This article, written and photographed by Charlotte Geary, originally appeared in Modern Reston magazine.
No series of local trail tours would be complete without this one. I think this is the most beautiful Northern Virginia trail, and if you hike only one local spot, this is the one to choose.
When you live only nine miles from a National Park Service site, you should probably go check it out. If you haven’t been to Great Falls Park yet, plan an outing there. It’s located only 22 minutes from Reston Town Center, but being there feels like you’ve traveled to a remote and exotic oasis. Be sure to visit all three waterfall overlooks, as well as the visitor center’s museum, children’s area, and theater. The park is a delightful place to visit any time of year.
But that’s an article for a different day. Today I want to let you know about the amazing scenery beyond the overlooks. If you are up for a rocky hike, you should head south of the visitor center to explore the River Trail. You can download a printable version of the park’s trail map here.
The River Trail as marked on the trail map is 3 miles long, but you can expand or condense that distance by connecting with different trails within the park. Personally I recommend walking the entire distance of the River Trail, and then returning via the Matildaville Trail, where you can see ruins of the town that used to be located there.
To find the River Trail, continue south along the main path beyond the third overlook. As you leave the clearing and approach the forest, you’ll see that the path forks, with a smaller trail heading to the left toward the river. That’s the beginning of the River Trail.
The River Trail is very rocky, and therefore not appropriate for strollers or wheelchairs. If you will be traveling with wheels, you continue along the wide and flat Canal Trail. You can also explore Overlooks 2 and 3, both of which have ramps and amazing views of the waterfalls.
Because of its steep cliffs, the River Trail may also not be a good choice for young children or people with fears of heights. It’s possible to walk the entire trail without getting close to the edge of cliffs, but if you want the best views, you’ll need to venture to the edges of the rocks in many spots.
But if you don’t mind scaling boulders, you will love this trail. There are several spots along the way where signs offer smaller paths that lead off the main trail toward the river. Whenever possible, take those side paths. The views are always worth it.
The main path is well maintained and marked with aqua green blazes. If you wander off the main trail, look for these blazes to help you get on track.
A fun part of this trail is this bridge that carries you down a valley and across the other side. Keep an eye out for wildlife, because on a recent visit I saw a fox walking right up these stairs.
The trail follows the breathtaking Mather Gorge, which was named after Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service. Now that the nation is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the NPS, I can’t imagine a more perfect time to go see one of our closest National Parks.
I had lived in Northern Virginia a few decades before I ever realized this gorge existed. Did you know about it? I’m glad I finally discovered this treasure; Mather Gorge has become one of my happy places. What other beautiful landmarks might I be missing? Please let me know in the comments if you have recommendations!
Great Falls Park is located at 9200 Old Dominion Drive in McLean. It is open seven days a week from 7am until thirty minutes after sunset. Admission is $10 per car.
And here’s a behind-the-scenes look at Mike and me doing “research” for this article. Hiking here is one of our favorite things to do, and we go several times a year, but fall is the best time of all!