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Great Falls Park - South Loop



3.3 mile 5.3 kilometer loop
97% Runnable


Ascent: 201' 61 m
Descent: -203' -62 m
High: 278' 85 m
Low: 115' 35 m


Avg Grade: 2% (1°)
Max Grade: 27% (15°)


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A tour of some great trails in the south end of GFNP culminating with dramatic views of the falls.

Brian Smith

Features Birding · River/Creek · Views · Waterfall · Wildflowers · Wildlife

Great Falls National Park is a fee-based park. There is a fee of $15.00 for vehicles or $7.00 for pedestrians, cyclists and equestrians. See the following link for the most accurate and up-to-date information:…


This loop is a quick and easy way to experience a lot of what Great Falls Park has to offer.


Park at either the main parking area or, if possible, at the small lot that is immediately to the right upon entering the park.

Starting at the south parking lot, take the South Lot Connector to Old Carriage Road and turn right. Follow the wide, smooth path and look for Swamp Trail to branch off to the right. The Swamp Trail runs through a low-lying, swampy area of forest. Trail conditions are frequently muddy and the trail is sometimes blocked by downed trees. Many of the most mud-prone areas have raised walkways or small bridges that will keep you dry.

At the next junction, stay straight (slightly right) and onto Swamp-Ridge Connector. This trail climbs steeply up an eroded hillside and onto the ridge. Eventually, you'll hit Ridge Trail and turn left. Ridge Trail is a well maintained, six-food wide trail that runs east from Old Dominion Dr. to Difficult Run Trail. Follow it across Old Carriage Road and look for a major junction with River Trail.

Turn left and descend steeply on River Trail. The trail follows the Potomac River for approximately 1.5 miles, along the tops of the cliffs. In some areas, this trail runs right next to the edge of the cliff, offering spectacular views of the Potomac and Mather Gorge. Cliff heights range from 25-75 feet.

Some rock scrambling is required, especially in the section between the Canal Cut and Cow Hoof Rock. This trail can be hazardous in wet weather. Lichen, sand, and grit on the rocky areas and cliff edges make footing treacherous.

Finally, River Trail will dead-end into Patowmack Canal Trail. Turn right and follow it to the overlooks that offer incredible views of Great Falls. Turn around just before he visitor center and head back toward the lot on Old Carriage Road.

Flora & Fauna

The Potomac River and the unique geological features have shaped the land at Great Falls for millennia. Floods regularly occur along this stretch of the river, taking away soils and plants and depositing new silt and seeds to take their place. This is a dynamic environment, home to rare plant communities and a variety of wildlife.

Most of the park's 800 acres are forested. Throughout the year, over 150 different species of birds can be seen at Great Falls Park. Native animals, such as whitetail deer, fox, box turtles, squirrels, coyotes, bats, and chipmunks also call this place home. A wide variety of plants, including several rare species, thrives in this environment.

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Aug 11, 2018
Susanne Brooks
Added on extra on Difficult Run. Requires a short run along dangerous road - doable but not super safe. River trail has rock scramble sections. 5mi
Jul 7, 2018
Allie Passarello
cut a bit off of the route by accident, come back it’s beautiful!!!! 3mi
Jun 23, 2018
Daniel Roberts
May 15, 2018
Allan Schoenberg
Nov 22, 2017
Ned R
Added the Difficult Run trail to this loop 5.5mi

Trail Ratings

  4.3 from 32 votes


  4.3 from 32 votes
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in Virginia


101 Views Last Month
7,053 Since Dec 28, 2014



Great Falls is truly a magnificent place to hike or run.
Dec 28, 2014 near Great F…, VA
Great Falls panorama
Dec 28, 2014 near Great F…, VA
Beautiful views of the Potomac can be had from River Trail.
Dec 28, 2014 near Great F…, VA
The rocky, cliff-top nature of River Trail.
Dec 28, 2014 near Great F…, VA
Great Falls.
Feb 3, 2016 near Great F…, VA
Great Falls Park Visitor Center
Dec 28, 2014 near Great F…, VA


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