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Great Falls

550 Million Years of Geologic History

July 22, 2002

For some, Great Falls provides an afternoon peek into 550 million years of natural history.

The Great Falls Overlook, located on Olmsted Island, a half mile from the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center gives visitors who come from all over the world a chance to see nature's artwork. Here the Potomac River carved a channel through the rocks of Potomac during the Ice Age, forming the falls visitors see today.

Located just 15 miles from the Nation's capital, the Great Falls of the Potomac are considered one of the most spectacular natural landmarks in the D.C. metropolitan area.

Here, the Potomac River builds up speed and force as it falls over a series of steep, jagged rocks and flows through a narrow gorge. The falls consist of cascading rapids and several 20-foot waterfalls with a total 76-foot drop in elevation over a distance of 3,500 feet.

Arising from a calmer and much broader flow upstream, the Potomac constricts at Great Falls from 2,500 feet wide just above the falls to between 60 and 100 feet wide along the gorge for over a mile.

AFTER THE LAST ICE AGE, the ocean levels dropped forcing the Potomac River to carve deeper in its path to the sea. As one walks along the cliff tops, evidence of the ancient river beds can be seen in well-rounded boulders, smoothed surfaces and grooves, and beautiful potholes which were once formed on the ancient riverbed. The metamorphic rocks provide jagged rocky surfaces and high-walled cliffs, stark and pristine against the crashing waters of the Potomac at the falls and along Mather Gorge.

Today, the C&O Canal National Historic Park is an entertainment center for kayakers, bikers, canoers, hikers, birders, rock climbers and those interested in taking an afternoon stroll.

More than 302,000 cars carry visitors into Great Falls each year. And that's only the number of cars that the National Park Service records at the entrance to the park at the end of scenic MacArthur Boulevard. Many bike or walk to Great Falls park from the C&O Canal.

In addition to the sights and sounds of the Falls and nature along the canal and Potomac River, the National Park Service and volunteer naturalists offer programs to teach interested people about the history of the Falls, about Olmsted Island and the Billy Goat Trail, about the years people mined for gold here in Potomac and of the time when the canal was used as a means of navigation to ship goods from Cumberland all the way to Washington D.C.

Park rangers and volunteers dressed in early-century costume host hour-long mule-drawn boat rides throughout the summer and early fall to give visitors an impression of what travel must have been like through the 74 lift-locks on the 184.5 mile C&O Canal.

The park service also leads groups in the spring to spot Bald Eagles that make Great Falls Park their home.

Some information is excerpted from National Park Service publications and Website.