Great Falls Park is home to some of the earliest rock climbing in the United States! The climbing here will put you directly above the Potomac River Gorge and Mather Gorge. The sound of the mighty river rapid is intense. But the noise slowly dissipates as you drift into your flow state. Climbers and white water kayakers alike love Great Falls for its close proximity in the DC area. This is a beautifully secluded national park that is rich in climbing and history.
Climbing routes range from 5.4 to 5.13a! As you’re hiking from crag to crag, you’ll come across several magnificent overlooks. You’ll also see the ruins of an 18th century town and the historic canal cut from the 1700s.
The river generally won’t flood and the cliff bases can be accessed for climbing. But if there has been a decent amount of rain, you will need to lower in from the top.
The park service is receptive to climbing, but please do your part to be a good team member. Pick up trash, don’t be a nuisance, and follow the rules and regulations set forth by the park service.
Table of Contents
- Getting to Great Falls Park
- Guide Services
- Approach Hikes
- What to climb?
Getting to Great Falls Park
Great Falls Park is only about a 20-30 minute drive from our nation’s Capitol. You can take either the George Washington Parkway or experience the Beltway Beauty: Interstate 495. The park is located at the intersection of Old Dominion and Georgetown Pike.
Plug in this parking lot to your phone and you’ll get taken directly to the climbers parking area at the park. All of the climbing in this article focuses on the Virginia side. There is climbing on the Maryland side, but it is harder to get to. Check out Carderock for Maryland craggin’ next to the mighty Potomac River.
Road Closures – IMPORTANT
Old Dominion, leading into Great Falls, WILL close down when the park gets too full. The park staff does a great job of updating the Twitter account when the road closes and reopens. If you come at a peak time on a nice weekend, expect to be waiting in line to get into the park.
In my experience, getting to the park before 8AM or later in the afternoon will mean a better chance of getting in without waiting in line. But your mileage will vary. Check that twitter account when you get close. There is alternative parking at Riverbend Park, where you can park and then hike into the park.
The entrance station is located at the end of Old Dominion. As of 2022 the entrance fees are as follows:
- Vehicle: $20
- Motorcycle: $15
- Pedestian, bicyclist, or equestirian: $10
The America the Beautiful Pass, which can be purchased for $80, is accepted. The Great Falls Annual Pass can be purchased for $35. Seasonal or yearly passes can be purchased on the parks website.
Climbers Parking lot
Immediately after paying at the ranger’s booth, take the first right and follow the road to the Climber’s Lot. This lot will situate you perfectly to get to the River Trail and other approach trails. There are around 75 parking spots here and they can fill up on a busy weekend.
At the end of the lot where the cars turn around, there will be a gravel load leading you towards the river. Walking down this path for one minute will take you to bathrooms and a water fountain.
Climbers and white water kayakers alike will socialize in this lot after a day of sending. There are picnic benches near by if you want to crack a cold one!
Food and Water
There are vending machines in the visitor center that accept cash and credit/debit. On the weekends in mid April, there is a food truck serving take out food from 11am to 6pm.
Ten minutes down Georgetown Pike there are multiple restaurants:
- Old Brogue Irish Pub-Wings and beer!
- Deli Italiano – excellent pizza
- Bollywood Bistro– mouth watering Indian food
Less than a five minute walk from the climber’s parking lot is a bathroom with running water and toilets. If you get there early enough in the morning, you will have the honor of being the first one to use it after a fresh cleaning! The park does an excellent job cleaning these bathrooms.
Outside of the bathroom there is a water fountain. It also has a cute spigot for you pups! But as of June, 2022 this fountain was closed down. The visitor center does have vending machines where you can purchase drinks. But your best bet is to bring your own beverages.
Where to stay
There is no camping allowed in Great Falls National Park.
If you’re looking for camping, your best bet will be Lake Fairfax Park and some of the C&O Canal Path campsites.
Lake Fairfax Park
Lake Fairfax is only a 15 minute drive from Great Falls National Park. Camping costs range from $30 – $35 and reservations can be made online. There’s great mountain biking near by and The Watermine, a family swimmin’ hole.
C&O Canal Path Campsites
Off of the canal path, there will be campsites that are first come first serve. I’ve spent a few nights in these campsites when I’ve done some bikepacking trips on the path. Some campsites can be close to the water with some seclusion. These sites are not reservable and are at a first come first serve basis.
We’re lucky to have so many first class guides available near Great Falls Park. Hiring a climbing guide is an awesome way to get better at climbing. Guides who have been trained by the American Mountain Guide Association are world class professionals. They know how to create a perfect day of climbing. And they are incredible teachers. You’ll learn everything you want to know from them.
The only AMGA Accredited business is Blue Ridge Mountain Guides. BRMG offers half and full days of climbing in the park. As well as gym to trad classes, top rope anchor instruction, and trad climbing clinics.
The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club does put out a Great Falls specific climbing guidebook. It can be hard to find but it has the best beta for the area. Alternatively, the Horst Falcon Guidebook has plenty of climbs listed.
The quickest climbing areas will be located immediately off of the River Trail. From the climbers lot, walk down the gravel road past the bathrooms and continue to the wooded trail near the river. This is the River Trail and it ends up being a 5 mile loop. Every climbing area in the park will be off the river trail.
The Old Carriage Road shaves a few minutes off your hike to get to the Romeo’s Climbing Area.
There are no bolted anchors within the park. Most climbing areas have plenty of cliff top trees and enough natural protection to setup top roping.
What to climb?
The Sandbox is an awesome place to take beginners for their first time outdoor rock climbing. A beach scene in the mountains. This crag has climbing ranging from 5.3 to 5.12. The walk down route is upstream of the anchor spot. You can access the approach trail down at a section of broken fence on your left while hiking down river.
For your top rope anchor, climbers sling trees and there are some placements that will hold trad gear.
Sandbox Corner 5.4
The Sandbox Corner may be every local climber’s first outdoor climb! For generations beginner senders have tested their might against this formidable corner. The sandbox corner is located where the two large rock walls meet. The anchors for this climb can be setup
Sandbox Crack 5.6
Five feet to the left of the corner you will find Sandbox Crack. This right slanting crack is an excellent climb to hone your crack climbing skills.
Delivery Room 5.5
Delivery room is an excellent corner climbing that goes from stemming to layback to a wide crack to the finish. Start this climb with your feet stemming on opposite sides of the corner. Navigate your hands between the crack and mantling for counter pressure as you make your way up.
Romeo’s Ladder 5.7
The area classic. Romeo’s Ladder is in a picture perfect position. While you’re jamming up a wide crack, the river trail will be right behind you. All of the hikers will be amazed watching you send. A tough start brings you up to a widening crack. Trust your feet as you jam for glory.
Lunging Ledges 5.9
One of the harder climbs in Great Falls National Park, Lunging Ledges has the beta in its name. Good holds are a far reach away Start up the Broken ledges and reach a series of right facing flakes. In your face will be some small crimps. Use these to get in position and lunge for the ledge! Great climb and a worthy project.
Diagonal is a slanted crack climb running from climbers right to climbers left. It’s an excellent climb that requires a specific sequence. Your feet will feel like they’re about to slip off. Trust your feet. The climbing is all there for you to put together.
Lost Arrow 5.11
Named after Chouinard’s piton, Lost Arrow is a challenging finger crack running straight up. The early days of aid climbing in the park created the tiny cracks for our fingers. Jam up this climb for about thirty feet to the hero jug.
Armbuster is a classic and pumpy test of your rock climbing skills. It’s a straightforward climb. Layback and jam the crack to the crux at the top. Trust your feet on the glossy holds and power through.
Two Lane Highway 5.10a
This is one of my favorite climbs in all of Great Falls. The anchor is easy to set up. Bomber trees are close by and you won’t have to worry about having enough anchor material for this climb. The climbing feels much different than the other routes in the park. In my opinion, this climb is a must do!
Be careful of not following your anchor here up the Bird’s Nest climb! The below video went viral and happened because the climbers set up their anchor on Two Lane Highway, but climbed Bird’s Nest instead. Be careful!
No, do not enter the Potomac River at Great Falls. People drown every year and you will receive a hefty ticket if you are caught in the water
It depends, this is a common debate on the internet. Many climbs at Great Falls are not great for trad climbing because of their short height and brittle rock.
The Virginia side is the spot for rock climbing. There are easier approaches to more climbs on the Virginia side than on the Maryland side.
Great Falls is not a National Park but it is a National Park Site.