Yesterday was one of the days throughout the year that the National Park Service provides free admission. And I celebrated by joining a hiking club for an exploration of Great Falls Park, on the Virginia side of the Potomac River.
I continue to be amazed at all the wilderness opportunities so near to the nation’s Capitol. This national park is just 12 miles from DC, and a 40-minute drive from my place in suburban Maryland. As soon as you get off the Beltway, you’d never know you were just outside a major metro area, with large houses on equally large tracts of rolling forests and fields.
Great Falls Park has miles of trails, some of which follow along the shores of the Potomac and others in the upland woods. Our leader obviously knows the park well as he navigated us along paths that took in both of these landscapes.
My favorite part was along the river just south of the falls itself, where we stopped along rocky outcroppings to get dramatic views of the cliffs on the Maryland side and the rapids coursing through the gorge below.
The falls themselves were quite dramatic: a series of water tumbling over rocks at varying heights. One of my hiking companions told of once seeing some kayaks go over them a she watched, amazed, above.
George Washington saw the potential for the Potomac River being a route for commerce westward, and helped lead the effort to build a canal and lock system to skirt the falls. For its 26 years of operation, flat boats (there’s a replica in the park’s visitor center) carried flour, corn, whiskey, furs, tobacco, iron ore and timber from as far away as Cumberland, Maryland, a market center in the Allegheny Mountains.
I’m learning that hiking in this area usually offers a history lesson as well as a refreshing day in the outdoors. I’m also gaining some new vocabulary, yesterday learning that “run” refers to a swift stream (as in Bull Run, a Civil War battle site) and a “furnace” refers to a location in the hills where iron ore was produced and now might mark the spot of some hiking and camping sites.