Potomac - 7. Little Falls

Potomac, Maryland, US


7. Little Falls

Usual Difficulty II-III(IV) (varies with level)
Length 2 Miles
Avg. Gradient 15 fpm

Z Channel!

Z Channel!
Photo by Chris B taken 07/26/04 @ 3.3 LF

Gauge Information

Name Range Difficulty Updated Level
usgs-01646500 2.60 - 10.00 ft II-III(IV) 00h45m 3.3 ft (running)

River Description


This is a popular intermediate run in the D.C. area due to the amazing fact the final rapid, Little Falls itself, can offer Class IV punch right where the tidal Potomac begins at the Maryland and D.C. line. Like some other stretches of the Potomac, the C & O Canal, when watered, can be used to complete a loop without setting shuttle. This description focuses on the runs characteristics when Little Falls is between 2.7 to 3.5 feet. Little Falls can be run by advanced and expert paddlers at higher levels.


The Little Falls run begins in a canal feeder channel reachable from either Lock 6 or Lock 5 of the C&O Canal. See directions below. Enter the main flow of the river by: a) Using the Z-Channel - an connector between the feeder channel and Potomac River between the two locks. This channel is class II with a Class III finale that has pinning potential (The final drop also catches a lot of strainers, so scout from an upstream eddy first). b) Paddling upstream on the feeder channel and into the main river. Run the channel in the left-center break in a rubble dam. Rocky with pinning potential - call is Class III.

Once on the main river, work to the far river right to begin the run through the constricted channel of Class II-III water. At lower levels, some good surfing hydraulics form in the upper part. These turn to fast, standing waves at medium levels. At most all levels the top wave is best caught on the way down, though second waves are sometimes smooth as well. Halfway down the main channel, you can portage at a small beach on the left ot run the Beaver Slide - a Class III creeky drop (zig-zag move). The last drop before the Little Falls rapid can be run straight but entering a diagonal chute from a large river right eddy is more interesting.


Little Falls is next and can be scouted by pulling up on river left (or right, but this side involves more work) at the rocks above the drop. The rapid is split by a rocky island, with the left side called the Maryland side and the right side called the Virginia side. Below the rapid good surfing and stern squirt spots form at various levels. Here are descriptions of three common lines:

Virginia side. The is a III-IV rapid. It is harder when the tide is low and/or the river is above 3 ft. The line involves an S-Turn through two drops and very fast current. Setup from a river right eddy to hit the drop straight on with a little right angle. Setup from a river left eddy to execute a more difficult ferry move across the main current to the right side channel. Hazards include the rocky island; a Meatcleaver rock just above the rocky island that must be avoided, whether right side up or upside down; and a large hole just right of the rocky island. Strong current can also push you against the rocky Virginia shore and the swirling Eddy of Doom after successfully running the first drop. Successful lines often involve catching the ride side eddy below the first drop, then ferrying against the current across the channel to the right side of the rocky island. At levels of around 2.8 and lower you can make elevator attainment moves up most of the rapid and practice hairy ferries above the meat cleaver. Watch yourself, however, as boaters pin on meatcleaver and get hung up on rocks below the second drop even at low levels.

Maryland side. This is Class II-III. Run the channel river left with left angle, avoiding some small holes and taking care not to get pushed right toward the rocky island and Virginia route. Left side eddies can be used to ease the way. At low levels, this rapid almost disappears when the tide is high.

Far Right Sneak Slot. At some levels a sneak slot offers a nice Class III four foot chute. Can be scouted from river right rocks.


Access Little Falls by parking at the Lock 6 or Lock 5 parking lots for the C & O Canal. Turnoffs for both are reached from the southbound lane on the Clara Barton Parkway in Montgomery County, MD near the Washington, D.C. line. From either Lock, carry across the canal and take paths to a canal feeder channel that parallels the Potomac. Takeout river left on rocks surrounding a concrete water works structure. Walk up the water works access pathway to the C & O Canal and paddle upstream to your car, carrying around the canal locks on river right or left.

If all of this sounds confusing, well, it is. It is best to make your virgin visit to Little Falls with a local boater who knows logistics AND more importantly the hazards of this run.

StreamTeam Status: Not Verified
Last Updated: 2017-11-07 17:11:28


Rapid Summary

Mile Rapid Name Class Features (Legend)
0.2Rubble DamIIIHazard
0.5Midway SurfingIIIPlayspot
1.5Little FallsIII+Hazard Playspot

Rapid Descriptions

Z-Channel (Class III, Mile 0.1)
Z-Channel starts off as an easy eddy-hop. But the final drop is Class III with a pinning rock right in the middle. Watch for strainers here.

Rubble Dam (Class III, Mile 0.2)
Run the rubble dam center left through a twisty, rocky channel.

Midway Surfing (Class III, Mile 0.5)
Great surfwaves in the upper portion of the run are easiest to catch as the river level drops. 2.7-2.9 ft. are premium.

Little Falls (Class III+, Mile 1.5)
Little Falls is the main attraction for this run. The left line (Maryland) is easy II-III at most levels. The right line (Virginia) is III+ to -IV, depending on the river and tide levels.

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