Few people think of DC as a city of natural beauty. Culture? Check. History? Check. But fun in the great outdoors? Not so much.
I'm not here to convince you that this idea is necessarily wrong, but I will say that there are a handful of hidden gems that are worth seeking out. Among them is Great Falls National Park which lies about 15 miles to the west of downtown. Great Falls, as you can see below, is a rocky patch of the Potomac River that can be described as anything between waterfall or extreme rapids, depending on the water level.
Just recently, J and I were out with a friend after a rainstorm and were looking for something random to see or do that was outside of the normal DC experience. Great Falls was it. Tucked in amongst the trees, the National Park provides a visitors center, picnic spots, and scenic outcroppings along the Virginia side. We've also spent some time on the Maryland side which features hiking trails and rock climbing (we joined a class led by Earth Treks which we would highly recommend for those looking to learn or advance their technique). Keep in mind that there are no bridges from one side to the other so plan wisely prior to making the trip.
Not surprisingly, Great Falls has some history behind it. In fact, George Washington was instrumental in the construction of a series of locks that were built in the late-1700's in hopes of developing a major shipping route from the Nation's Capitol and the Atlantic to Ohio. Much of the remains can be seen on the Maryland side of Great Falls.
However, the reason most people make the journey is for the falls themselves. OK, prepare yourself for a little nature blasphemy. Ready? I think I may like Great Falls better than Niagara Falls... Relax. Breathe. And let me explain. For sheer size and power, nothing holds a candle to Niagara but the thing is, it is almost too big to fully appreciate anything other than its size. While I'm already in this hole, I'll dig a little deeper and say it is analogous to liking something like Bryce Canyon over the Grand Canyon. Bigger, at least in my book, isn't always better and Great Falls is just the perfect blend. I seem to see something different about it every time. It is like a living organism that is always changing but each time I am awestruck by the beauty of the landscape and the intricacies and power of the various falls and rapids. You may disagree, but there is one thing I can guarantee; you won't find anything like this anywhere else in DC.
While Great Falls is only a short drive from DC, it feels like a world away. I love standing above the falls and watching the kayakers who perform tricks on the rapids. Bring a picnic and a camera and enjoy a mini-vacation from life in the big city.