Almanac file photo by Jill Phillips
The congested parking along MacArthur Boulevard indicates the popularity of the Anglers Inn access to the C&O Canal and the Potomac River. Why is it so popular? Why is this particular access creating so much congestion? Let me approach it from the paddler’s point of view.
Flatwater paddlers, including sea kayakers, have access to the watered C&O Canal which widens to the lake-like widewater one half mile upstream of the improved canal put-in.
Whitewater paddlers, after carrying 300 yards from the lower parking lot to the river, have two choices: First they can paddle upstream against the current and return with the current taking out at the same put-in beach. Although the walk up the hill is arduous, the paddler returns to the same parking lot. There is no need to move the car. What are the advantages of upstream attaining? Three quarters of a mile upstream, just out of sight from the put-in, are Difficult Run Rapids. This broad expanse of novice/intermediate whitewater offers a perfect practice area plus the physical workout of paddling against the current. Upon attaining Difficult Run rapids, the boater enters the lower Mather Gorge. After a mile of relatively easy water, the rapids called Wet Bottom Chute (opposite the rock climbers) offers the next hindrance. More advanced water is upstream. Rocky Island Waves at perfect levels offer endless surfing. Surfing a kayak requires similar skills to surfing in the ocean except that the river waves are stationary. Above Rocky is the heart of the magnificent Mather Gorge which takes one past “S Turn” rapid and on up to the base of Great Falls. Less than 1 percent of paddlers have the skills and courage to attempt Great Falls.
Choice #2: from the put-in beach below Anglers Inn, paddle downstream. Downstream paddlers usually run a shuttle. They drive to the takeout, and bring back one car with all the drivers which frees parking spaces. After paddling two named rapids, Offutt Island, and Yellow Falls, they can take out at Carderock (a steep hill) or continue to Lock 10, getting to run one more bouncy rapid, Stubblefield. The downstream rapids are easier than Mather Gorge and attract novice and intermediate level paddlers, especially in the summer.
As a result of all these choices, the river attracts all levels of paddlers from novice to advanced to expert. If the Potomac is liquid, it is being used by paddlers all times of the year.
This area also attracts other recreationists anxious to enjoy the National Park. I have seen fishermen walk by carrying 25 pound catfish! The towpath passes by incredibly scenic Widewater and is a two mile walk or bicycle ride to Great Falls.
The exit to the Billy Goat Trail A is only a half mile upstream. The put-in beach offers an attractive place not only to fish, but to also throw stones, play with children and dogs, or even picnic right at the river’s edge.
The Potomac River is very level intensive. At higher water levels, it becomes more and more demanding for the advanced paddler.
The area is drop dead gorgeous. The beauty of Mather Gorge is easily compared to famous western canyons.
The only other access point to this section of the River is Great Falls itself. On the Maryland side, it requires a half mile carry around Great Falls. On the Virginia side, one descends vertically down the bluff below the Falls to Fisherman’s Eddy. To put in near Great Falls requires the skills to handle the more difficult rapids.
The Anglers Inn/Difficult Run put-in is VITAL not only to the recreational paddlers but also to instruction. People wanting to learn - whether from Club classes, professional classes -- kayak, canoe, sea kayak or stand-up paddle board — are also crowding the parking lot in large numbers.
It is probably a logical argument that river usage alone would use all the available parking spaces. Add that to the other users of the Park and we have this continuing weekend crisis of people ignoring the “no parking signs” to enjoy their National Park.
Anglers Inn is not a ”choice" but a unique access point to the river. No matter how you discourage parking, you won't discourage use. We need to fix this parking crisis before tragedies occur.
Safety Chairman, Canoe Cruisers Association