At one of the overlooks, sightseers can get a good look at the falls.
Photo by Mike Salmon/The Connection
As Phil Kirk held the climbing rope tight, fellow climber Mary Pat McMillan searched for crevices with her hand and feet to inch her way along the rock face off the path at Great Falls National Park. The park has a variety of attractions, and in the fall, the foliage, higher water levels and cooler temperatures keep this popular park busy year round.
“Fall is ideal for outdoor climbing because the rocks are often cool and dry,” Kirk said.
They were in an area known to climbers as “the sandbox,” that’s ideal for beginners like McMillan, but they had to get there early on some weekends “to claim a spot if we’re looking to do a particular climb,” he added. Sometimes there is three or four other groups out there due to the park’s popularity.
GREAT FALLS RESIDENT Erin Lobato is a member of the Fair Weather Hiking Mamas!, who love the cooler temperatures and foliage at the park. “In the fall, it is both breathtaking and peaceful to be able to hike in Great Falls Park surrounded by the brilliant colors, leaves swirling around and sunshine peeking through the trees,” Lobato said, via email. She is the director of the Celebrate Great Falls Foundation, as well. “This is such a great opportunity to connect with each other and nature on a regular basis throughout the year,” she added. The foundation is a charitable citizens group that reaches out to those in need but also preserves the surrounding community as well, as they did with a successful effort to bring the fireworks show back for their July 4 celebration.
Great Falls National Park remains open all year from 7 a.m. until just past sunset. It remains popular among the hikers and outdoors crowd but much of the activities are weather dependent. Great Falls has much of the same foliage site-seeing, without the highway traffic that plagues I-66 on fall weekends as people travel out of town to see the foliage in the Shenandoah Mountains. “The foliage in Great Falls is special because it is so close to urban centers such as DC, Tysons Corner and such yet feels like you are truly in the wilderness when you are there. The views over the Potomac River are spectacular,” said Lobato.
Although the foliage and higher water levels on the falls attract folks for fishing, birding and biking, there are also ranger led programs that cover the history and nature of the park. Kayaking and rock climbing are popular in the fall for the trained outdoors types with the proper gear, said National Park Service spokesperson Aaron LaRocca. There are occasional injuries and drownings every year, mostly from people overstepping the distinguished trail boundaries or swimming, which is not allowed. In 2015, there was one fatality, said LaRocca, via email. “A handful of twisted ankles which is a common injury,” he said.
When the weather is good throughout the year, entry to the park can be time consuming, so LaRocca recommends planning ahead. Sometimes the line of cars can trail all the way out to Old Dominion Drive, and could be nearly an hour to get in. “We always encourage visitors to arrive to the park early, because there can be a long wait,” LaRocca said. There is a charge of $10 per car.
THIS YEAR was special for the park service and Great Falls Park in particular. All over the country, the National Park Service celebrated its centennial event on Aug. 27 and there were many activities surrounding that anniversary. In 2016 Great Falls Park celebrated its 50th anniversary of being a part of the National Park System.
In the town of Great Falls, fall and winter activities include Cars and Coffee, Halloween Spooktacular and the Festival of Lights.