About 30 yards downstream from the third overlook of Great Falls (this is the overlook farthest from the Visitor Center) is a river-facing wall split by a gully near its center and featuring a prominent overhang on the downstream side of the gully and a large bulge on its upstream side. This is Gorky Park, and despite (or perhaps because of) its proximity to a busy overlook that sees hundreds of visitors on nice weekend days, it sees few climbers, though many hikers and fishermen visit the spot.
The climbs here can be long by Great Falls standards (all but one of the established routes are 50'). And since toproping is the norm at Great Falls and many of the routes are adjacent to each other, setting up a toprope and doing a few different routes on it makes for a nice morning or afternoon.
Something else that's nice about Gorky Park is that there's a lot here for scramblers and unroped climbers who like to get into some easy Class 5. I was disappointed to find that most of it was easier than it looked at first and that it largely fell into Class 3, though there are some routes that are Class 4 and borderline-Class 5 (there are pictures of these routes on this page). There is also 5.4 Dank Crack, but that route is aptly named and doesn't look too fun.
If you're going to set up a rope to climb here, try picking a day when the weather is dry but not otherwise ideal, or go on a weekday morning if you can. This will help you avoid the crowds and might also be an extremely smart move in terms of safety; the idea of people running all around where you have a toprope set up is, let's say, unnerving.
Accessing the Crag
Because the approaches are from the top and markings are few, particular crags at Great Falls can be tricky to find. Gorky Park, however, is not one of them. From the lower parking lot (see Getting There), hike east toward the river. To your left, in the direction of the visitor center, there is an overlook accessed by a boardwalk, steps, and a ramp. Just a few yards before (downstream from) the overlook, a dirt-and-sand path leads through an obvious break in the trees for about 0.1 miles (at most), to a sandy area atop some cliffs. This is the top of Gorky Park. A few yards to the left, a gully leads down through a large, obvious break in the cliffs. My guidebook calls this route Class 4, but it's really Class 3, especially if you stay to the left as you descend. At the upstream end of the crag, there is a walk-down route that accesses some of the scrambling opportunities and unnamed routes on the crag, but high water levels will most likely bar access to the named routes via this descent.
It takes maybe 10 minutes to walk from the parking lot to the top of the crag.
Routes at Gorky Park
Upstream from the descent gully (and listed upstream-downstream):
O Wall (5.8)
Downstream from the descent gully:
National Acrobat (5.9+)
Technostraman (5.12)-- Through the big overhang (picture in the gallery).
Dank Crack (5.4)-- Ice sometimes appears on this crack in the winter and is occasionally suitable for a short ice climb, something that is only rarely available here.
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.
Climbing below or between the three major overlooks is prohibited.
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.
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; this is commonly called the Lower Lot since it is downhill from the entrance station. 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-only area.
Great Falls NPS Site
A great resource is the PATC Climbers' Guide, which focuses just on the Great Falls area.