The Great Falls Overlook Trail
The boardwalk views from the Great Falls Overlook Trail running across Olmsted Island (aka Olmsted Island Bridges) can be spectacular especially after heavy regional rains. Olmsted Island is a small island in the middle of the Potomac River in Maryland near Great Falls which is a part of C & O Canal National Historical Park, located across the river from Great Falls Park.
The trail which begins just south of the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center is a quarter mile wooden boardwalk extending out to the main falls in the Potomac River as well as crossing many smaller cascades along the way.
At the end of the trail is a large viewing platform with a dedication plaque to Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., the landscape architect and preservationist whose famous father designed New York's Central Park. Everything in the Potomac River is Maryland, including the islands, but land across the river is Virginia. You can also see an observation platform on the Virginia side, near Great Falls, VA Visitor Center (see Difficult Run Loop).
The island is very rocky and has steep cliffs that face the river, where it has been eroded over time. It also has trees and vegetation. One might also see a heron, small lizard or wild goose here.
"The Great Falls of the Potomac may not have the instant name recognition of, say, Niagara Falls. But each year, about 3 million people visit this series of rapids and cascades along the Potomac River, where the rushing water and varied topography make for a beautiful outdoor canvas. "It's very picturesque and scenic, like Yosemite, the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone," says Bill Line, a spokesman for the National Park Service, which oversees some 388 parks across America. "Most people don't realize it, but [this area] is one of the top 25 visitation sites nationwide."
"Geologists believe they were formed during the last Ice Age, when the sea level dropped, forcing the river to cut its valley. The metamorphic rocks in the river are thought to be at least 550 million years old. "The falls are similar to Niagara Falls, but the underlying geology is very different along the Potomac, because these rocks are very resistant to erosion," says C&O park ranger Rodney Sauter. Because they've eroded less evenly and more slowly, he explains, the falls don't have quite the dramatic drop or gushing appearance of their New York counterpart. Yet they're still striking, plummeting some 40 feet from top to bottom. "It's more like a series of drops. The amount of flow on the Potomac River affects it," notes Sauter. "If there's a high flow, you can barely tell they're there. With an average flow you will see more exposed rock."