Great Falls of the Potomac River is a major set of rapids located about 15 miles upstream of Washington, DC. The main Falls lines drop fifty feet in one-tenth of a mile, creating a Class V+ set of waterfalls. In addition, a portion of the river flows around Olmstead Island in a channel called the Fish Ladder (additional channels flow at higher water).
The Maryland Lines are the highest volume channel of great falls. These 3 drops are generally run only at low water, and there is no easy line.
Maryland Side - Paddlers may put in anywhere on the Maryland shore, but may not leave the boardwalk across Olmstead Island. To run the Falls from the Maryland side, most people put in above and run the aqueduct dam, or put in below the dam at higher levels.
Virginia Side - Paddlers may not put in upstream of the Falls. To run the Falls from the Virginia side you must put in at Fisherman's Eddy and then ferry and carry above both O-Deck rapid and the Falls themselves.
Also known as Sunburst. The line is level-dependent. Here are my general rules of thumb based on the Little Falls gage:
LF > 2.80 - Build up some speed and launch off the end of the diving board. This is quite possibly the sickest boof known to mankind. Miss the boof and learn how Pummel got its name.
2.60 < LF < 2.80 - The boof kicker turns into a rock, so run right side instead.
LF < 2.60 - The right side dries up at drought levels, forcing you to run the Notch on the left, which is one of the sweetest lines out here.
there are also other smaller chutes to the left of the notch that have been run at higher levels.
Below Pummel you have three options (from left to right): Pencil Sharpener, Z-Turn, and Charlie's Hole.
Enter the narrow slot against the river left shore, boof 2-3' onto a boil, and slide down a broken shelf. You must anticipate the cross current or it will push you into the inhospitable crack on the left. Pencil Sharpener is the preferred option when LF < 2.80.
A 10-foot sluice into a super-powerful hole surrounded by underwater sieves. It’s named after Charlie Crowley, who escaped by crawling out along the bottom (bursting both eardrums in the process). This line used to be run regularly by boofing left into the eddy, but after numerous close calls and one fatality almost nobody runs it anymore. There is very little margin for error.
Start left of center, then cut hard left down a twisting drop next to a huge midstream rock. Be careful not to get washed around the right side of this rock into Charlie's Hole. Choose a conservative line. Z-Turn is the preferred option when LF > 2.80.
The scariest hole on the Potomac other than Charlie's, Horseshoe has been the site of many near-drownings. The line is level-dependent. Here are my general rules of thumb:
LF > 2.90 - Left line. Boof onto a rocky runout.
2.60 < LF < 2.90 - Far Right (standard) line. slide down the entrance, dont spin out, and boof off the shelf that extends past the hole. You can approach this directly or by doing a hairy ferry on the SOS wave at very low levels.
LF < 2.60 - Center line. super low water only. Boof off the knuckle through the hole.
If you get stuck in Horseshoe the odds of surfing your way out are slim, so save some energy for the swim.
The rocks that make up the Flake and MD side carry up get extremely hot. Even when the day time high is bearable being out on the rocks here adds a whole new element keeping in mind that the water temperatures can reach 90 degrees. When going out there bring water and be very wary of the dangers of overheating and it's ability to affect your performance.
It's never too low for the MD Lines. Below 2.6' is ELF, but there are runnable channels at least down to 2.4', and most summers the river never gets that low. So when everyone else is whining about the drought, you still have a class V playground in your backyard. Count your blessings. I'd say 2.6' to 2.7' is a good first time level. Above 2.8' the holes get mean, and above 3.0' they're vicious. The MD Lines can certainly be run higher than 3.1', but if you're considering it you don't need this guide.
The gage is located at Little Falls (aka Brookmont) Dam, where the river is very wide. Consequently, an inch on the gage can translate to a foot at Great Falls. The gage is also 8-9 miles downstream, so if the river is rising or falling rapidly there could be a discrepancy between the gage reading and the actual level. Scout the rapids visually if there is any doubt. (You were going to do that anyway, right?)
USGS Potomac River / Little Falls Gage
NOAA Prediction for Little Falls Gage
Permits are not required for this reach.
Entering Pencil Sharpener
Horseshoe high water
Slide river left of Pummel at high water
Maryland High Lines
Looking down from Pummel
Pummel at high water
Joe at Horseshoe
Horseshoe race line
Horseshoe @ high water
2007 Great Falls Race
If someone gets hurt on a river, or you read about a whitewater-related injury, please report it to
American Whitewater. Don't worry about multiple submissions from other witnesses, as our safety
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Come see American Whitewater at this year's Potomac Fest, July 10 and 11 in Great Falls, MD/VA! Just minutes from the Nation's Capital, the 20th Annual Potomac Whitewater Festival will be two days of fun events organized to delight beginners, experts and spectators alike.
Tonight American Whitewater presented the Town of Friendsville, Maryland with a $5000 check towards the extension of the Upper Yough Access Parking Area. This, combined with a $1000 donation from Keelhaulers Canoe Club, made a strong statement of how much paddlers value the river and the town! Under the leadership of Mayor Spencer Schlosnagle and long time paddler and Friendsville resident Jess Whittemore the town raised $7 in additional funding for every dollar paddlers donated - just like they did on the initial construction! This makes these gifts a great value for the whitewater community. A big shout out and thank you to ALL who donated!
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