Great Falls Virginia Loop

  • Highlights: Waterfalls, wildflowers, rock formations, wildlife, views
  • Distance: 4.7 mile loop
  • Elevation change: 383 feet
  • Difficulty level: Moderate
  • Trailhead Parking: Great Falls Park Visitor Center, Dominion Drive, Great Falls VA; park fee required
  • Website: Great Falls Park
  • Beer Pairings: Lake Anne Brew House—Reston Red Ale & Live-Work-Play IPA

The Hike:

The Great Falls of the Potomac runs between Virginia and Maryland and is located just outside the DC Beltway. The National Park Service operates parks on both sides of the river. This hike is on the Virginia side. See our post on the Billy Goat Loop for a great hike on the Maryland side.

This loop hike combines several trails so there are numerous trail junctions. The hike begins on the River Trail with amazing views of Great Falls and the Potomac. The Difficult Run Trail travels beside a pleasant stream that feeds into the Potomac. The Swamp Trail passes through a densely wooded section of the park.

The trails are well marked and well maintained. This park is very popular so plan to arrive early in the day, especially on weekends. Most people just walk to the three overlooks, so the trails are not usually crowded after the first half-mile.

Begin the hike just past the Park Visitor Center on the River Trail. Three short spur trails lead to overlooks. Follow the signs and take in the views of the Potomac and the rocky cliffs on the Maryland side. 

After Overlook # 3, bear left to stay on the blue-blazed River Trail. The crowds thin out at this point but the river views are still fantastic. Reach Mather Gorge at .5 miles. This is the narrowest section of the lower Potomac. There is a plaque here dedicated to Stephen Mather, the first Director of the National Park Service.

Continue following the blue blazes as the trail winds beside the river. There are several small rock scrambles here, but nothing like the Billy Goat Trail on the Maryland side. The trail is at the edge of the cliff in several spots with great views. At 1.2 miles there is a short spur trail on the left to Sandy Landing. Swimming in the Potomac is very dangerous and is prohibited.

Cow Hoof Rock is on the left at 1.5 miles. This is a popular destination for rock climbers. Continue on the trail to a junction at 1.6 miles where the River Trail ends. Bear left on the blue-blazed Ridge Trail. The trail moves away from the river and there are several rocky sections as you travel through the forest.

At the next junction, turn right on the Difficult Run Trail. Difficult Run flows into the Potomac and this section of the trail includes several cascades and a small section of rapids. At 3.2 miles stay left and cross under the highway. The trail temporarily leaves the Great Falls Park and the noise of traffic on Georgetown Pike overtakes the water sounds from Difficult Run.

At the first trail junction, turn right on a short spur trail crossing over the highway and return to the park. Pass through the gate and follow the Old Carriage Trail uphill to the first trail junction. Turn left here on the Ridge Trail. At 3.5 miles, turn right on the Swamp-Ridge Connector and pass through the opening in the spilt rail fence. This connector trail leads to The Swamp Trail. 

Turn left at 3.9 miles on the Swamp Trail which runs through a low-lying, swampy section of forest. In the spring wildflowers line the trail. There are several stream crossings. At 4.3 miles the trail ends at a junction with the Old carriage Road. Turn left here and follow signs for the Visitor Center to return to your vehicle.

Hike Photos:

Click on an image below for an enlarged view.

Beer Pairing:

Northern Virginia has lots of great craft breweries. The Lake Anne Brew House is a small-batch brewery located just a few miles from Great Falls in Reston. They have indoor and outdoor seating with lake views. Many food options are available nearby.

We arrived at last call, so we quickly ordered our beers and enjoyed the views from the deck. Pete liked the Reston Red Ale, an Irish Red which is dry hopped with Centennial hops. Kathy really liked Live-Work-Play IPA which was nicely hopped at 65 IBUs.

Hike and drink responsibly. Never drink and drive. Stay safe and be responsible.