Difficulty V+
Length 0.5 Miles
Flow Range 2.00 - 3.40 FT
Flow Rate as of: 30 minutes ago 2.93 [FT] 👍 ℹ️ ⚠️
Reach Info Last Updated 09/09/2019 8:36 pm

River Description

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. 


Paddlers have known about Great Falls as long as there has been whitewater kayaking. Many of the features -- such as the Spout, the Fingers, the Fish Ladder -- have names that predate paddling, in some cases by hundreds of years. But it was not until paddlers started running waterfalls regularly in the 1970s that paddlers began to seriously consider running the Falls. The first descent of Great Falls was made in 1975 by local experts Tom McEwan and Wick Walker, with the second descent by Steve McConaughy and Great Falls National Park Ranger Bill Kirby.
Access to the river is restricted on both the Maryland and Virginia sides.

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.

Carry up the Flake for multiple laps. If the rocks are wet, this can be sketchier than running the Falls.
Running Great Falls is currently unrestricted. However, to maintain good relations with the National Park Service paddlers voluntarily restrict their runs to less populated times in the park—early morning, late evening, or weekdays—and limit group size and time spent in the rapid.
The Park Service is concerned about running the Falls at popular times because it can draw spectators down off the observation decks and closer to the river's edge -- where they might fall in the water and drown. And, if paddlers spend a lot of time running around and relaxing in the Falls, it can give the impression that such activities are not very difficult or dangerous. Since 1975, at least 30 people have drowned in Great Falls, so the Park Service is understandably nervous about this.
For more information, see the Guidelines for Running Great Falls as written by the Canoe Cruisers Association in 1999. Today regular Falls runners continue to dialog with the Park Service to make sure access remains open to all.
River Signals and Helicopters
The Park Service patrols the Potomac with a helicopter most summer weekends. In an effort to minimize confusion, the helicopter pilots are trained to recognize three signals from paddlers.
  • Everything OK - Tap the top of your helmet with one hand.
  • Emergency - Wave both arms together over your head (like jumping jacks), holding brightly colored objects if possible.
  • Need Medical Attention - Form an X with arms or paddles.
Don't signal the helicopters unless you need them! And if being inspected, be sure to give the OK sign if you don't need assistance. Sometimes hikers call in "emergencies" that aren't actually emergencies.

Rapid Descriptions


Class - 5.0 Mile - 0.46

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.

Pencil Sharpener

Class - 5.0 Mile - 0.49

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.

Charlie's Hole

Class - 5.2 Mile - 0.5

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.


Class - 5.0 Mile - 0.5

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.


Class - 5.1 Mile - 0.55

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.


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Mark Andes
12 years ago

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.

Gage Descriptions

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




Directions Description

Most people park at Great Falls (MD) to run the falls. There is a $5 fee per vehicle to enter the park, or you can buy an annual pass for $20. The MD pass is honored on the VA side and vice versa.  You can get directions by typing the address of the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center into Google Maps or Mapquest:
11710 MacArthur Blvd.
Potomac, MD 20854
No shuttle is necessary. When you finish running the Falls, continue downriver and take out at Sandy Beach. Then walk back to your car via the Towpath.

No Accident Reports



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Upper Yough Access Guidelines and Fundraiser

Charlie Walbridge

At Maryland's Upper Yough, one of the country's finest whitewater runs, American Whitewater has been maintaining the Sang Run Access for the past 20 years. With the 4th of July weekend coming up, a quick reminder that we are guests of the Town of Friendsville when we take out. In addition changing clothes discretely ad behaving respectfully, please observe social distancing during the pandemic. Garrett County has a low infection rate, and a mask when patronizing local businesses is the norm. We are also beginning our annual fundraiser to pay the expenses American Whitewater has at Sang Run. Out goal is $1,000, and we have already received $160. The Fee Box at Sang Run is still closed due to vandalism. We suggest $20 for the full season; $5 for one weekend. Please donate on line, or use the donation jar at the Wilderness Voyageurs shop at the takeout. Please go to https://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/Membership/donate/? and put "Upper Yough Access" in the comment box.

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Don Millard - AW Super Upper Yough Access Volunteer!

Charlie and Sandy Walbridge

American Whitewater super-volunteer Don Millard has been taking care of the Sang Run and Friendsville Access Areas on Maryland's Upper Youghioghenny River for the past several years. This bulds on a 2003 agreement between American Whitewater and Maryland State Parks, which owns the property. This year he rebuilt the change house and porta-pot shelter, set AW's sign back up, filled in potholes, and mowed acres of grass. He not only did the work, he donated the materials and machine time! This work givezs AW strong ties to the community (the place is also a fishing access) and local park managers. Also, thanks to him, boaters are not faced with a $5 access fee at both ends! Please remember, the pandemic is still on. Be smart. If you use the porta-pot, wash your hands or use sanitizer!

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2010 Potomac Fest - July 10-11 (MD/VA)

Kevin Colburn

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.


Scott Anderson


Matt Muir


Geoff Calhoun


Revision #Revision DateAuthorComment
1201694 12/02/12 Scott Anderson Updated rapid descriptions, flow guidelines, and added a few photos.
1200617 09/07/11 Matt Muir Added 2nd state; reordered.
1201698 06/23/13 Geoff Calhoun levels and sneaks
1202961 12/30/13 Geoff Calhoun description
1206890 10/03/16 Matt Muir Fixed HUC.
1213609 09/09/19 Matt Muir updated image position
1194806 09/23/20 n/a n/a