great Falls Tavern at C&O Canal National Historic Park, Maryland Side
Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal along the Potomac River

April 15, 2016
Coordinates: 39.000298, -77.248499
Potomac, MD
70° F
All photos made on my OnePlus One phone


In the fourth leg of my "DC Week of Hikes," we made a quick stop at Great Falls Park in Maryland on our way out of town to Shenandoah National Park for the weekend. The beautiful waterfalls and history were well worth it!


Great Falls Park Along the C&O

The Great Falls Tavern area at the C&O National Historic Park is managed by the National Park Service. The park runs along the C&O Canal, as a part of its larger 180-mile stretch. It was not my first time hiking a portion of the C&O canal, as I had just walked a portion the previous week. However, at Great Falls Park, the towpath is not your only option for trails. Branching trails both easy and challenging are ready for hikers. For instance, my buddy Templeton appreciates the Billy Goat Trail at Great Falls, but says it's a killer. Not wanting to spend all of our energy ahead of Shenandoah, we opted for the easier Overlook Trail.

$10 gets you entry and parking at the visitor center. There's a Virginia side, but we wanted to hike the islands (on the Maryland side only).

From the parking lot, the towpath and canal are ready for both bike and foot traffic. We walked along the canal briefly and inspected its series of locks that are still intact.

C&O Canal

C&O Canal Towpath

C&O Canal Locks

C&O Canal Locks

The Potomac is also visible from the towpath. The view of the river was beautiful from the canal, with the island network on the western side of the river. The waters run through all of the rock formations, with each island providing a unique view. A walk on the Great Falls Overlook Trail provided me ample distinct views of the river.

Waterway at Washington Aqueduct

Potomac River

Potomac River

A canal boat still floats in the dark, calm waters. As I walked by, I had wondered if it still gets miles during the summer months. It's worth a trip back during peak season to see if you can catch a ride down the canal.

C&O Canal Towpath

C&O Canal

Great Falls Overlook

From the tavern, there's a short, wooden-path trail that goes from the canal to the overlook.

Great Falls Overlook Sign

Great Falls Overlook Trail

Templeton and I approached Olmstead Island over a network of paths that traverse over delicate bedrock terrace habitat. Trees and brush grow directly in the rock.

Great Falls Overlook Trail

Great Falls Overlook Trail

Great Falls Overlook Trail

Great Falls Overlook Trail

Many bridges connect the tops of the islands to get you to Olmstead Island.

Great Falls Overlook Trail

Great Falls Overlook Trail

The bridges allow the Potomac's rushing rapids between the islands to flow underfoot. Gorgeous views, and each unique.

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Potomac Falls

Potomac River Rapids

Potomac River

An interpretive station indicated that this type of habitat is rare and difficult to maintain. In fact, the sign indicated that Olmstead Island is one of the best preserved and natural examples of this kind of forest. I'm a nerd for this kind of stuff, but I love learning about the unique natural history of places I visit. A treat, indeed.

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The pretty foliage was beginning to embrace spring. Some trees bloomed, while the underbrush and grasses provides gorgeous shades of green.

Great Falls Overlook Trail

Fresh Blooms

Great Falls Overlook Trail

The overlook's endpoint did not disappoint...

Great Falls Overlook

Great Falls Overlook

From the overlook, I was able to see the full panorama of the Potomac's wild rapids at Great Falls. The roar of rushing water filled the air. A persistent mist blew up to the lookout from the chilly waters below.

Panorama view of Great Falls


Great Falls Tavern

Back in the canal's heyday, the Tavern at Great Falls served as a store, gathering place, and drinking hole for those traveling the canal.

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Tavern at Great Falls

Today, the Tavern serves as an interpretive site and visitor center for the C&O Canal. NPS staff run a small gift shop and are there to answer any questions. I picked up a couple of locally made maps for the C&O.

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There is also building that indicates it is a part of the Washington Aqueduct next door to the Tavern.

Washington Aqueduct

Washington Aqueduct

If the tavern wasn't historic enough, ruins of the old village that used to exist here line the canal. Old stone foundations crop up along the canal and speak volumes about the importance this canal once had. This stonework was likely the remains of a lockhouse.

Remnants of the town that used to be situated along the canal


Extras

There are three NPS Passport stamps available at the tavern visitor center.

C&O Canal Passport StampC&O Canal Centennial Passport StampGreat Falls Park Passport Stamp

I'm seriously considering a planned long-term trek down the canal. Campgrounds line the canal's length, so a long-term backpacking trip is feasible. Plus, it would give me a chance to see a range of habitats along the canal.

The C&O Canal Trail is also an official historic trail recognized by the Boy Scouts. Mason-Dixon Council, BSA provides a hike program for the long length of the trail. A BSA patch for the trail can be purchased at the tavern gift shop. I picked one up.

C&O Canal Towpath Historical Trail Patch


Photo Album

The photo below is a photo album - hover over or tap to get slideshow controls
Great Falls NHP - C&O Canal Trail (MD)


Map of Area

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