The gorge formed by the mighty Potomac River, carved a climbing area later to be a National Park just about a ba-zillion years ago. Great Falls National Park has a visitor’s center and several magnificent overlooks from which to view the spectacle of the great falls of the Potomac; even bigger during the spring runoff. Climbers and white water kayakers alike are drawn to this beautifully secluded national park, one of many, just minutes from our Nation’s Capitol.
See the park’s website http://www.nps.gov/grfa/ for history, nature and science.
The rock climbing at the park is mostly on the Virginia side but there are a number of routes on the Maryland side as well. Most folks come for the top-roping since ropes are easily setup and the views are tremendous. Trad climbing and to a lesser degree aid climbing is not normally done since the shiest rock is very brittle and easily flakes and breaks.
A modest fee is collected at the ranger’s booth but those who frequent the park purchase seasonal or yearly passes. The comprehensive but expensive Annual National Parks is valid; however, a cheaper annual C&O Canal Parks pass is also available.
Note: The park service is reviewing the impact of climbing and climbers throughout the gorge. PLEASE minimize your impact when moving around on top of and on the climbs. Observe all fencing and restrictions.The park has been very responsive to climber concerns over closures and has in all but a very few cases provided opening in fences to access the cliff tops for us. Consider being a good custodian and packing out an extra bag of trash from the cliff bases.
Since most climbers top rope here you will mostly need gear for building anchors at the cliff tops. Warning: rock along the river generally does not hold trad gear, and it is recommended that climbers sling trees and rocks instead!
Although the Park Service has decided to not allow the placement of permanent hardware in this part of the country, i.e. bolted anchors, adequate protection is achieved using the natural protection found in trees, blocks, and rock. Many routes have adequate rock for placing pro as backup.
Be gentle on the trees please! They see lots of use. This means don’t saw the bark off by pulling webbing and ropes around them. Try not to compact root soil, stand on rock if possible. Soil erosion and the health of these trees is one area that the park is intensely focused on and, rightly or wrongly, much of the stress these cliff top trees are seeing is being attributed to us climbers.
The most current guide book information based on A Climber’s Guide to the Great Falls of the Potomac is available as a Rakkup guide here. This guide provides maps, descriptions, and ratings of technical climbing routes along the Potomac River; covering the Virginia shoreline. The paper edition contains Maryland shoreline climbs, which will be included in future editions of this Rakkup guide, as well as masterpoint locations for each sector. The Rakkup edition includes over 200 routes and updated images.
Various free topos abound of various quality…
- Bob Sihler’s summitpost.org pages have excellent overviews, details and photos:
- rockclimbing.com:RockClimbing.com Great Falls Section
Real books include…
- A Climber’s Guide to the Great Falls of the Potomac: Our Mountaineering Section produces the best guide to the area. By purchasing and promoting its use you are supporting our non-profit organization and it’s mission to promote safe climbing. The guide is available in local outdoor shops and from PATC’s headquarters or online store (https://www.patc.net/PATC/ItemDetail?iProductCode=PC190). Also, PATC-MS gear meister carries copies. Email [email protected]
- Eric Horst’s Rock Climbing Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland. While not containing nearly as many routes as our Section’s guide it none the less contains a high quality section covering climbing in the gorge and many folks use it.
Cell Phone Coverage
Cell phone is spotty and depends on your particular provider.
For the Virginia side of Great Falls:The park has detailed driving directions here:http://www.nps.gov/grfa/planyourvisit/directions.htm.
After passing through the Park Rangers booth to pay the entrance fee, make an immediate sharp right hand turn to get to the “Climbers Parking lot”.
There is a sign-inbox at the far end of the parking lot that is used as a meeting place, to leave messages for tardy climbers and to help folks spread out on the climbs. Please be courteous and sign in.
The trailhead through the gate to the right of the sign-in box leads to a number of different paths that directly and less directly take you to the visitor’s center, concessions, picnic areas, historical points of interests and the river’s climbing routes. The most direct route to the river is to follow the path past the restroom on your right and continue until you see the river.
The routes along the gorge are divided into areas when referenced in guide books and often groups heading out to climb will use these names to indicate where they will be climbing. If you don’t yet have a guidebook to locate these areas, take a look at Bob Sihler’s summitpost.org page to get oriented (link above).
For the Maryland side of Great Falls:
Start at the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal’s Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center.
Where to Eat
The town of Great Falls has many grocery stores, restaurants and bars. It is only minutes from the park entrance. Turn right on Georgetown Pike when exiting the park.