Although it is between the popular Sandbox and very popular Dihedrals climbing areas at Great Falls Park, the Cigar Box sees little use, probably because the routes are few and short compared to other areas in the park and because accessing the crags requires a little more scrambling than most other crags in the park do. But if you like short routes in the easy to moderate range or enjoy a little bouldering and scrambling without having to look out for other people and their gear, the Cigar Box is a nice place to spend a couple of hours.
The area consists of two main sections: one block near the river (access could be difficult if water levels are high) and another crag downstream from it that is 20-30 feet above the river. The lower crag has the longer and harder routes. The upper crag has the better views from the top, though. Of course, you see most of those views as you hike to the top of the crag itself before descending to the base.
To reach the crags, hike from the "lower lot" (see Getting There) along a wide gravel trail east toward the river. In about two minutes, you will encounter the signed River Trail, which heads right. Take this trail. After passing a sign on your left indicating access to the Sandbox climbing area, look for (and walk over to) an open eroded area yielding clifftop views of the Potomac River. From this spot, hike right (downstream) and look for Class 3 scrambling routes down to the river level. Once down there, hike and rock-hop along smooth, polished stone to the base of the crag where you want to do your climbing. It takes 5-10 minutes to hike from the parking lot to the clifftop area and another 5-10 minutes to get to the base of the climbing area (watch out for poison ivy). If you are toproping, head back up to set up your gear now that you know where exactly where you want to climb.
If your hike on the River Trail takes you to a clifftop area where there is a plaque dedicated to Stephen Mather on a rock and an interpretice sign about water levels, you have gone too far (you are atop the Dihedrals area). Turn around and hike for a couple of minutes and look for the clifftop area previously described.
Routes on the lower crag (routes listed from upstream end to downstream end; please note that "lower" refers to the height, not the position as in upstream or downstream):
Humidor (5.8)-- considered one of the best the area has to offer; pictured on this page; please click for details.
Slick Wille (5.10+)
Ken's Crack (5.6)-- This 35' route may not be hard enough or long enough to justify roping up and is probably too hard for most people who like a little free soloing, but just left of the namesake crack is an easier Class 5 crack that climbs almost as as high and leaves a Class 3/4 finish.
Routes on the upper crag (Class 3 scrambling required to get up to the base; routes are only 25-30' but are close enough where the same toprope setup clould be used for three and maybe even all four):
Center Dihedral (5.3)
Left face (5.4)
As mentioned before, there are a lot of bouldering opportunities here, and scramblers can find several ways up and around ranging from Class 3 to easy Class 5.
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.