Marry the words “Great” and “Falls” and the two become one, a potent action verb. The only thing missing: the stefana, the holy marriage crowns at a Greek Orthodox wedding. (Some guests unfamiliar with the ritual do a double take.)
So it is with Great Falls, the eye-popping sensory theme park nestled on the Maryland and Virginia sides of the Potomac River, 15 miles upstream from the White House. Along with the views of the churning river, the Maryland side offers an added attraction: a glimpse of a slice of the iconic Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. In its heyday, the passage was a key commercial conduit linking Georgetown to Cumberland, Md.
However, before construction on the canal was completed in 1850, the commercial waterway was already out of date. The B&O Railroad beat the canal to the West, thus establishing itself as the preferred mode of transporting goods such as coal. The canal fell far short of its goal to the Ohio River, stopping in Western Maryland. Today, the Great Falls Tavern remains part of the landscape, serving as a Visitor Center. Once upon a time, the white structure with green shutters dished meals and lodging for canal travelers and boatmen.
Volunteers are always welcome at Great Falls, said Jim Goheen, who was working in the Visitor Center the day I was there. In retirement, he emphasized, “you can’t just play golf. You’ve got to do something else. Plus, I’m a lousy golfer!” Come fall, a Park Service ranger I spoke with predicted the foliage should reach its peak by mid-November. Then, good naturedly (I couldn’t resist) he implored me not to hold him to the forecast.
While enjoying spying the parade of hikers and bikers in my midst, I decided to take a casual poll of visitors, asking them which side of the river they preferred. Just as I had suspected, the result broke down based on convenience – and loyalty. The majority of those I quizzed reported living in the Free State – Maryland. So there was wisdom in not having to cross the Beltway bridge and another bottleneck on the Virginia side.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Great Falls is the role it plays as a geographic crossroads. Non-native trees common in the South thrive alongside those typically seen in Midwestern prairies or Canadian forests.
I set out to take the advice of a veteran visitor who suggested I check out Olmsted Island, one of many along the river’s edge. The route is composed of a network of modern foot bridges that takes you through watercolor-like woods studded with hickories that tower as high as forty feet. A leisurely stroll toward the overlook at Olmsted Island would take you perhaps five minutes. But it’s nearly impossible not to mix with the crowd and tarry, especially when the footbridge frames views of the rapids.
At one overlook, the river drops 60 feet, and another 85 feet to tidewater level in Georgetown, within the shadow of the Kennedy Center’s boutiques and trendy bars.
The park brims with hiking trails featuring varying degrees of challenge. The most popular is the Billy Goat Trail near the towpath. Section “A” involves extreme skill. Section “B” is a moderate undertaking. Section “C” is the easiest, comparable to the bunny slope at a ski resort. All three promise dramatic views of the Potomac, which is the source of drinking water for most of the DC region.
With her two kids, Amy LaSala tried their skill at the hardest of the three Billy Goat trails. “I guess I wasn’t anticipating it being as long as it was,” reported LaSala, visiting from Green Bay, WI.
“It was really long,” added daughter, Madeline. “The cliffs are steep, and there are signs that warn you about difficult parts ahead!”
Satiated by a time well spent, I heard screaming. Glancing toward the picnic area, I saw a man holding his eye. I raced over. He said he had taken his two young sons fishing. Later, at the snack bar, one of them accidentally cast the fishing line, its hook snagging his dad in an area perilously close to his eye. I helped cut most of the fishing line, worm and all, from the skin. A tiny piece of hook remained lodged in the eye; we summoned the paramedics.
While waiting for the ambulance, the father took a deep breath and a seat at the picnic table. Visibly shaken, he summoned the machismo to blow it off, distracted instead by the soothing breeze whispering through the canopy of hardwoods that created a symphony with the whoosh of the rapids.