Potomac - 3. Great Falls (VA Lines)

Potomac, Maryland, US/Virginia, US


3. Great Falls (VA Lines) (the spout)

Usual Difficulty V (varies with level)
Length 0.5 Miles
Avg. Gradient 100 fpm
Max Gradient 500 fpm

2nd Descent of the Spout

2nd Descent of the Spout
Photo of Bill Kirby by Rick Freimuth

Gauge Information

Name Range Difficulty Updated Level
usgs-01646500 2.50 - 3.95 ft V+ 00h56m 6.87 ft (too high)

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 Virginia Line is a classic sequence of technical whitewater leading up to a tricky 20' waterfall.  This channel separates from the main channel at the top of the Flake Island. The top rapid, U-hole is probably the hardest and where most carnage occurs. The ideal line changes depending on the level. 40 years of waterfall hucking haven't made the spout any easier, but boat design probably has. The right line is now the standard line - either boofing over the hole entirely or reconnecting on a shelf. The left line is a good test of boat control. The Virginia side is runnable at high water but not recommended.
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.
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.

Permit Information

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.

StreamTeam Status: Not Verified
Last Updated: 2016-10-03 09:45:45


Stream team editor

Rapid Summary

Mile Rapid Name Class Features (Legend)
0.5The Spout5.0Hazard Waterfall Photo

Rapid Descriptions

U-Hole (Class 5.0, Mile 0.4)


Photo of Eric Orenstein by Maggie Snowel

Negotiate the small ledges and rocks at the top, then either slide down the left or boof off the center. There's also a high-water sneak on the right called Norman's Leap. The rock shelf protruding from the left bank below the drop is slightly undercut and there can be some very retentive holes

S-Turn (Class IV+, Mile 0.5)


Photo of Geoff Calhoun by Scott Anderson taken 12/03/12 @ high runnable

enter from river left of the nasty hole, boof through an angled ledge, and gnerally stay right. For extra challenge, try catching the 4 eddies.  A short pool separates S-Turn from the Spout, with a convenient staging eddy on the right.

The Spout (Class 5.0, Mile 0.5)


Photo of Bobby Miller by Scott Anderson taken 12/03/12 @ a good level

The Spout is the tallest individual drop in Great Falls at about 18-22 feet with a sloping lip. the current is pushing to the right, curving down a 4' slope, and falling off to the left.

The standard 'old school' line is to start in the river right eddy and  drive hard left across the lip and boof when the ramp ends. Lots of people will inevitable misjudge the current here and end up falling off sideways in the middle....The hole becomes really powerful above 3.1, and a rock behind the curtain (Big Toe) becomes exposed below 2.8.

Many people now prefer the right lines. The far right line involves driving up onto the boil at the lip and boofing onto a rock shelf jutting out from shore. It looks ugly but runs pretty smooth. Skipping off the shelf is actually softer on your back than landing in the green water on the left.

The preffered line is the right of center, boof off the curler, race line. similar to the far right line, but just clipping the edge of the boil, and taking a huge lefty off the curler that falls into the meat of the hole. Run well, this will give you some serious air time but you should  either land clear of the hole or in the seam, reemerging with a mighty salmon jump

The Crack (Class 5.2) is a high-water (3.3 < LF < 3.70) alternate line to the Spout. It requires you to ferry across powerful current and hit a boat-width slot at full speed. If you miss the slot, or get rejected by the boils guarding it, you will wash over the Spout backwards and get destroyed.


User Comments

Users can submit comments.
October 27 2008 (3739 days ago)
Scott AndersonDetails
Thanks for your input. As the streamkeeper, I have to use my best judgment when listing river data.
The solutions aren't always ideal, but I will try to explain my rationale with regard to gradient.
"Please explain how a 1 mile stretch of river can have average gradient of 100 fpm and maximum
gradient of 500 fpm." The river drops 100 feet between the put-in and the take-out, which are 1
mile apart. So the average gradient is 100 fpm. However, the heart of the run drops 50 feet in 0.1
miles, for a maximum gradient of 500 fpm. "Maximum gradient figures cited 'up top' should always be
computed across a full mile, otherwise they are meaningless." Says who? There is no standard way to
calculate gradient. Leland Davis calculates gradient mile by mile in NC Rivers & Creeks, but
Stafford and McCutcheon use terms like "200 fpm," "200 fpm action," and "200 fpm crux" in The New
Testament. Which is right? Great Falls is a park and huck, so calculating gradient mile by mile
would be meaningless. Nobody puts in above Great Falls unless they plan on running it. They're not
there for the paddle in and the paddle out. The only section that counts is Great Falls itself,
which is 500 fpm. I would put "500 fpm crux" if I could, but the AW page builder doesn't give me
that option. Furthermore, removing the 500 fpm maximum gradient from 'up top' could mislead people
into thinking Great Falls is no steeper than the Upper Yough. "If you wish to convey that some
shorter portion has steeper gradient, you may express that within the text of the description..."
The description includes the following statement: "The main Falls lines drop fifty feet in
one-tenth of a mile." The reason I include the maximum gradient up top is that nobody reads the
October 8 2008 (3758 days ago)
x (1)
Please explain how a 1-mile stretch of river can have average gradient of 100 FPM and maximum
gradient of 500 FPM. Maximum gradient figures cited 'up top' should always be computed across a
full mile, otherwise they are meaningless. If you wish to convey that some shorter portion has
steeper gradient, you may express that within the text of the description (as "the river drops 50
feet in a quarter mile, for an effective gradient of 200 FPM") but that should NOT be in the
'Maximum Gradient' area.
September 2 2008 (3794 days ago)
x (1)
I was out here the other day to run the Spout. The temperature was supposedly about 93 degrees,
but, even though I arrived on Flake Island after sunset, the heat was very, very oppressive.
Sitting down to rest did not help, as the rocks were super-heated by the sun to around 120 degrees.
I was rapidly becoming seriously dehydrated and probably lost about 30 percent of my strength
before putting in to run the rapid. This rapid should probably not be scouted during daylight in
the summer. So watch out for the summer heat; I came close to having a heat stroke!!! Also, the
water temperature is close to 100 degrees, too, so it provides close to zero cooling.

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