OVERVIEW AND CLIMBING INFORMATION: Bird's Nest is easily a strong contender for the finest climbing crag at Great Falls. It has some of the longest routes in the area (up to 60'-- hey, we Easterners have to take what we can get), some of the best and most popular climbs, and some beautiful rock-- two particular corners and overhangs (the Bird's Nest and Eagle's Nest faces) especially stand out.
Unfortunately for a guy like me who also enjoys scrambling on Class 4 and 5 rock, Bird's Nest isn't too friendly to that style of climbing. With the easiest established routes starting at 5.7, only the best free soloists are going to do anything that way on the named lines. There is, however, a bit of consolation for those who like scrambling and low-5 climbs they can do unroped. A few yards (right) upstream of the Eagle's Nest face as one looks at it from the base of the cliffs, a series of ledges and ramps winds up to the top, with only moderate exposure, offering a route ranging from harder Class 3 to very easy Class 5, depending on one's exact path and experience on rock. I'd rate the climb I did as an easy Class 4 with one exposed spot worth worrying about at least a little bit (there is a photograph on this page detailing a portion of that climb).
Some Great Falls crags are tricky to locate the first time since the approach is always from up top, but Bird's Nest is easy to find; atop the crag, you will see trail marker 12 and will know you are there. To get there, start hiking east to the river from the climbers’ and kayakers’ parking lot (see Getting There). Before you reach the River Trail, a slightly longer but more scenic way to reach the crag, a wide gravel trail heads right. This is the Pawtomack Canal Trail, and it joins the River Trail less than half a mile south in the vicinity of the old canal cut. After you pass the cut (you can see the river through it), the trail approaches the cliffs, and shortly after you pass a boggy area (on your right) that might make Nanuls envious, marker 12 will be on the left in a well-worn clifftop area.
It is about 0.5 miles from the parking lot to the crag.
Walk downstream along the clifftop for about 15-20 yards until you see a ramp system hugging the cliffs and leading upstream to their base. This is rated as a Class 2 descent and is; just be aware that the smooth rock here can end you sliding. This is called Armbuster Descent, as it passes directly beneath the classic Armbuster route. If you miss this ramp system, a system of ledges a few yards farther downstream will get you down, too, but this is Class 3 and has some brushy spots.
Following is a list of the named routes at Bird's Nest, from upstream to downstream (ones in bold are considered to be among the best that Great Falls has to offer). A note about ratings at Great Falls: although most people toprope the routes, the ratings are based on lead conditions, so topropers may think some routes are easier than their ratings suggest.
•Face Flop’N (5.11) •Eagle’s Nest (5.9)
•Fair Square (5.11) •Bird’s Nest (5.7)
•Plumb Line (5.12) •Two Lane Highway (5.12)
•Middle of the Road (5.11)
•One Lane Highway (5.10)
•Shoulder of the Road (5.9)
•The Man’s Route (5.8) •Z Slash (Lightning Bolt) (5.11+)
Although the climbs at Great Falls are short ones, they are not sport routes. Most old bolts have been removed, and it is illegal to alter the rock by drilling or other means. Toproping is the predominant style here, but many routes are leadable. The rule at Great Falls: if you can't lead it with natural gear, toprope it just as everyone else does. This is the local ethic and was before the Park Service tightened rules about bolting and altering the rock.
GETTING THERE: From the western part of I-495, a piece of the Capital Beltway, take Exit 44 for Route 193, Georgetown Pike; this is the second exit south of the Maryland border. Drive west for a few miles until you see the well-signed road leading to Great Falls Park. Turn right and follow the road about a mile to the entrance station. Enter and take an immediate right to reach a large parking area used by most climbers and boaters here. Don't expect to find a parking spot here after 10 on a nice weekend day.
RED TAPE: The park is open from 7 A.M. until dark every day except Christmas. There is an admission fee, good for three days, of $5 per vehicle or $3 per person entering on foot or by bicycle. Annual and interagency passes are also available (the latter costs $80).
Climbers are required to register (free). There is a registration box at the climbers’ parking area, and there is also one at the visitor center.
Drilling to place bolts is prohibited.
The area is popular and can be quite crowded, especially on weekends spring through fall. Also, some of the people there, skilled as they may be, are less the sanctity-of-nature types and more the types who see mountains and crags as a climbing gym with cool views. If you want some quiet with your climbing, try going on a weekday or in winter.
The park is home to copperheads. It’s unlikely that they hang out in holds on the cliffs themselves, but be aware. The danger, though slim, is greatest near the clifftops, where there are more places for snakes to be.
Poison ivy is abundant, especially along the descent route. The humid period from late spring through early fall features gnats, mosquitoes, and other biting insects.
A good resource for the area is Eric Horst’s Rock Climbing Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland. The section on Great Falls provides one-sentence overviews of the routes. There are also photos, taken either from a boat or from the Maryland side, of the crags, and the photos have useful diagrams showing the locations and directions of the routes. The guide leaves the step-by-step concerns, and the fun, to you.
An even better resource is the PATC Climbers' Guide, which focuses just on the Great Falls area. It lists more crags and routes than the other guide does, and the photos are usually better in terms of helpfulness with finding the routes.
"Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation."