“Peaks, crags, walls, and boulders”—that’s what it says for the Mountain/Rock category on SP, so here goes. Great Falls has plenty of crags, walls, and boulders; that’s for sure.
Great Falls Park, near Washington, D.C., is administered by the National Park Service and is unofficially regarded as the top climbing area in the D.C. region. Cliffs and outcrops range from Class 3 to 5.12, and the area has something for everyone. Out here, new climbers learn techniques, experienced climbers practice their skills as they train for other climbs, and true human spiders redefine their art.
Dihedrals is a popular spot and is easy to find. The cliffs, up to 60’ high, are in Mather Gorge and rise directly above the Potomac River. It is a spectacular setting that seems worlds removed from the congestion and the hustle-and-bustle of the D.C. metro area all around it.
An excellent 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.
A better resource, because it focuses just on Great Falls, is the PATC Climbers' Guide.
Climbing at Dihedrals
From the visitor center, hike south past the three falls overlooks and head down the River Trail. About 0.2 miles along this trail, on the left, there is an outcrop overlooking the river. This overlook is shortly after a sign indicating access to the Sandbox climbing area. On one of the rocks, there is an easy-to-spot informational plaque about Stephen Mather. This outcrop is the top of the Dihedrals area. From the plaque, you can look straight down on the Layback Dihedral route (5.4).
To access the base of the climbs, there are two choices. The first is to head about 50 yards upstream from the plaque and then descend an obvious break in the sheer cliffs to reach the first five routes. To reach the others, walk a few yards downstream from the plaque and look for a Class 3 way down. NOTE: Your guidebook may mention a sign indicating climbers’ access for Dihedrals; as of November 2012, that sign is no longer there. ALSO NOTE: In periods of high water, the bases of many of these climbs will be inaccessible.
I have climbed here, but only unroped on routes and sections of routes up to and including 5.5. I have limited experience with roped climbing, so I will not presume to tell anyone what equipment is necessary; take what YOU need for steep cliffs that entail up to 60’ of vertical ascent and routes as difficult as 5.11d, many of which require tight jamming and/or have small but sturdy holds. The rock at Great Falls tends to be very solid, and the numerous outcrops and sturdy trees at the tops of most of the crags, plus the fact that most of the crags are accessed from the top, make toproping the method of choice of here. However, lead opportunities do exist, though the very smooth nature of the rock here does not lend itself well to protection except on crack routes.
There are 15 established routes at Dihedrals (listed from north to south):
• Skink (5.8)
• Take Five (5.5)
• Overhead Smash (5.10a)
• The Crypt (5.3)
• Stop the Presses, Mr. Eakin (5.11c)
• Die-Hedral (5.10c)
• Executioner’s Song (5.8)
• R.I.P. (5.6)
• Beginner’s Chimney (5.1)-- good for scramblers; respectable exposure without complicated moves.
• Lichen Wall (5.4-5.7)
• Prejudice (5.5)
• Pride (5.4)
• Ender (5.11b/c)
• Layback Dihedral (5.4)-- feasible to climb this route or the ridge left of it unroped, but not recommended that way; serious exposure over the river while on a steep face with only fair holds (for unprotected climbers) along the ridge, and a high-angle wall with little to hold onto at the top of the correct route.
• The Roll (5.11d)
• Jay's Discovery (5.1)-- a fun "scramble" but feels a little harder than 5.1.
Images displayed on this page mostly focus on scenery, but the gallery has several route photos, and the attached trip reports have climbing information, too.
Do not take any of the established routes lightly, even the easy Class 5 ones. Exposure on the routes tends to be quite severe, and falling into the river may be more dangerous than falling onto the rocks. The Park Service says that on average, seven drownings a year occur in the Great Falls area. The Potomac here is deep and very swift, and its currents are treacherous. Some bodies have been pinned down by the powerful waters or trapped under rocks and never recovered. Most drowning victims have been kayakers or careless scramblers, but experienced climbers have occasionally fallen into the treacherous waters, too, and there is often no returning alive from them.
Around Dihedrals, there are also plenty of ways for scramblers and free soloists not interested in the particulars of established routes to find their own routes up, ranging from Class 3 to easy Class 5 with minimal to moderate exposure. These routes, a few of which I have climbed, sometimes cross the established routes or follow parts of them. When there are roped climbers using the routes, please respect their safety and concentration and stay out of their way. Scramblers and free soloists can always find other fun routes at Great Falls.
Getting ThereLocals will know their own best ways. For others, though, these directions are easiest to follow:
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. There are two large parking lots after the entrance station.
Just past the entrance station, though, an unmarked road turns sharply right and leads to the parking area for climbers, where there is a registration box. From there, hike east to a bridge crossing the Patowmack Canal, cross the bridge, turn left, and then quickly turn right onto the River Trail.
CampingThere is no camping in the park. The area adjacent to the park is private property. Great Falls is a day-use area.
Red TapeThe 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. If you use chalk, try to use colors that blend with the rock here.
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 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 5.10 cliffs, but be aware. The danger, though slim, is greatest near the clifftops, where there are more places for snakes to be.