Climbing and "Wilderness" Minutes from the Nation's Capital
Nearly four years ago, I decided to begin documenting Great Falls Park-- the best climbing area in the Washington, D.C. area-- on SP. Over the course of seven months, I visited most of the climbing crags, photographed them and many of the routes, and free soloed the majority of the routes that are 5.4 and under, plus a few that are harder. I know that last part isn’t much to brag about, but I’ve never found a steady climbing partner and don’t really enjoy climbing on a rope (too much time with gear and too much time standing around for me), and I had a good time anyway testing myself and improving my skills. Although I’ve soloed harder than 5.4 a few times, 5.4 is generally my comfort limit for climbing without the protection of rope.
That was when my first son was 2 ½, my daughter was just a few months old, and my second son was not supposed to happen because we were supposed to be done after two (climbing is not the only thing you should do with a helmet on, folks). At that point, the “fatherhood factor”-- that conservatism that affects climbing when one has children-- had not yet really set in; part of me was maybe still in denial that I had these responsibilities called children and that climbing even 50’ 5.4 routes unroped was a stupid thing to do in that case.
Now, my activity at Great Falls typically falls into scrambling/climbing Class 3-5.2 or getting into one of my kayaks below the falls, running the rapids, carrying or wheeling the boat a mile back to my car, and then getting out my mountain bike to go for a trail ride. It works, and it’s fun.
(In case you’re wondering why I carry for a mile instead of using paddle/portage to get back upstream, it’s because there are certain rapids that are too strong for paddling through in a rec kayak and around which portage is difficult because of the gorge walls, and all takeouts between where I put in and get out involve Class 3 scrambling to get from the river to the trail above, not something I enjoy doing while carrying a kayak.)
Back in August 2008, I bought my first kayak, an inflatable by Advanced Elements that reviewers said could handle Class 3 whitewater, which is fine for me unless I want to get really into the sport and reach the expert level, and so far I don’t. I’d been on whitewater in a kayak and raft a few times before, but guided, so on my first day going solo in a new boat on a river I didn’t know, I did what any other sensible father of three young children would do: I carried the boat down to the water, inflated it, got in, and headed off into the first rapids, a long series of Class 3 waves with some big rocks and potentially troublesome holes.
The crash course went well, and I made several more visits to the river that summer and fall until the water got too cold for the clothing I had at hand-- hiking pants and a Gore-tex jacket. By the next Memorial Day, I had taken advantage of a great REI sale to buy another, much nicer boat. It was a good thing, too, because I wrecked the inflatable; I’m pretty sure I overinflated one of the chambers, causing a leak I could not repair. So although the inflatable was convenient and stable, that ended my experiment with those types.
Now I own three different hard-shell kayaks.
In the vicinity of Great Falls, the Potomac River is filled with rocky islands that can only be reached by paddling or swimming. Sometime last summer, I got the brilliant idea that-- duh-- I could visit these islands and the crags on them, as well as riverside crags hard to access from the trails, by using my kayaks to reach them. That’s what I did a lot of last summer, enjoying scrambling from Class 3 to easy Class 5 (harder was available if I wanted it), being closer to wildlife (the best is when an osprey or even a bald eagle soars overhead), and always finding solitude in the midst of a very popular area.
This article/trip report documents my visits to some of those destinations and can hopefully be useful to someone considering similar kayaking/cragging outings at Great Falls.
Trip 1: Up and back from Old Angler’s Inn
No “island crags” for me this day; I just went upstream to the point where I couldn’t paddle through or carry around, but I stopped at a few riverside crags removed from the trails enough to feel isolated, and there I enjoyed some easy scrambling, nice views, and late-summer wildflowers.
So let's take a little tour of the river and some of the islands and riverside crags upstream from the put-in at Old Angler's Inn...
As one paddles upstream, he or she first sees some small craggy islands on the left; I have stopped to play at one of these before and found some enjoyable Class 4 scrambling (and it's easy to make it harder) where just about no one else ever goes (photo of one of these islands in the next section).
Next, on the right the paddler passes the outlet of a shallow side channel that is almost always unnavigable due to large rocks near the inlet. This channel separates the mainland from Sherwin Island, location of Cupid's Bower. Although Cupid's Bower has longer, better routes, the cliffs and outcrops lining the edges of Sherwin Island make for good scrambling and easy technical climbing in a scenic location. It is easy to get to Sherwin Island from the Billy Goat Trail, but compared to the numbers of people using the trail itself, the island feels pretty secluded; most visitation seems to occur along the rock outcrops on the other side of the usually easy crossing from the Billy Goat Trail to Sherwin Island.
Now you head upstream to one of the better spots on the river-- the Difficult Run Rapids. Here, the river splits into three main channels-- Virginia Chutes, Center Chutes, and Maryland Chutes. The first has, in my opinion, the best single drop; the Middle Chutes are the longest but easiest run; and Maryland Chutes is the most popular playspot and can often be quite crowded. The rapids are named for the nearby confluence of the Potomac River and Difficult Run.
After getting through or around the chutes, the paddler passes several small, rocky islands. On the Maryland side, don't miss the little cascade that drops directly into the river; most hikers do not visit this spot, and few probably even know about it.
Then the river passes between the cliffs of Echo Rock (left) and the small but interesting crag known as Purple Horse Rock (right).
Echo Rock is an interesting place. Climbers put a handful of routes up a few decades ago, but so little climbing has taken place there since that very few people even know exactly what the lines are anymore. There is no trail access to the crag (some easy bushwhacking gets you there), so a visit there feels more like real wilderness than anywhere else in Mather Gorge does. Around the middle of Echo Rock, there is a sight few people on foot see or know about: some arches carved by the river (see photo above). However, it is very easy to see these arches from the river by paddling right up to them.
Purple Horse has a handful of established technical routes, and there are some nearby outcrops that are good for scrambling. Also, there is a sandy beach here (Purple Horse Beach), so it is a great and convenient place to stop on a paddling trip. The downside is that this spot can be very crowded.
Next up are several riverside crags before Spitzbergen, another Maryland-side crag with some established routes, including one area classic. The riverside crags are rarely visited by hikers and make cool places to scramble and/or hang out.
Just upstream from Spitzbergen is a prominent bend in the river, and the next stretch of water is the narrowest, most spectacular section of Mather Gorge. The Virginia side features a nearly unbroken line of cliffs with several named climbing crags that have dozens of established routes all together. On the Maryland side, the cliffs are not as high and consistently sheer, but there are still three named crags that seem to get very little attention compared to their popular neighbors across the gorge (in fact, I have never seen any roped climbers on any of the three crags in almost four years now). The main Great Falls-Carderock page has pages for all of the crags in this part of the gorge, and it would be tedious to make links for all of them here, but two with considerable appeal on the Virginia side are Seclusion and Dihedrals, and the nicest one, in my opinion, on the Maryland side is the Trojan Wall. Since the base of the Trojan Wall can be somewhat difficult to access from above, it makes an excellent choice for a visit by a cragger/paddler.
In this part of the gorge, islands are few, and until one reaches the Rocky Islands, where there is another prominent bend called S-Turn that sometimes has Class 4 water, there are actually no true islands, just some scattered outcrops that at most water levels are exposed. Still, some of them make interesting perches, as seen in one of the pictures below.
Just downstream of Seclusion is a nice Class 2+ rapid called Wet Bottom Chute. There, the river drops three feet in a single drop, and at lower water levels, a large exposed rock makes it easy to capsize. Most paddlers, even very experienced whitewater kayakers, carry around this rapid when heading upstream.
Before S-Turn and adjacent to one of the Rocky Islands is another rapid, named for the Rocky Islands, with up to Class 3 surfing waves. It was just below S-Turn that I turned around this day to enjoy the whitewater and the easy floating on my way back downstream.
Trip 2: A bad day to be a fish
This day, the plan was to run the Difficult Run Rapids, turn around upstream at Purple Horse Rock, and on the way back get out and play around on some island cliffs. When I put in downstream from the rapids, I typically carry around Virginia Chute and then run it, next carrying past the Center Chutes and then heading upstream, and running Maryland Chute on the way back.
But this day, I felt like running all of them, and it was a good decision not only because of the extra sport but also because I saw one of the coolest things I have in a while: a North American water snake in the process of swallowing a catfish. It was on a small island I used to access one of the channels of the Center Chutes, and it stayed there, eyeing me a little warily, as I took several pictures.
Later, I stopped at an island just downstream to enjoy a bit of Class 4 scrambling in a place that relatively few others bother to visit. This little island has no name, but the cliffs are interesting, and I have never seen another person on it, only green and great blue herons, cormorants, and vultures.
Trip 3: Down to Yellow Falls and Stubblefield Falls
What a shame. A summer of drought had made the river so low below Old Angler’s Inn that the rapids were virtually trickles. Normally, Yellow Falls and Stubblefield Falls are good rides that fall into the Class 3 category. Yellow Falls in particular can be good, for it drops in two steps, and one of them has a tricky rock that has capsized and even destroyed boats. Many times this day, though, I got stuck on rocks, and it was a frustrating afternoon. I should have used a lighter kayak, but it probably wouldn’t have made a big difference.
It could have been a better day, but it was better than sitting at home refereeing for the kids.
On the upside, I did stop at an island to do some cragging, finding some short but fun Class 4 and easy 5 rock to play on. It was Offutt Island, at the eastern end of which are some outcrops and cliffs almost fully detached from the main bulk of the island. Also on the island are ruins of an old homestead. Offutt Island is not on NPS land, but I have never seen any indications that it is privately owned or that public visitation is otherwise illegal. It is the first major island encountered when heading downstream from Old Angler's Inn. Access the craggy section via the right side as one heads downstream.
Downstream from Yellow Falls are several small, rocky islands, and while they are worth a visit just for the sake of it or to snag a little seclusion, the outcrops are typically not high enough for any interesting scrambling. After Stubblefield Falls, the river passes beneath I-495, a rude reminder that as pretty as this place is, it is not the real wilderness. Still, it is awfully nice considering the heavily urbanized region all around it.
Between Yellow Falls and Stubblefield Falls, there are also several riverside cliffs that in rock quality and height are akin to nearby Carderock, an extremely popular location, but which appear to receive no attention at all from climbers. Many of them have obvious lines that climbers might enjoy testing. On this day, I did not stop at any of those cliffs, but they will still be there the next time I go out.