“A beautiful family-friendly loop that mixes history with breathtaking scenery.
— Karl W
Fall Colors · River/Creek · Views · Waterfall
This is a fully accessible trail that will take you to the aqueduct overview, Maryland Great Falls Overlook
, past the historic Great Falls Tavern, and past three locks—all only minutes from downtown D.C.
This trail starts and finishes at the main parking area for the Great Falls Tavern section of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park. Parking is $10 per vehicle or free with the various NPS passes.Start off heading south on the wide paved trail along the eastern edge of the canal. You already will have nice views of the canal here! You'll soon pass the historic Gate House and arrive at the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center, which first opened as a tavern and inn in 1831. It is now a lovely spot to learn more about the history of the park and buy gifts.
In front of the tavern is Lock 20 (the 20th lock out of 74). A bridge just below the lock offers access to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Tow Path - a trail that stretches for nearly 200 miles along the historic canal. Head north on this trail to the Washington Aqueduct Observation Deck. This elevated platform offers excellent views of one part of the Aqueduct, which began full operations in 1864 and is listed as a National Historic Landmark.
Head back south along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Tow Path, back past Lock 20, and then past Lock 19 and Lock 18. Look for Olmsted Island Bridges
on your right/west. This short trail crosses over a unique "floodplain terrace" environment made up of a few islands. The islands are connected by two bridges that cross over narrow ravines through which the Potomac river rushes. These bridges alone offer views that are worth the trip. However, at the end of the trail you'll come to an observation deck for Great Falls - a series of falls that drop the Potomac nearly 80 feet. Sections of the Potomac Gorge have class V+ rapids that are popular with kayaks.
Return to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Tow Path and head back north. This time cross the canal at Lock 19 to shake up your vies of the canal and locks. Finally, pass back by the tavern (or stop in) and return to the parking area. There are bathrooms along this last section too. You can also take a boat ride during spring/summer along the canal.
History & Background
George Washington himself started locks to bypass Great Falls (remains are on the Virginia side). The Ohio Canal started operation in 1831 and created a navigable route between D.C. and Cumberland Maryland. The tavern you'll pass opened in 1864.