- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 16, 2002

The Potomac River crashes and careens over the rocks, creating dramatic scenery for tourists and a challenging course for world-class paddlers. This is Great Falls National Park in Great Falls, Va., where one can do as much as rappel down a rock face or as little as enjoy the view.

"The river is the biggest draw here," says Jesse Reynolds, the park's supervisory ranger.

The roar of the river and the 16 miles of wooded hiking trails make it hard to believe Great Falls is only 15 miles from the District. But the site's location was key to a plan developed by George Washington in the late 1700s. Washington and his associates had big ideas for Great Falls and its environs as an important conduit in commerce and travel.

They conceived the Patowmack Canal Co., a series of canals that was built on the river to aid the transport of goods such as whiskey, tobacco, furs and timber from Cumberland, Md., to Georgetown. It took boatsmen three to five days to make the 185-mile trip. When they reached their destination, they often dismantled the 75-foot boats, sold the lumber and walked back home.

The remains of the Patowmack Canal as well of ruins from the Matildaville settlement on the banks of the river are still found at the park. They stand as a reminder to the reality that big plans cannot compete with forces of nature, Mr. Reynolds says.

"The canal was a disaster," he says. "The river was only navigable for about 50 days out of the year.

"There was also this idea in the early 1900s to turn the Great Falls area into a textile-producing town and turn the plants with water power, but that never panned out," Mr. Reynolds says. "People have been drawn to this area for years because of the river. They had ideas of financial gain, but the river essentially prevented it because it fluctuates so much."

By 1828, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Co. bought the old Patowmack Canal, eventually linking Washington to the west with a continuous canal. That canal eventually was replaced with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which could transport larger loads faster and cheaper.

Trade isn't the draw at Great Falls today, though. Visitors to the park are there to enjoy nature's contribution.

A large part of the visitor center at Great Falls is devoted to the would-be commercial history of the location. Visitors can see how the locks and canals were built, as well as the remains of a canal boat. More about the river's history can be seen and heard in the 10-minute slide presentation that runs in the visitor center throughout the day.

There is a cozy children's area in the visitor center, too, where youngsters can do nature-themed puzzles and artwork, read wildlife books, and feel nature in the form of a "please touch" box filled with rocks, feathers, leaves and shells.

Outdoors, the trails wind through sunny picnic areas to the cliffside, taking visitors to the best riverside viewing spots. The River Trail begins just downstream of the falls. It follows the river along the cliff top and offers a spectacular view of the Mather Gorge section of the river. Above the visitor center, one can follow the Canal Trail to see the head of the falls and Aqueduct Dam, a man-made structure built in the 1850s.

From the overlooks, visitors often see skilled paddlers navigating the rapids. There are also rock climbers who frequent the park, making use of the steep rock formations.

The river and the rocks are as dangerous as they look, Mr. Reynolds says. He reminds visitors to use common sense.

"Some people don't think they should be responsible for their own safety," he says. "Once the river level goes down and the weather gets hot, we deal with people in the river quite a bit. Some of it is ignorance. Technically, it is illegal to be in the river without a boat. Some people have a lack of appreciation for potential danger. They should stay a good body length away from the shoreline. If you follow that rule, you will be able to see plenty and enjoy your day here."

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