Overview, Access, and Routes
South of the mostly contiguous named climbing crags lining Mather Gorge on the Virginia side of Great Falls Park, the cliffs do not end. Instead, they continue for a couple hundred yards to Sandy Landing, where kayakers sometimes stop for a break. The section covering this area in the PATC Great Falls climbers’ guide (see Links section) is just called “Downstream Climbs.” There is one section of cliff cut off by the Potomac River on either end and accessible without using a rope, and it is this section on which this page focuses, although it does briefly cover three other routes that are a little farther downstream and which can only be reached by rappelling unless one is both very good and very gutsy downclimbing without rope.
The climbs here are not the best-known in the park, and the cliffs aren't as dramatic as they are at some other crags, but a sense of quiet pervades this spot. Not many hikers head so far downstream, and even on days when the northern end of the River Trail and the overlooks of the falls are jammed, you can find solitude down here.
To reach the wall, 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. Take this trail until you reach a clifftop directly across from the Trojan Wall on the Maryland side (pictured). Look for the top of the 45-Degree Downclimb route (also pictured here), and you will know you are at the top of the route. Use the 5.0 45-Degree Downclimb route to reach the base of the routes unless you are going to rap down; most climbers will find the route easy.
It is about 0.7 miles from the parking lot to the crag.
The wall has a handful of interesting routes that range from 5.2 to 5.7 and are up to 50’ high. From upstream to downstream, they are as follows (routes in bold are ones I have climbed either completely or partially):
• Donovan (5.2)—Steep gully and wall. Really too easy on a rope, but just challenging and interesting enough to make an enjoyable free-solo route. I have done this one a few times. Holds are plentiful and good, and I find the exposure acceptable for going without a rope. The wall is steep, but not so steep that you will often find yourself leaning back out over nothing. Still, don’t kid yourself; a fall from high on the route will likely be fatal. The 5.2 rating feels about right, and the climb is 50’.
• Waldorf Astoria (5.11)—The face just left of Donovan.
• High Jug (5.9)
• Nelson’s Nemesis (5.7)
• Moss Wall (5.4-5.7)—There are a few options here. I once free soloed a variation that took me to within a few yards of the top, and then the exposure of the crux move, not the difficulty of the move, convinced me to descend.
• Old 98 (5.7)—Flakes and tiny dihedrals all the way up the wall; intersects 45-Degree Downclimb about 5 feet left of that route’s lower end.
• 45-Degree Downclimb (5.0)—Best way down, only safe one without rappelling.
• Silver Scream (5.10)
• The Insignificant One (5.9)
• Grey Face (5.7)
• Jiggle (5.4)—Interesting series of cracks and flakes, one I’d like to give a free-solo try one of these days.
Although the climbs at Great Falls are short ones, 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. 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 area only.
Great Falls NPS site
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.