- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 8, 2004

The natural beauty of Great Falls Park, an 800-acre reserve along the Potomac River in McLean, is a must-see for families interested in hiking or rock climbing. On any given day, parents with young and older children alike can be seen navigating their way along one of the park’s six trails or over the rocks that run from the waterfalls and along Mather Gorge.

Our family, hiking the hilly River Trail, stumbled upon rock climbers preparing to rappel down a steep, jagged set of rocks in the gorge. One, George Barrows, 26, from Fairfax, was tying a sturdy rope around his waist and to a tree — rope that would hold him as he steadily made his way about 50 feet down the rocks to a makeshift path.

“Is it frightening? No, not after the first couple of times,” said Mr. Barrows, a six-year veteran of the sport and a shoe salesman. “I do it once a week.”

“It takes more talent and muscle to climb,” he added.

The River Trail, which takes about two hours to hike and covers three miles round-trip, offers spectacular views of Mather Gorge from numerous points along the way. The trail begins at the picnic area just south of the waterfalls and ends beyond Cow Hoof Rock. Though the trail is considered relatively easy, it does require climbing over some rocks. Hikers are advised to wear proper footwear.

For those who are worried about veering off the trail and getting lost, park authorities have marked trees along the way, though some are more conspicuous than others.

The Potomac cuts Great Falls in two, with a park in Virginia and one in Maryland. On the Virginia side, cliff-top overlooks face the direction of Maryland’s park. Past the picnic benches and cookout sites, the Virginia park also contains a wooden marker that indicates the high-water marks the river reached during various flood years.

On the Maryland side, a wooden walkway leads to the midriver view of the falls from Olmsted Island. Perhaps the best-known trail on the Maryland side is the Billy Goat Trail, a nearly five-mile hike that begins at a parking lot adjacent to the Old Angler’s Inn. Though there are river views, the trail is substantially rougher, and it’s not as popular as trails on the Virginia side.

The waterfalls at Great Falls may be considered the most spectacular natural landmarks in the region, with their cascading rapids that drop dramatically, but the metropolitan area features other parks and trails that offer fun and exploration for families seeking a hiking adventure.

Rock Creek Park is popular among Washingtonians. Built in 1890 to defend the city during the Civil War, it is one of the largest urban parks in the United States, according to the National Park Service’s Web site. Young students learning about the Civil War will be interested in four forts from that time maintained by the Park Service. Hiking, biking and equestrian trails run past the historical forts and other sites, such as Peirce Mill, a functional water mill, and the Old Stone House, the oldest house in Washington.

Farther out, in Cumberland, Md., is the western terminus of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath, which stretches 184 miles along the Potomac River to Georgetown. It offers hikes rich with history. The canal was a lifeline for communities and businesses as coal, lumber, and grain and other agricultural products floated down it to market, according to C&O; Canal Association and National Park Service Web sites.

The canal linked the rapidly growing west to the east and played an important role in the growth and development of the nation in the 1800s, according to the Park Service.

WHEN YOU GO:

• What: Great Falls Park

DIRECTIONS: On the Virginia side, take Exit 13 off the Beltway to Route 193 (Georgetown Pike). Go west 4.3 miles, turn right onto Old Dominion Drive, then right on the entrance road to the park. On the Maryland side, take Exit 39 off the Beltway onto Route 190 (River Road). After almost seven miles, a road leading to the left will be marked as the entrance to the park. Both parks are about 12 miles from Washington.

ADMISSION: $4 a carload, good for both parks.

• What: Rock Creek Park

DIRECTIONS: From downtown Washington, take the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway north to Beach Drive. Exit onto Beach Drive north and take it to Broad Branch Road. Make a left and then a right onto Glover Road; follow the signs to the Nature Center. Note: The parkway is one-way south on weekdays from 6:45 to 9:45 a.m. During this time, you can use 16th Street to Military Road west and then turn left onto Glover Road as an alternate. The parkway is one-way north from 3:45 to 6:30 p.m. You can take Glover Road to Military Road east then south on 16th Street to downtown Washington as an alternate.

• What: Chesapeake& Ohio Canal

DIRECTIONS: The canal follows the Potomac River for 184.5 miles from Georgetown to Cumberland, Md. There are numerous ways to access the hiking trails, including the following:

• C&O; Canal Headquarters, PO Box 4, Sharpsburg, MD 21782. 301/739-4200.

• Antietam Creek Ranger Station, 3811 Harpers Ferry Road, Sharpsburg, MD 21782. 301/432-6348.

mWestern Maryland Station, Canal Street, Cumberland, MD 21502. 301/722-8226.

• Hancock Visitor Center, 326 E. Main St., Hancock, MD 21750. 301/678-5463.

Sources: Web sites for the National Park Service (www.nps.gov), the C&O; Canal Association (www.candocanal.org) and the Georgetown BusinessImprovement District (www.georgetowndc.com/canal/canal.php).

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