Canal Cut Crags
The old Pawtomack Canal cut through the cliffs of Mather Gorge in its course to the Potomac River, enabling ships and barges to bypass the unnavigable rapids (for them, not for the kayakers who sometimes put on quite a show here) upstream. Flanking the confluence of the canal and the river are cliffs that rise 50 feet and more above the river. On the cliffs themselves are climbing routes that range from Class 3 scrambles to 5.11 overhang pulls. One named route here is well-suited to climbing without a rope, and there are other, better unnamed Class 5 routes I found that can be done without a rope as well. By that, I mean they are in the 5.0-5.2 range, and, though there is exposure on them, it is not the kind that has you hanging backwards off the rock as you pull moves.
Climbing on the old canal walls themselves or the cliffs immediately adjacent to them is prohibited, but the rest of the crag area is open to climbing and seldom visited except by curious hikers who stroll through the canal when it is dry. The canal effectively breaks the cliffs into two sections, each of which has a very different character.
Upstream of the canal is the Grimsome area. The established routes here are short even for Great Falls (30-40 feet, though one, Spiral Architect, is 55 feet), but maybe it's worth it to set up a toprope and do a few that are close together. Downstream from the canal is the Boat Ramp area. When water levels are low, a sloping rock shelf appears, and this shelf is the base of some 45-50' climbs in the 5.9-5.11 range. When the ramp is exposed, it is possible to scramble to it from upstream or downstream locations. Under other conditions, though, rappelling down is necessary.
Accessing the Crag
Some Great Falls crags are tricky to locate the first time since the approach is always from up top, but the Canal Cut crags are not among them. 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.
Shortly after that junction, the trail crosses to the right of the canal cut as the cut itself heads straight to the river, which is clearly visible through the gap. If the canal is dry (don't count on it, and it may be a soggy mess even if it doesn't appear so, especially close to the river), you can hike down it to the river to access the climbs. Otherwise, climbers heading for the Boat Ramp climbs (downstream of the canal) will need to continue on the trail until it reaches a clifftop area, at which point they will have to negotiate Class 3 and Class 4 terrain to scramble to the river and from there upstream to the Boat Ramp. Climbers looking for climbs in the Grimsome area will need to find use trails on the upstream side of the canal, take them to the clifftops, and then scramble down Class 3 terrain to the river. Depending on water levels, the Grimsome area is then a short walk or scramble downstream.
It takes maybe 15 minutes to walk from the parking lot to the canal cut.
Listed in Upstream-Downstream Order
Dirty Bolt (5.1)-- A short (30') corner/wall route. Very easy and not too exciting; there are better ropes here if you're going without rope, and these routes are described following the routes list.
Foops Junior (5.10-)
Pocket Pussy (5.9)
Grimsome Wall (5.7)
Spiral Architect (5.10)
Boat Ramp Area
Ain't No Thing (5.9)
Ain't That Some Shit (5.10+)
Even Stephen (5.9)-- Considered among the best climbs at Great Falls; climbs a right-leaning chimney.
Whatever's Right (5.11-)
Grimsome Scramble/Free Solo-- I'd call this 5.1 or 5.2 based on my experience on other routes with those ratings, but this route could seem easier or harder depending on skill and experience. As you face the canal from the base of the crags, you will notice a wall on your right. Climb this wall and drift right along the top of the Grimsome area. Any number of short variations can increase the difficulty. Please see the attached photo for a visual overview.
Boat Ramp Scramble/Free Solo-- Standing at the upstream end of the Boat Ramp, you will notice a crack/corner system that divides the off-limits area to your right from the Boat Ramp climbs to your left. Climb this system, keeping straight up if you want to keep it legal. It's more challenging and scenic (some nice exposure, good views straight down sheer cliffs over the canal cut, excellent views of the gorge), though, to traverse right around a small bulging wall about halfway up and then follow any of a few different routes the rest of the way up. This is technically illegal to do, but if you're not setting up gear and not using chalk, you won't risk marking and/or marring the rock, and you probably won't get in any trouble. But probably is the operative word here; you still are breaking the rules and need to be prepared to accept the consequences (fines) if you get caught on this route. It's a nice climb, though, if you want something technical that doesn't really require a rope, and I liked it best of all the routes I did at these crags. Please see the attached photo for a visual overview.
Some notes about climbing at Great Falls: Most people toprope the routes, but the ratings are based on lead conditions, so topropers may think some routes are easier than their ratings suggest.
The climbs at Great Falls are short ones, but 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.
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; this is commonly called the Lower Lot since it is downhill from the entrance station. Don't expect to find a parking spot here after 10 on a nice weekend day.
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. Don’t be surprised to see a climber smoking a cigarette or yakking on a cell phone about his new BMW or his stock portfolio as he waits his turn. So if you prefer a little communion with your climbing, try going on a weekday or in winter (but be aware that mornings, when the Virginia side of the Great Falls area gets plenty of sun, are often in the 20’s F or lower in winter, not great for climbing).
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.
None; day-use-only area.
Great Falls NPS Site
A great resource is the PATC Climbers' Guide, which focuses just on the Great Falls area.