OVERVIEW AND ROUTES: Most climbing crags at Great Falls consist of a section of sheer corners, dihedrals, and walls, with obvious breaks such as gullies or boulder piles separating the crags from one another. Degree 101 is an exception, though, since it is contiguous with Dr. Needlepoint (Needlepoint is the upstream section). Some guidebooks for the mid-Atlantic region do not recognize the distinction, but local climbers and the PATC Great Falls guide (see the External Links section) do. Degree 101 is considered a separate crag for two reasons: the different means of primary access and the fact that normal to high water levels make traveling between the bases of the crags difficult or impossible to do.
Routes at Degree 101 (Upstream to Downstream End; routes are up to 55'; * denotes a route considered an area classic):
Upstream from Poison Ivy Gully:
•Degree 101 (5.11+)*
•Last Exit (5.6)*
•East Face (5.6-5.8)
•Far East (5.4)
No Rope? I enjoy unroped climbing because it is convenient and because I like the thrill I get from it, but Degree 101 has little for unroped climbers who like to stay relatively safe on Class 5 rock. There are some people who can free solo anything at this crag, but I suspect most people who free solo are like me and consider 5.3/5.4 to be about the edge of their comfort level without a rope. There are a couple 5.2 routes at Great Falls I won't do without rope and at least one 5.6 that I have done, but 5.4 seems to be on average the level where the risk begins outweighing the reward.
That said, you may wonder why I'm saying Degree 101 has little for your typical scrambler going out on technical rock when the crag has one 5.3 and two 5.4 routes. So let me explain from my experience and perspective, but remember that this is just one person's take.
Near the downstream end, there is Dingo Dihedral, a 35' 5.3. Most of the climb is pretty easy, but the problem is the start, where the corner is smooth and slightly overhanging. The move past this part really is not all that hard to do, but the problem is that the overhanging aspect means a fall will put you flat on your back and give you no chance to land on your feet. The fall will only be a short one, but it could still be nasty. Just upstream of Poison Ivy Gully is Corkscrew, a 50' 5.4. This corner route, of which I have climbed about half, seems to have plenty of good holds. The problem it presents the unroped climber, and I've studied this from above and below, is very serious exposure near the very top, where the wall bulges a bit and narrows the route to just one or two feet, with 50' of air right behind. If the bulge weren't there and requiring a climber to be leaning back over that empty space, I'd be okay with it if I were unroped. But the bulge is there, and that changes the risk dramtically. Finally, there is Far East, another 50' 5.4. It climbs a thin, obvious crack for about half the route's length to a ramp and then up the face. I have only looked at this route, but it looks like a hard 5.4 because the crack is quite thin and the face above the ramp looks almost vertical, making exposure an issue.
I did, however, find an unnamed route on the face that has Far East and East Face. This route climbs some flakes and cracks (5.2-5.4 range) before reaching a ramp leading left (downstream) to the top of the crag. For an overview and diagram of the route, please click on the photo captioned "Unnamed Route" on this page.
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.
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.
Finding the crag: Some Great Falls crags are tricky to locate the first time since the approach is always from up top, and Degree 101 is one of the tricky ones. 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 (see Drygarn Fawr), marker 12 will be on the left in a well-worn clifftop area.
Keep hiking a little over 100 yards past marker 12, passing one obvious clifftop area (Cornice) at 30-40 yards before reaching another, which is Dr. Needlepoint/Degree 101.
It is about 0.6 miles from the parking lot to the crag.
Accessing the crag: Keep hiking on the River Trail until you reach the end of the cliff system, where a vegetated gully makes a natural break in the rocks. This is Poison Ivy Gully (but actually relatively clear of its namesake), and it is just before the trail bends sharply right before bending sharply left again after just a few yards. Poison Ivy Gully is rated Class 3, but only one spot along it is that hard. From the base of the gully, head upstream (left) or downstream (right), depending on where you want to go (see the routes overview above).
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. 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.
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.
"Computers make it easier to do a lot of things, but most of the things they make it easier to do don't need to be done."