Sherwin Island is a small island in the Potomac River and is just a few minutes' walk away from the closest parking area, but because no bridges access it and no established trails cross it, few people visit it. Located downstream of Mather Gorge, where climbing crags in the Great Falls area are concentrated, this scenic island, situated where the Potomac River follows a prominent S-shaped course, has a number of crags and outcrops that offer technical climbs of up to 40'. Most significant of these crags is Cupid's Bower, which is set back in the woods on the eastern side of the island.
The best climbing is concentrated in three spots:
• Cupid's Bower itself, as noted above, is on the island's eastern side, close to where a narrow side channel of the Potomac rejoins the main channel. Remember that this crag is in the woods, not at the waterline. Also, the cliffs stand in a horseshoe-like shape.
• On the southern side of the island, at the waterline, are some low cliffs suitable for toproping and bouldering.
• On the northwestern side of the island, along the narrow side channel dividing Sherwin Island from Bear Island, which defines the eastern side of Mather Gorge, there are nice cliffs up to 40' high.
There are also many other outcrops very amenable to scrambling and bouldering.
There are two ways to reach Sherwin Island from the parking area described in the Getting There section.
1. Hike on the towpath until you see an old culvert in the narrow side channel of the Potomac. Look for and follow an unmarked, unmaintained trail to the vicinity of the culvert, and then cross the shallow water. In drier conditions, this approach takes 5-10 minutes.
2. Hike the towpath to the Billy Goat Trail and follow that trail until you see a series of outcrops forming a natural passage over the side channel. In all but flood conditions, this way should be passable, and it takes about 10-15 minutes to reach the island this way.
On the actual Cupid’s Bower cliffs, there are 12 routes ranging from 5.3 to 5.12. The climbs are only 30-40’ each, so consider a strategically placed toprope that will enable you to do several routes from the same setup.
Two recommended routes:
• Ph.D.—AKA the Coffin Climb (5.9)—a crack route starting by a coffin-shaped recess.
• Post-Ph.D. Left (5.10-)—for those of you who like overhangs.
These are recommended by the authors of the guide referenced in the links section. Throughout the guide, the authors mark routes that are, in their opinion, among the best that the Great Falls area has to offer.
Beginners will find a 5.4 crack (Elementary) at the left end of the crag and two 5.3 routes (Secondary and Bachelor’s—face and crack routes) at the right end.
Thumbs of Climbing Spots
Getting ThereFrom I-495, take Exit 41, just north of the Virginia line, heading west on the Clara Barton Parkway and then onto MacArthur Boulevard. About 3 miles from the interstate, look for Old Angler's Inn on the right side of the road. Across the road from the inn is a parking area. Park.
The parking area fills early on nice weekends. Do not park at Old Angler's Inn. If the parking area is full, look for roadside parking along the south side of the road or continue along MacArthur until you reach the entrance to C&O Canal National Historical Park. There is more parking here, but you have to pay a $5 admission fee, and you will also have a longer hike to the crags, especially to Purple Horse and Crag X.
Red TapeNo admission fees, but the area is on NPS land and all regulations for C&O Canal NHP apply (see links section).
The park closes at dark. Do not alter the rock in any way to place gear. Beware poison ivy and copperheads.
External LinksC&O Canal NPS site
The PATC Climbers' Guide focuses just on the Great Falls area and has diagrams and one-sentence overviews of routes.