On Place: The Potomac River Gorge
SUBJECT: The Potomac River Gorge
LOCATION: Northern Virginia
The Potomac River is the fourth largest river on the Atlantic Coast by area at roughly four hundred miles in length and an average width of 1500 feet according to the Potomac Riverkeeper. Further, the Potomac is the second largest tributary to the Chesapeake Bay, the largest coastal estuary in the United States. From a photographic standpoint, opportunity abounds up and down the length of the river, but for the sake of this post I’ll be focusing on a twenty mile stretch of river from the northern boundary of Riverbend Regional Park to the southern boundary of Great Falls National Park. Within this stretch of river lies the fall line: the geological zone where the harder upland rock of the Appalachian Piedmont Plateau gives way to the softer sedimentary rock of the coastal plain. When rivers cross this geologic zone known as the fall line the result is often rapids and falls and at this location there is a wonderful representation of just that with Great Falls. Great Falls is a series of whitewater cascades and falls, none greater than about twenty feet in height, occurring in succession down seventy six feet of elevation change in roughly one mile of river flow. Using the aforementioned statistics, Great Falls along the Potomac River are the steepest and most spectacular fall line rapids of any eastern river, hence the name “Great Falls!”
Also featured within this twenty-mile stretch of the Potomac River is Mather Gorge, an oddly straight run of the river just after Great Falls that sends turbulent waters averaging some fifteen hundred feet or so in width just upstream squeezing into narrow, tree-lined bluffs and vertical cliffs averaging about one-hundred feet in width from side to side. As such, the dangers are heavy in this area for those that end up in the water as it’s said that while the surface may look placid, the undercurrents can be roiling over potholes and debris at river bottom with speeds five to six times faster than the surface (pick your feet up!). The arrow straight nature of Mather Gorge has been attributed to the presence of an ancient fault line, causing the bedrock along this straight incision to be less resistant and hence the path of least resistance over time. Between Great Falls and Mather Gorge, this area of the Potomac River is widely recognized as the most spectacular natural landscape feature within the greater Washington D.C. Metro area. Many nicknames have been attached to the Potomac River in this area, including “the Nation’s River” and “America’s Wildest Urban River.”
The Potomac River forms the natural boundary between the states of Maryland and Virginia. While park land exists on the Maryland side of the Potomac, including the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park directly across from Great Falls National Park on the Virginia side, I will be looking only at those parklands on the Virginia side of the river with this post. Great Falls Park is a National Park Service site located about fourteen miles upstream of downtown Washington D.C. along Georgetown Pike (VA-93). While disconnected from the road itself, Great Falls National Park is a unit of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, a 25-mile parkway designated as an “All-American Road.” Surrounding Great Falls National Park are a number of smaller regional and local parks, including Difficult Run Stream Valley Park and Scotts Run Nature Preserve to the South and Riverbend Regional Park, Seneca, Fraser Preserve, and Algonkian Regional Park (all part of what is known as the Upper Potomac Regional Park) to the north. While I’ll only be covering Riverbend and Great Falls, each of these smaller parks is noteworthy for photographers working around the Washington D.C. Metro area as the Potomac River is arguably the most noteworthy and unifying natural feature within the landscape.
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A little disclaimer here: the information provided is not meant to be a guide or all-inclusive by any means. The following tidbits should only be seen as a supplement to your own research and homework on the area. I don’t advocate going off-trail or into areas marked “closed.” Use your own good sense with regards to physical abilities and risk levels. Respect the place and the people you encounter therein. Okay, I think I covered all of my p’s and q’s there.
Starting at the northernmost area in Riverbend Park (about 2.5 miles from the visitor center heading northwest on the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail) you’ll find a river in the Potomac that is shallow and mostly calm in character (although there are areas where ripples and cascades might break the surface at times and show the turbulence beneath the surface). A couple islands are present in this stretch of river and provide some of the neatest attractions to put the lens on (Watkins and Glady’s Island are two prominent ones). At just about normal flood stage in elevation, these sandy, rocky islands support trees and other growth and make for nice subjects given appropriate conditions. During flood stage of the river the trees appear to be growing out of river rapids in places! The islands can be explored closer if desired by launching a kayak at Riverbend Regional Park and paddling upstream—expect water levels to be very shallow during normal flow periods in the hot months. From the shore, there are a few nice channel areas off of the main river flow that can provide for reflection photography—you’ll find one of these areas in the spring season just southeast of the Watkins Island Overlook near the Clark’s Branch tributary. In the winter months the channel is largely dry, but in the spring when water levels are up the area is full of shallow, calm water that reflects new green growth, wildflowers and the eroded roots of the shoreline trees. There is plenty of potential here for unique compositions of place but come prepared to traverse some nasty, muddy conditions!
Continue down the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail back towards the Visitor’s Center and you’ll pass a number of attractions, including Carper’s Pond and Black Pond, as well as Witch Hazel Bluff. The ponds provide nice areas for reflection and wildlife photography and can be hotspots for spring wildflowers as well. Witch Hazel Bluff provides some nice aerial-type views of the river during the winter months when the deciduous trees drop their leaves, however, there are no unimpeded views from this area that I’ve been able to find. Many of the areas below Witch Hazel Bluff nearest the river are closed to foot traffic for rare and endangered plants. Once the trail descends the bluff and returns to river level, keep an eye on the Potomac to your left. This section is typically calm during normal flow, with large boulders breaking the surface at regular intervals. The Maryland side of the river will often reflect its wooded shoreline. I’ve been along this stretch during calm, overcast, stormy sky conditions in the daytime when the lush green colors reflect the calm water and allow the boulders to provide interest in the river scenic. Access is varying down to the river level depending on flow conditions, but swimming and wading are prohibited. Regular overlooks are present along the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail.
Past the Visitor’s Center at Riverbend Regional Park continue southwest down the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail towards Great Falls National Park. This stretch of trail is some of the most profusely carpeted in the spring with Virginia Bluebell wildflowers. Native to moist woodlands, the Virginia Bluebell is right at home along the banks of the Potomac River and show especially nice not far from the parking areas at Riverbend Regional Park. While bloom times are weather dependent, Virginia Bluebells are spring ephemerals meaning that they will bloom just before the leaf canopy of the mature trees block and steal the sunlight above from hitting the forest floor. My experience has the annual bloom around mid-April for this area. Also check out the Black Pond area north of the Visitor’s Center for some nice bluebell photography.
The Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail through Riverbend is mostly flat and evenly graded alongside the Potomac River. As you approach Great Falls National Park, however, the terrain becomes a bit more rugged. One of the first attractions you’ll happen upon at the southernmost boundary of Riverbend Regional Park (northernmost boundary of Great Falls National Park) is the Washington Aqueduct Dam, a masonry structure spanning the width of the Potomac River and creating an even, clean (in appearance at least) cascade of water. The Washington Aqueduct Dam was built in the 1850’s and is widely regarded as an ingenious engineering feat. Washington D.C.s first public water supply system, the dam diverts just shy of five hundred million gallons of water per day from the Potomac River into a system of twelve-mile conduits that travel through tunnels and over bridges, aided by pump stations, pipelines and reservoirs, to service over five million customers in the Washington D.C. metro area, according to the Potomac Riverkeepers. Although upgraded from original conditions, the original system continues to provide water to this day! From a photography perspective, I rarely ever photograph the dam but I’ll include a grab shot I took one day before leaving the park.
At this point along the trail you’ve reached Great Falls National Park and the Visitor’s Center. Whether you walked over from Riverbend Regional Park (free admission) or drove in to Great Falls National Park directly ($5.00 entrance fee), the roar of Great Falls, the park’s namesake and main attraction, will be unmistakable. The trail closest to the river in this area of Great Falls is called the Potowmack Canal Trail. There are three primary overlooks to view the action from off of the trail, all easily accessible with even grades. When I was a young kid it was commonplace for people to lounge all over the riverside rocks by the falls on weekends. As I got into my teens the signage warned against the dangers, but did not prohibit you from exploring the river’s edge around the falls. Later, those warning signs disappeared into some deep, dark closet somewhere and were replaced with newly minted signage featuring strong wording about fines and imprisonment for those that want to actually experience Great Falls from any vantage other than the window dressing overlooks. If the trend continues, I’m guessing that they will build a wall around the park in the future, erase Great Falls from all maps, and act like the hazard doesn’t exist—all in the name of public safety I’m sure! Sorry for the rant; just difficult to see such an amazing area turn into a carrot on the end of a long stick…a stick that will surely slap you if you’re not careful. If you venture off trail near the falls, just be mindful of the new culture of enforcement. When I do go off trail—and if you want to engage the river in a meaningful way at the falls you’re pretty much forced to—I do so before first light, before the park opens, snap sunrise and get back up onto the trails before the park opens; before my actions influence others to do the same; and/or before rangers arrive on the job and feel pressure to enforce park mandates. Why park regulations would allow people to navigate down to Fisherman’s Eddy to load a kayak, fish, or photograph, yet would prohibit folks from navigating to the river edge at the falls is lost on me—the terrain is exactly the same. I hate to break rules and I hate to put the park rangers in a tough spot. And this is rugged terrain. If you decide to venture anywhere near the falls you need to be able bodied and experienced with similar terrains and your own abilities within. I will say that despite hearing stories from other photographers about enforcement at Great Falls, I have not had any issue whatsoever with the park staff and hope that there is a good bit of common sense when it comes to fining visitors. However, I have personally stopped photographing the falls in large part because of these new rules and I’ve begun to venture into other areas where the rules are less rigid and I’m more comfortable doing my job. Okay, disclaimer done: use your best judgment when you’re operating near the falls themselves!
Overlook number one (the closest to the Visitors Center) descends down to a rocky overlook area right at the falls themselves. This is the overlook where most of the action happens, for me at least. There are some really nice views upriver and downriver from right at the overlook, with the majority of the falls literally parallel to the overlook. Upriver provides a view of the river approach and initial cascades, transitioning into two separate tracks, one far and one near, separated by a massive rock island (Olmstead Island) at river center. Downriver the view is substantial as well, with the Potomac snaking around the formation of Mather Gorge, with steep, rugged, rocky bluffs forming on each side of the river. Overlook two, a couple dozen feet down the Potowmack Canal Trail offers similar views, albeit from slightly further away. Overlook three, the final of the constructed decks, offers the furthest and most contextual view of the falls themselves. Medium to long glass here will get you some interesting compositions.
Between overlook two and three, there is a trail down to the river’s edge below the falls that is known as Fisherman’s Eddy. This is the kayak put-in for the Virginia side of the Potomac River. An extremely large sign is placed here about the hazards and seemingly imminent death that will occur should you fall into the water; however, it appears that it is still legal to walk down to this area should you be willing and able. This access has been on shaky ground for some time; it would seem many administrators would like to close it down to eliminate the potential safety hazards of visitors near the water. From a photography perspective, the view here is limited. Being lower in elevation than the falls themselves, it is easy to lose perspective on the scene as a whole. However, the vantage does excel for those with longer glass. Intimate portraits of the cascades, a river’s-eye low perspective, and the opportunity to catch Blue Herons and other wildlife back dropped against the raging Potomac River make this a decent area to check out.
When you’ve got your fill of the falls, don’t forget to check out Mather Gorge just downstream! The Potowmack Canal Trail will merge with the River Trail (green/aqua blaze I believe—closest trail to the river) and carry you alongside of and above the water. The trail will pass through some ruins of the Potowmack Canal, George Washington’s attempt to circumvent the falls and use the Potomac River for east/west boat navigation via a series of locks. All that remains today are a series of highly eroding stone walls. Along this trail you’ll also find a neat boardwalk that dips through a stream corridor that I find fun to photograph personally, and there will also be multiple places to access the river through historic canal cuts and such. As far as I can figure, there are no laws in the gorge about exploring river level (I have never had any issue whatsoever over a decade of exploring). The autumn and winter seasons produce lower water levels, making walking the river’s edge through the gorge far easier. You do not want to even attempt river level in Mather Gorge during flood stages—the views from above will be better anyhow. Many local outdoor enthusiasts use Mather Gorge to rock climb, so you might see a few folks doing just that if you spend some time around the gorge.
There are multiple vistas where the River Trail will open up with views of the Potomac River through the straight run of Mather Gorge. Perhaps my favorite area, though, is just before Sandy Landing (paved boat launch for emergency personnel). The river trail literally walks visitors to the very edge of the cliffs at Mather Gorge at this location, with no trees or obstructions to view. The rocky floor of the trail is pocked with potholes that were apparently shaped by the river itself when the trail was at water level. The opposite shore, Bear Island a Nature Conservancy site on the Maryland side, is within one hundred yards or so. Downriver is Cow Hoof Rock where the Potomac turns gentle left (east), and upriver is the mouth of the Gorge after Great Falls. The views are impressive and the compositions many and varied here.
Cross the paved boat launch road at Sandy Point and continue on the River Trail all the way up to Cow Hoof Rock for overlook vistas of Mather Gorge (sorry no picture yet of this view–still working on that one!). Cow Hoof Rock is widely considered the best overall overlook of Mather Gorge. Some tree branches block the view from being unobstructed, but you can certainly get a perspective on the geology from up high and the view is nothing short of impressive. I’ve yet to execute the photograph I have in my mind’s eye at this location, suffice it to say that if you’re at the park you should check it out for yourself. Before you continue along the trail, it might also be of interest to drop back down to river level at this point in the gorge where the Potomac makes a curving turn southeast. Several rock outcroppings provide neat foreground material, the water is often smooth and reflective, and the opposite shore rugged and dramatic with rocky cliffs and bluffs.
The River Trail will intersect and end at The Ridge Trail shortly after climbing up to Cow Hoof Rock Overlook. Take the Ridge Trail south to the terminus of Great Falls National Park to hook up with Difficult Run Trail for one last adventure. You can drop back to the Potomac River on the Difficult Run Trail to explore the widening southern end of Mather Gorge or continue west up the Difficult Run Gorge. Difficult Run is the largest watershed in Fairfax County, and provides a really sweet little gorge of falls and cascades as the water works its way down to the Potomac. When I was a teenager this was the area where we would swim, cliff dive and do all sorts of other stupid stuff (all of which is strictly prohibited these days). A walk around the gorge from the various billy goat trails leading to the water will surely excite those who enjoy water and waterfall photography, particularly after a good rain event or flood conditions in the Northern Virginia area. The terminus of the Difficult Run Trail will be at the Difficult Run Stream Valley Park where one can either jump back on VA-93 by car or cross the road and hook back onto the trail network within Great Falls Park.
I’ve visited Great Falls Park thousands of times over the course of many years. I never tire of the endless opportunities behind the lens as a photographer of this very dramatic and unusual natural feature so close to the hustle and bustle of the city of aspirations. I didn’t even touch on the upland trails and/or the hundreds of local parks and historical sites that are linked to the Potomac River in some way, shape, or form. Having lived in Western North Carolina and the Southern Appalachian Mountains for many years, returning to Northern Virginia is much more bearable when I’m busting my knees and crawling around the rocky, rugged landscape of the Potomac River Gorge. As a photographer, I don’t even feel that I’ve begun to produce my best work of this area—I would consider almost all of my photographs contained in this post as some variant of scouting shots en route to what I hope will truly be stunning imagery as I continue to visit, learn and understand this area. Here’s to many more adventures! Get out there folks. Grab some adventure. Learn about your natural environment. Value natural resources and the wealth that they contribute to our lives. And share your work–I would love to see your creative interpretation of this place!