The third major climbing area downstream from the overlooks at Great Falls Park (after, in order, Sandbox and Dihedrals, Juliet’s balcony is another Great Falls crag that has the roiling Potomac River directly at its base. The crag gets its name from the prominent ledge that lies about halfway between the river and the clifftops. Several routes begin from the Balcony and climb 25-30’, but there are some that begin directly from the base and go all the way up, effectively doubling the climbing height (these begin from blocks along the river). The named routes range from 5.0 to 5.10d, so there is something for everyone at this popular spot. The routes may be pretty short, but that means you can climb several of them, maybe even all, in one day. Although you are not likely to find a beautiful and willing young woman at the top of this Juliet’s Balcony, you should find plenty of fun and challenge.
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.
Even better is the PATC Climbers' Guide, which focuses just on the Great Falls area.
There are 10 named routes here, listed upstream-downstream:
•Epigone (5.6)—a short route and not over the river, fairly safe for free soloing attempts; please click on the “Epigone/Sciolist” photo for more details.
•Right Stuff (5.7)
•Left Stuff (5.7)—popular route good for leading or toproping; begins from the Balcony and climbs the obvious crack up the middle of the wall.
•Balcony Corner (5.5)—the left-facing corner that lies just to the left of Left Stuff
•Randomly Vicious (5.10c)
•Trellis (5.0)—excellent for scramblers. Head just downstream from the main cliff and look for an obvious break. Class 4 scrambling will get you down this break, across a gully (the base of Trellis), and then up onto the Balcony. If this Class 4 downclimbing does not appeal to you, head a bit further downstream and look for a wider, gentler break. Climb the gully and crack system on the left. Near the top, you have two choices: continue the same way, which will take you through a short move requiring pretty much only your arms; or cut right on a sloping, exposed ramp with few good handholds. Continuing straight is harder but safer and more fun; most people cut right, though. Do both. Variation: At the base of that slab in the upper center of this photo, there is a little room for your feet. From there, an awkward and exposed move to the right puts you into a dark spot that’s something like a cross between an overhang and a chimney, and from there it’s a fairly simple climb straight to the top. To reach that slab, climb straight up from beneath it (easy Class 5 with moderate exposure but no river) or climb Trellis until you can traverse the rock face to the slab.
Some of the climbs offer enough natural protection to allow lead climbing, but most climbers employ toproping here and elsewhere in the park, especially since the access trail leads to the tops of the cliffs rather than to their bases.
I have climbed one of these routes and part of a second, but I have done them unroped and cannot tell you what equipment you should have for leading these climbs. If you’re experienced with trad climbing, YOU will know far better than I what to have here. The routes follow corners, cracks, arêtes and buttresses, and nearly vertical faces. The rock is very solid, and good holds are fairly abundant on most routes.
If you have climbed or do climb any of these routes, please add a route page or supply an overview in Additions (I will add it to the main page).
The attached pictures, if you click on them, will provide more details about the crag and some of the routes on it.
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.
To reach Juliet’s Balcony, hike south from the parking lot, past the three falls overlooks, and onto the River Trail. After passing the Sandbox and Dihedrals access points (there are signs indicating them), the trail drops down some wooden steps, makes a bridged stream crossing, and then climbs a set of wooden steps. At the top of the climb, the trail splits in three, with the River Trail heading right. The left fork just goes a few feet to a rocky overlook of the river (scrambling opportunities here). Go straight, though, up to the rock outcrop directly ahead of you. Once there, you will be atop the Juliet’s Balcony crag. Look down to view the Balcony just to make sure you’re in the right place. From the parking lot, it takes around 20 minutes to hike here.
Then there are two ways to access the climbs. To reach Epigone and Sciolist, make a short scramble down the upstream side of the cliff. There is a photo of these routes on this page, so they should be easy to find. Both climb the upstream-facing wall that marks one end of the Juliet’s Balcony crag, and both begin from a gently sloping ledge; no river exposure on these two climbs. To reach the other climbs, head just downstream from the main cliff and look for an obvious break. Class 4 scrambling will get you down this break, across a gully (the base of Trellis), and then up onto the Balcony. If this Class 4 downclimbing does not appeal to you, head a bit further downstream and look for a wider, gentler break.
Some climbers descend Trellis instead.
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 or yakking on a cell phone about his new BMW or his stocks 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. The humid period from late spring through early fall features gnats, mosquitoes, and other biting insects.