The Potomac River below Great Falls is literally in the back yard of Washington, D.C. This fact contributes to the strong boating community in the metropolitan region. Mather Gorge, where this section begins, is a stunning cliff-lined gorge. Further down, the river maintains it's wild and remote feeling, except for at choice spots where Virginia has allowed sloppy development to mar the shore.
The river offers play and practice for beginners to experts and numerous sections can be run. This description will deal with the rapids and access points and doesn't provide details on the numerous play spots.
It should be noted that the stretch of river from O-Deck just below Great Falls thru Wet Bottom offers some of the best big water paddling in Maryland. 10,000 cfs thru a 100 foot wide gorge makes for some large waves, surging eddies and boiling eddylines. Below Mather gorge the rapids get considerably easier. Here is one playspot guide: Potomac Playspot Project. And another: Potomac Paddlers. Another popular playspot guide developed by David Mackintosh is currently offline. It will be linked here if it is revived.Access Points:
Great Falls is located to the west of Washington DC. Best access is off of I-495 to Clara Barton parkway/Carderock exit on the Maryland side. Take the parkway west about two miles to McArthur Blvd. Continue west on McArthur about another mile to the Anglers Inn parking area. To access the Virginia side, exit I-495 to Old Georgetown Pike/Hwy 193. Go west about 4 miles to Old Dominion Drive and take a right into the park.Maryland:
- Sandy Beach. Park at Great Falls National Park (fee area), reached via MacAuthur Blvd. in Montgomery County, MD. Carry 1/4 mile south along the C & O Canal towpath; take trail on the right that leads to Sandy Beach putin.
- Angler's Inn. Reach via MacAuthur Blvd. Park in one of three gravel or dirt lots across from the Angler's Inn, a fine restaurant. Carry across the canal, then 100 feet south on the towpath, then right down to the shore. From the river, the beach is easily seen on river left.Virginia:
- Fisherman's Eddy. Park at Great Falls National Park (Virginia - fee area). From lower lot, carry across picnic area to steep trail that leads to Fisherman's Eddy.
- Rocky Island. From Great Falls, Virginia, walk south on trail from picnic area to a small footbridge and walk left down the rocky gully access Rocky Island surfing waves.Rapids (in order from the base of Great Falls to Anglers Inn).
-- O-Deck (Class III). Primarily a playspot with large surfing waves. Adjacent to Fisherman's Eddy. Using this for a downriver trip is inconvenient because shuttle must be set on Virginia side of river.
-- Fishladder (Class II+-III). Formed by current from fishladder around Great Falls. Fast current, big waves and a messy pourover at some levels.
-- S-Turn (Class II-IV). Converging currents and constricted river form dynamic waves, current and whirlpools. Rocks form pourover holes at lower levels.
-- Rocky Island (Class II-III). At 4-5 feet on LF gauge a fine series of surfing waves exist. Lower levels present Class II waves.
-- Wet Bottom Chute (Class II). At normal levels is a 3 foot sloping ledge drop that can be run most anywhere.
-- Difficult Run Rapids, Maryland, Center and Virginia Chutes (Class II). Washington's practice spot and home to the Maryland chute playspot. Each chute offers a different type of practice. All lines are straightforward.Playspot List & Levels:
2.5' - 4.2' Wet Bottom (Class 3)
2.6' - 2.8' Horseshoe (Snodgrass) Wave (Class 3+)
2.7' - 2.9' Fishladder Wave
2.7' - 2.9' Portage Waves (Class 2)
2.7' - 3.0' Annie's
2.7' - 3.0' O-Deck 3 (Class 3)
2.7' - 4.0' Maryland Chute (Class 2+)
2.7' - 4.2' Virginia Chute Wave (Class 2)
2.8' - 3.3' Bloody Good
3.3' - 3.6' O-Deck 2 (Class 3)
3.6' - 3.8' O-Deck 1 (Class 3)
3.6' - 3.7' S-Turn (Class 3)
3.7' - 3.9' S-Turn
3.7' - 4.1' Showcase (Class 3)
3.9' - 4.1' Simon Says
3.9' - 4.8' Rocky Island Waves (Class 3)
4.1' - 5.4' Center Chute Ledge (Main Hole) (Class 3+)
4.2' - 4.7' Upper Center Chute Ledge (Class 3)
4.2' - 4.4' Fish Counter
4.5' - 6.0' Tight Quarters
4.8' - 5.2' Gil's Hole (Lower) (Class 3)
4.9' - 5.4' Gil's Hole (Upper) (Class 4)
5.3' - 6.4' Rodeo Zone
5.4' - 6.5' Center Chute Wave (Class 3)
6.0' - 6.7' Rocha Motel
6.0' - 7.6' Skull Island Wave (Class 2+)
6.2' - 6.6' Dave's Wave (Class 3+)
6.4' - 8.0' Showcase
6.7' - 6.9' Super Dave
6.7' - 7.0' Shoulder Snapper (Sweetie-pie) Wave
6.8' - 7.5' Corner Hole (Fudgepacker) (Class 4)
7.0' - ?.?' Sweetie-pie Wave
7.2' - 8.2' Last Supper
7.3' - 8.0' Elbow Wave
7.3' - 8.8' Dead Cow Hole (Class 3+)
7.9' - 8.8' Bud (also called Butt) Hole
8.0' - 9.5' Pencil Sharpener
8.0' - ?.?' Zambezi Wave
8.5' - 9.5' Eraser
9.0' - 9.5' Round the CornerFrom Potomac Paddlers website, added May 2004 National Park Service Great Falls PageNPS Great Falls Map
These guide books provide good references for this section: Sehlinger, Bob, et. al.; Appalachian Whitewater, the Southern States. Gertler, Ed; Maryland and Delaware Canoe Trails.
Converging currents and constricted river form dynamic waves, current and whirlpools. Rocks form pourover holes at lower levels.
At normal levels is a 3 foot sloping ledge drop that can be run most anywhere.
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My truck got broken into at the Old Angler's put in yesterday afternoon. Somehow they got right through the passenger side lock! Lock is now busted and my debit card is a goner... the thieves ran up $700 in charges before BofA automatically cancelled the card. Anyway, don't learn the hard way this is a problem that doesn't seem to be getting any better. Leave nothing of value in your vehicle at this put-in!
Subject: Record high run on Potomac above DC - Sunday 1/21/96
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TRIP REPORT: date - 1/21/96; level - 19.31' at Little Falls gauge; put-in:
Bear Island 200 yards above jumping cliffs in Mather Gorge; take-out -
Lock 10 on C&O Canal; difficulty - if you believe in runnable class 6,
this was it, baby!!
Sunday saw the highest known run ever down the Potomac Gorge, surpassing
the 1985 run at 18.3' by Davey (the resistor) Hearn et al. We put in at
about 1:15 pm, just as the river crested. The Little Falls gauge was
confirmed at 19.31' at 1:00 pm. We estimate the cfs at 375,000, which is
extrapolated from data supplied by the Army Corps of Engineers for 1985
flood. I tried to get confirmation from the Corps for yesterday's cfs, but
without success so far.
The water was indescribably monstrous and chaotic. I led out of the put-in
eddy, and as I was crossing the boil zone towards the shear line, I was
attacked by a massive moving hydraulic about 8' high. It pulled me
completely underwater for 3 or 4 seconds before dissipating and letting me
go. We all realized very quickly that a blown skirt might be fatal.
The main action was at the rapid named Jumps, which started about 200
yards down from the put-in and continued for 1/2 mile. This rapid occurs
in a spot which is normally placid flatwater. I believe it was named by
the 1985 crew, who were the first to discover it. It is named after an
area popular for it's 50' cliff jumps down into the river. The tops of
these cliffs were probably 15-20 feet underwater yesterday.
Jumps is formed from an interesting hydrological phenomenon wherein Mather
Gorge fills in to the brim (about 60' above the height of the average flow
of 7,000 cfs) and virtually dams up Great Falls, which is about 1.5 miles
upstream of this point at the top of Mather Gorge. As a result, Great
Falls flattens out to some extent, and the drop which normally occurs at
Great Falls (about 60 vertical feet) is delayed as the incredible
funneling pressure of the relatively narrow, sheer-walled Mather Gorge
keeps the river elevated. Only when the vertical walls give way to a
less-steep, rocky valley does the river get to madly eject itself from
This sight, the Jumps, is one of the most awesome spectacles of nature
I've ever beheld. Hundred of thousands of cfs tumble wildly out of the
gorge through giant boils and folds in a state of mad chaos. Riding
through this involved going from one envelopment to another. The wave tops
periodically broke into temporary, truck-sized hydraulics. But each of us
only got nailed by two or three of these during the worst part of their
cycles. There was some debris and a few trees, but it was not an
overriding concern, and no one was hit by any debris.
At low water there is a 45' high mound of rocks on the center left here,
sort of a high-water island. Yesterday this rock was well under water and
formed a massive 25' high continuous hydraulic (it was here that Kirk's
boat was smashed back in '85). This hole was maybe 50 yards wide, and
extended 50 more yards into a wave on either side. It was easy to miss
this beast, but it was somewhat unsettling to go by it on the shoulder of
the wave extension.
Below Jumps, the river normally makes a 90 degree left turn below Madeira
School towards Angler's Inn put-in, then turns back to the right.
Yesterday the river cut this corner, with less than 40% of the water going
down the existing river channel. There were two major channels, one to the
right of Skull Island, and another of similar size to the right of it
(into the area of Black Pond). The rapids in here, which we were not
expecting, were nearly as intense as Jumps, but much shorter. I hit just
two massive waves, one of which broke on me.
Of the four in our group, two emerged from all of this unscathed (myself
included), one swam and was pulled out by us, and the fourth disappeared.
Later, after a lot of worrying and some soul searching, we found him safe
at home. He had apparently engaged some trees at the bottom of the Black
Pond channel, lost his gear, and swam to shore. He hiked up the Difficult
Run Creek drainage to the nearest house, and the homeowner drove him back
across the river to his home in Cabin John, MD.
This trip was of course the experience of a lifetime. While we all agreed
that we would probably not do this again, it was exhilirating beyond
belief. Perhaps one or two in our party should not have gone or perhaps we
all made sound decisions. We certainly knew the risks and we knew some
elements were not in our control (a branch poking through your spray
skirt, or a tree in the hole with you). We had some 50 years of paddling
experience between the 4 of us, mostly in these waters. Our weakest member
had 5 years experience. No one was pressured to put in.
We planned the trip carefully to avoid contact with authorities using
alternate parking and access points and other measures. We luckily did not
see authorities (other than helicopters) en route to the put-in, nor did
we see any signs indicating that the river was closed. It was, apparently,
but we did not know this. We understood that Park Police or Rangers would
have no choice but to turn us back (what are they going to say, "oh, yeah
anything under 400,000 cfs is perfectly safe, go right ahead"), so we
The whole question of river "closure" has already provoked some debate on
this newsgroup in connection with Davey (the resistor) Hearn's arrest and
TV interview on Channel 9 last night. And it will probably continue to get
a lot of attention. We are grateful that we did not get tripped up by this
problem and were able to make the decision to go or not go purely based on
our scouting. We did talk to several fireman, county police, park police,
and rangers at the Lock 10 take-out, but they were quite civil with us and
did not accuse us of being insane. They just said get out and we did, as
our run was over - thankfully!
For the out of towners:
Park at Anglers Inn. 3 major options.
1. walk down the trail, across the bridge, and veer to the left to the wide trail down to the river. From there you can attain up to the maryland and center chute. Easy attainment even in a 6 foot long boat. Best to just follow the crowd. Someone is always there. Float back down to anglers when done. Center is best around 6 feet. Huge wave, nice eddy. Turns into a hole in the 5 foot range.
2. using the same put-in, float downstream and go to the left of the big island. These are the offut waves. Lots of fun in the 4 foot range, and much more user friendly for novices than the upstream chutes. To get back to your car, get out on river left. Follow the trail DOWNSTREAM, it will eventually take you back up the hill to the C&O towpath. From there either paddle back up the canal or carry your boat a half mile back to anglers.
3. From anglers, walk down to the canal, hop in your boat and slide into the canal. Paddle upstream about a mile. Get out when you get to the lock and carry your boat up the trail past the overlook. From the overlook you will look down on the sandy beach put-in. Keep going up the trail until you see the main wide trail on the left going down to sandy beach. From there, pick one of the many options and eventually float back down to anglers. It seems that most people access the Rocky Island waves this way. Good surfing up by sandy beach above 6 feet. Major boiling eddies and swirly water. Rocky Island is a great surf in a fast long boat around 4.5 feet.
River is friendly at levels below 3.75 feet. Difficulty picks up as it approaches 4 feet and above. Advanced and Intermediate boaters with good rolls are comfortable at higher flows. The minimum of 2.2 represents very low flow that only occurs after a prolonged dry period.
Highest known run is 19.3 feet or so.
Permits are not required for this reach.
We have no additional detail on this route.
Use the map below to calculate how
to arrive to the main town from your zipcode.
Playing at rocky
2007 Attainment Race
Rocky Island surfing & video link
Mather Gorge, Barb Brown
Potomac Whitewater Festival Attainment Race
S-turn Slalom, ca 1982
Rocky Island, Middle Channel boof
Rocky - from eddy
Rocky - from above
Old School Swiftwater Rescue
Tim surfing Upper Center Chute
The View from Horseshoe Waves
Potomac Gorge Map - Index (large file)
Potomac Gorge Map - Carderock (large file)
Potomac Gorge Map - Calico (large file)
Potomac Gorge Map - Difficult Run (large file)
Potomac Gorge Map - Middle Gorge (large file)
Potomac Gorge Map - Upper Gorge (large file)
Russ Nichols and John Evans on Middle Chute Wave
Bill McKnight on Middle Chute Wave
Carrie Ashton Getting Big Air at Middle Chute Wave
Anglers Put-in, Winter 1977
Olmstead Bridge after Agnes
MD Chute-Out, 1972 version
Rocky Island surfing
The Inimitable John Zuke, 1972-73
S-Turn Slalom ca 1979
2004: The Year Of Rocky
Look ma no brains
Rockin' Rocky in an RPM
Lone Surfer at O-Deck In Mather Gorge
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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Today, American Rivers released the annual report on America's Most Endangered Rivers. American Whitewater has partnered with American Rivers in past years in identifying threatened rivers, and this year we are working together to highlight threats to the Skykomish River in Washington and the Green River in Utah.
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.
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