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Clear Your Mind With a Winter Hike at Great Falls

Clear Your Mind With a Winter Hike at Great Falls

Lead Photo: A view of Great Falls from Olmsted Island.

Great Falls in Potomac is like the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls got together and had a baby. Instead of a steep drop of cascading water, Great Falls is a series of rushing rapids and waterfalls that remind me of what might happen if a child were to leave the upstairs bathtub water running and the overflow comes cascading down the steps. It’s an easy hop, skip, and jump down the Billy Goat Trail to encounter the first bridge that arcs over the thundering waters. A hint of saltwater in the air immediately kisses your cheek, even though you’re actually surrounded by freshwater rapidly cascading over humongous rocks that look like they’ve been tumbled in a giant rock polisher.

cold river
Photo Credit: Jackie Duda

I needed a refresh and a serious reboot after New Year’s and decided to quench my curiosity about Great Falls with a visit. The park has a Virginia cousin on the other side of the Potomac River. On the Maryland side, Great Falls is also home to the historic C&O Canal that winds from Georgetown to Cumberland.

After a doctor’s appointment in Bethesda one sunny, wintry Wednesday afternoon, my daughter Alexis and I drove the 13 minutes to the falls. The clean, fresh air greeted us with a chilly crispness that cleared my mind and flushed my soul after surviving a hectic holiday season and medical maladies. The afternoon was so healing and restorative that I braved the cold and rain to visit again a few days later with my husband and daughter, Elise. 

Author and daughter at fall overlook
Photo Credit: Jackie Duda

Even if you’re an ardent fan of visiting our great Maryland parks in the peak season of summer or the gentle warmth of spring and cool colors of fall, you’ll find winter, with its stark, bare trees and green mossy rocks, a special kind of wonderful. If you crave an escape and a chance to unplug, Great Falls is the place to go! There are visitors, but nowhere near the numbers during the more popular warmer seasons. Everyone here is quiet and soul searching in their own private way.

At one point, a curious fox appeared before us in the parking lot before scurrying off to forage for crumbs around the picnic tables. We nodded as we pass other wintertime explorers, and keep trudging over the bridge, stopping to absorb the overwhelming wonder of the furiously churning turbulent waters beneath, before traipsing over to Olmsted Island, home to unique and rare indigenous flora and fauna, and more spectacular views of the falls. (Note: the footpath to Olmsted Island is handicapped accessible, but dogs are not permitted.)

bird at great falls
Photo Credit: via

You’ll feel at ease upon first hearing the water crashing down upon the enormous sleek black, square rocks that have been erosion resistant for hundreds of millions of years. At least since the last Ice Age. All your previous thoughts and concerns will drift and melt away as you move as if one with nature in this damp, cold and misty environment. Winter is prime time for nature walks and bird watching.

The visitor center reveals the area’s ancient history and provides warmth and shelter if you get too cold. 

The Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center
The Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center in Potomac, MD. Photo Credit: Jackie Duda

You can bring a picnic lunch to enjoy on the many picnic tables that are vacant in this offseason. The sight of all that water and its calming effects, and a decent several mile hike, might make you peckish or wishing to check out some local shops. You can head on over to nearby Bethesda with its many boutiques and eateries. I think the water made us hungry for fish, and after both excursions we drove up the road less than 15 minutes away to Taipei Tokyo Cafe on Shady Grove Road in Rockville to enjoy some of the best sushi we’ve ever had to date. It was a colorful and satisfying conclusion to an otherwise dreary winter day.

Note: There is a per car, hiker, or biker fee to enter this U.S. National Park. For travelers with disabilities, don’t forget to inquire about the U.S. National Park System Access Pass, a free lifetime pass available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents that have a permanent disability. If you already have a Maryland State Park Universal Disability Pass, you can show this to the attendant in the entrance booth to receive your Access Pass on the spot. 

Lead Photo: A view of Great Falls from Olmsted Island. Credit:

About the Author

Jackie Duda is a writer with disabilities living in Frederick, Maryland. She loves getting out and writing about her travels with her kids and husband and their Golden Retriever, Henry. Jackie has been writing for nearly 30 years, with articles published in Woman’s Day, The Washington Post, Costco Connection Magazine, The American Institute for Cancer Research, and many others. Before writing, she was an English teacher with Montgomery County Public Schools. She chronicles her travels and day-to-day life with disabilities on Instagram @jackiesjourney4.

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