Great Falls Park: Hike the River Trail for Scenic Views in McLean, Virginia

Last Updated on April 12, 2022

Since 1966, 800-acre Great Falls Park has been a unit of the National Park Service. It’s also one of the top spots for day hiking in Northern Virginia.

There are six hiking trails at Great Falls Park in McLean, Virginia. Trails range from the .9-mile Swamp Trail to the 1.6-mile Old Carriage Road (one-way).

Bluebells at Great Falls Park

The most popular park trail is the River Trail, which skirts along the rocky edge of Mather Gorge, boasting spectacular views across the Potomac River.

The Potomac River is the divide between Maryland and Virginia. As you walk the River Trail, wave to those hiking the Billy Goat Trail in Maryland.

Arriving at Great Falls Park

Since Great Falls Park is a unit of the National Park Service, it’s no surprise that there is an entrance fee. It’s a hefty one, too. As in, $20 per vehicle.

However, you can use the America the Beautiful Pass to enter the park and skip the entrance fee (which I do).

Great Falls Park Second Overlook

This pass costs $80 and allows free access to all national parks and wildlife refuges. The pass also covers day-use fees at national forests and grasslands.

On arrival, you’ll see the large parking lot. It’s big, but on fair-weather weekends, the Great Falls Park lot can fill up quickly, so keep this in mind.

Great Falls Park Visitor Center

Unfortunately, the Great Falls Visitor Center is temporarily closed due to construction. It is expected to be closed until early-March 2023.

Once the visitor center re-opens, I hope you will again be able to watch a 10-minute video on the history of Great Falls Park and ogle the wildlife exhibits.

Great Falls Park Visitor Center

My favorite display inside the visitor center was the massive wall of Junior Ranger patches and badges from park units all across the country.

While the visitor center is closed, you and your kids can print out a virtual Junior Ranger booklet to earn a badge while hiking at Great Falls.

Great Falls Park Mobile Van

On the ground floor of the building (the visitor center is on the second floor), you’ll find a snack shop (chips, ice cream, sodas) and restrooms.

On your way in, you’ll receive a trail map from the ranger at the entrance station, but you can also print out a Great Falls Park trail map.

Great Falls Overlooks

From the visitor center, you’re close to the first of three overlooks of the park’s namesake falls, as well as a large grassy area and a sea of picnic tables.

Great Falls Park Overlook One

All three overlooks are well worth a stop for the views, too. The first overlook is my favorite. Unfortunately, it’s not a wheelchair accessible overlook.

A few steps lead to a walking path out to the first overlook. At the overlook, there’s an easy rock scramble to higher up views of the falls.

The second overlook has steps, as well as a stroller-friendly ramp and a large viewing platform. The third overlook has two platforms for viewing the falls.

High Water Marks at Great Falls Park

At the third overlook, pause for the high water marks. As recently as 1996 water levels rose above the overlooks, flooding portions of Great Falls Park.

River Trail

From the third overlook, continue south along the Patowmack Canal Trail until you reach the start of the blue-blazed River Trail.

River Trail Rock Scrambles

The River Trail is one of those Great Falls Park trails that you can hike again and again. It’s kid-friendly too, with easy rock scrambles that make it fun.

On this Great Falls hiking trail, peer down into Mather Gorge. On many weekends, you can see kayaks navigating the furiously flowing waters below.

Kayaks at Great Falls Park

Great Falls Park is also known as an area rock climbing destination. Early in the hike, at the .7-mile mark (from the visitor center), you may see rock climbers.

This is a popular spot for setting up rock climbing sites and rappelling down ropes to water’s edge. Climbing routes run between 25 and 75 feet in length.

Rock Climbers at Great Falls Park

From here, continue following along the blue-blazed trail. There are lots of rocky outcrops along the way to stop and revel in the river views.

Many people stop at the emergency boat ramp, Sandy Landing (1.6 miles), then re-trace their steps to the visitor center for a 3.4-mile hike.

River Trail Steps at Great Falls Park

Alternatively, you can hike to the end of the River Trail, then turn around for a 4.0-mile out-and-back hike. Note there is some elevation with this option.

Hike Options

Whether you hike the entire 3.0 miles (out-and-back) or only hike a section before turning around, you’ll be glad you made time for hiking in Great Falls.

Great Falls Park Overlook Three

This Great Falls hike is tops in any season, even on days with passing showers. As a bonus, you can connect this trail to other trails for a loop or more steps.

#1: River Trail-Matildaville Trail Loop

Over the weekend, I tacked on the Matildaville Trail for a 3.8-mile loop hike. For this one, hike to the end of the River Trail, then turn right at the Ridge Trail.

At the 2.3-mile mark, turn right onto the Matildaville Trail. This trail becomes Old Carriage Road at the 3.5-mile mark and leads to the visitor center.

Matildaville Remains

On the way, you’ll pass the remains of Matildaville, a once-planned community that did not survive the closing of the historic Patowmack Canal in 1830.

You’ll pass restrooms on the right on your way back to the visitor center. There is also a water fountain.

#2: River Trail-Matildaville Trail Loop (Short)

There is a second option that incorporates the Matildaville Trail and allows you to sneak a peek at the remains of Matildaville.

For this hike, start on the River Trail. Once you reach Sandy Landing at the 1.6-mile mark, veer right to loop and connect with the Matildaville Trail.

Matildaville Ruins

You’ll soon pass ruins of Matildaville, then see the restrooms at the 2.4-mile mark when the Matildaville Trail becomes Old Carriage Road.

Stay on Old Carriage Road until you reach the visitor center. You may want to walk back out to the overlooks for a second look at the falls before you leave.

#3: Ridge Trail to River Trail

I’ve also hiked to the River Trail at Great Falls Park by way of Difficult Run. This may be my favorite hike too, though a longer hike at 5.1-miles.

This hike begins from the Difficult Run parking area on Georgetown Pike. Walk the Difficult Run Trail for 1.0 mile, then turn left onto the Ridge Trail.

Difficult Run Cascades

From here, you’ll ascend on the Ridge Trail, which affords beautiful views across the Potomac River. You’ll then descend along the River Trail.

Stop at all three overlooks, as well as the visitor center (if open), then loop back to Difficult Run by way of Old Carriage Road and the Swamp Trail.

Difficult Run Ridge Trail PIcnic Table

At the 4.7-mile mark, turn left on the Ridge Trail, but then stay alert. In less than .1-mile, turn right onto the Wolf Pack Trail (there are no signs or marks).

You will arrive at the parking area in less than .4 miles to complete this hike. I did this hike in January and the water was an impossibly beautiful blue.

Riverbend Park

All three River Trail hikes are great options for exploring Great Falls Park on foot. Difficult Run, especially, is a great hike into the park.

Riverbend Park Sign

A second hike into Great Falls Park begins at Riverbend Park, a regional park run by the Fairfax County Park Authority.

It’s a 2.0-mile hike south from Riverbend Park to the first overlook at Great Falls Park, mostly by way of the blue-blazed Potomac Heritage Trail.

Riverbend Park Aqueduct

From the overlook, you can proceed to the end of the River Trail, then re-trace your steps for an 8.0-mile out-and-back hike along the Potomac River.

For a northbound hike, take the Potomac Heritage Trail to the Watkins Island Overlook. This is a 3.9-mile out-and-back hike along the Potomac River.