One Of Virginia's Most Underrated National Parks Is Full Of Waterfalls And Scenic Hikes

From little towns echoing European charm to historic cities brimming with vacation spots and museums, Virginia offers a variety of cultural and educational experiences. However, beyond the historic landmarks and cultural centers, plenty of underrated outdoor destinations call out to travelers looking for a break from city life.

With more than 800 acres of lush forests, cascading waterfalls, and scenic trails, Great Falls Park is a haven of natural beauty for nature enthusiasts who want to venture outside for some good old-fashioned hiking and adventure. Located just 18 miles northwest of the nation's capital — in Fairfax County — the park is favored by locals and visitors alike looking to escape the noise and sink into nature, unmatched views, and bliss.

Open from 7:00 a.m. until 30 minutes after sunset throughout the year — except for Christmas Day — Great Falls Park is a great destination to hit up once you've had your fill of exploring Washington D.C.'s best museums and are craving something a little different.

Hitting up the trails at Great Falls Park

Undoubtedly, one of the best things to do while visiting Great Falls Park is to check out the many pathways and trails. The park has over a dozen outdoor trails to choose from, ranging between easy and moderate difficulty. These trails will guide you through the lush greenery and to the best scenic overlooks so you can catch a glimpse of the falls and currents.

Some of Great Falls Park's most popular trails include the River Trail Loop, a moderate 4.6-mile trek popular with birders and other hikers, and the River Trail Mini Loop, a shorter version at just 1.6 miles. There's also the River, Ridge, CCT, and Swamp Trail, a 4.8-mile trek where you might run into mountain bikers, horseback riders, and other hikers. Along with these, a section of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail — which runs 830 miles from the mouth of the Potomac River to the Allegheny Highlands — also crosses through the park.

Lastly, pet owners will be happy to know that dogs are allowed in Great Falls Park. However, they must be kept on a leash at all times — there are no off-leash areas within park grounds — and owners must look after their well-being. This includes picking up after them, keeping them away from wildlife, and staying alert for any signs of distress, such as heat stroke or exhaustion.

Other activities for you to enjoy

As well as hiking, Great Falls Park has plenty of other activities for travelers looking to soak up more adrenaline. For starters, whitewater rafting along the Potomac River is one of the most popular sports that adventure-seeking visitors can enjoy. With rapids ranging from Class II (moderate) to Class V+ (extreme), participants must exercise caution while attempting to navigate the waters. Per the park's requirements, each rafter must always wear a helmet and a life jacket.

Away from the water, the park also offers a variety of climbing sites, with routes up to 75 feet long and difficulties varying between 5.0 and 5.14. If you plan to climb during your visit, it's also important to note that all climbing is top-rope only, and guests are not permitted to drill holes or anchors into the rocks.

Another more laid-back activity at the park is fishing. Guests who choose to do so must hold a valid Virginia or Maryland state fishing license. Swimming and wading are prohibited at Great Falls Park; therefore, anglers are not allowed to enter the water. Other outdoor activities include bird watching, cycling, picnicking, and horseback riding.