Should you ever find yourself in the vicinity of Washington, D. C., check out the Great Falls of the Potomac. It's a wonderful way to spend anywhere from one to many hours relaxing in a beautiful, natural setting.
Part of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, the park is about 15 miles northwest of Washington. You can reach it easily from Exit 41 of I 495 (the Capital Beltway). It's the very first exit north of the Potomac. Look carefully for and follow the signs for Great Falls. You'll actually be taking the Clara Barton Parkway west to MacArthur Blvd, then continuing west on MacArthur. The boulevard ends at the park.
Here you'll find many of the old locks that took canalboats around the nearby rapids and waterfalls. You can view the rapids and falls from numerous natural and man-made vantage points. The adventurous can take the towpath from the parking lot to the Great Falls Overlook a couple hundred yards away.
Take it a step further by following the boardwalk onto Olmsted Island, named after landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who is recognized as the founder of American Landscape Architecture and the nation's foremost parkmaker. It's worth the 5 to 7 minute walk -- your reward will be a spectacular view of more waterfalls at the end. If you're lucky, some folks on the other side of the river might even wave to you!
Whether you jog, hike or bike, the towpath offers lots of breathtaking beauty. If you're not a fancier of physical activity, there's a museum where you can watch a film about the canal and view other exhibits about the canal's history. You'll also find a gate lock building, a small garden and, of course, locks nearby to look at.
To experience what it was like back in the canal days, take the hour-long ride on a replica of a 19th-century, mule-drawn canalboat, available 3 times a day. Fares range from $4.00 for youngsters to $7.50 for adults, and less for folks over 61.
If you bring a repast to enjoy, be prepared to take your trash home. This is a "TRASH-FREE" park, so the park doesn't provide any garbage cans. They do provide bags for you to take your garbage home in (just in case you've forgotten to bring your own), but that's it. The restrooms have warm-air hand-dryers, to eliminate paper waste.
There's a $2.00 charge to enter the park for individuals on foot or bicycle, or $4.00 per personal vehicle. Normal hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but we did see many people in the park when we arrived around 8:45 a.m.
For more information, call the park at (301) 299-3615. You can also look in the AAA tour book for the Mid-Atlantic region. Canalboat ride times and fares are listed, but you might want to call confirm -- they run at different times at different times of the year. There are also listings for the other parks belonging to the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park system, including the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C., where another canalboat ride is available!