This week of heavy rain has rendered the slalom course unusable. Some of the gates are low hanging and in contact with the water, so if you are running this section, watch out for those barriers so you don't become entangled.
Ran this on sunday around 9 on the gauge just after low tide -- 100,000 CFS. Pretty hairy to look at it from Chain Bridge. Where the observation deck was there is a rather large hole. Definitely don't want to end up there. Below the observation deck, maybe 40 yards or so, near the center of the river there is a feature that I can only describe as an exploding wave hole. It would look like a regular wave train, of course with massive waves, but every minute or two an enormous column of water the size of a truck would shoot up into the air. It was so big that we could see it from 500 yards away coming downriver. Needless to say, that must be avoided at all costs. When we were scouting from the bridge we saw a large log get completely eaten up by that thing. The only real safe line at this level is to go far river right, which has an extremely chaotic eddy line with all kinds of mystery boils, reactionary waves, and squirrelly water. It's the kind of water where you can be going straight and all of a sudden be facing sideways five feet to the left or right of where you were. It's a little bit cleaner if you go center-left, but then the exploding wave hole is in play. The pillars for Chain Bridge are, as a previous poster noted, a deathtrap if you get caught in them at this flow. Whether in your boat or out, the pillars must be avoided. Just below the bridge there is a large breaking wave, maybe 10 feet tall, followed by a series of large rollers. Fun. There were fun waves almost all the way down to Fletcher's Boathouse at this level/tide. The flow was so fast that we covered the mile from Chain Bridge to Fletcher's Boathouse in about five minutes. A swim at this level would be long, cold, and potentially deadly.
To go further with what Blas said, Little Falls changes pretty dramatically as a rapid once the river goes over 4.5-5ft. At 5ft, the center island starts going underwater, and a long wave train develops. Parallel to the observation deck, a 2nd wave train develops at low tide with some irregular waves and holes. These continue down to Chain Bridge at low tide, but don't appear at high tide.
From 5ft to about 6.5ft, the wave train gets a little larger and the waves start to crash more. It really has the feeling of a rapid on the Gauley, though, the waves are more irregular and chaotic. The lines are still fairly wide, and the river right contains eddies you can use to bypass most of the chaos, but it is still very much a Class IV rapid.
Above 6.5ft the wave train starts to wash out and over 7-7.5ft, two new dangers come into play. The first is that the river is flowing over the observation deck, creating a pretty nasty hole that doesn't go away until the river is over 9ft. The second is the water starts piling high on Chain Bridge, and some nasty eddylines and whirlpools form. Also, at these levels, Z-Channel changes directions, forcing you to attain up it, rather than paddle down it. Experience boaters can probably find a line over the break in the canal by Lock 5
Once you are in the 9+ft range, the wave train and hole are mostly gone, but some really powerful eddylines, whirlpools, and exploding waves take their place. You will be running the main rapid next to entire trees, and there isn't a predictable line. Also, you'll have to paddle into the river right from Lock 5, as Z-Channel and the Feeder Canal are flowing downstream much too quickly to attain. It's a really fun experience for an accomplished boater, but, not something that should be attempted by anyone without solid skills.
Someone needs to fix the gauge ratings on this site. At 2.91 it is reading green as a medium level and most people that are out on mather gorge or little falls know and probably feels this level to be low.
Having run this section from maybe 50 times at different levels, I think 2.5 - 3.2' is the optimum level for Little Falls with the best play spots. Above 3.5' most of the run gets washed out although the Little Falls rapid is quite entertaining. William Nealy wrote about a near death experience on Little Falls at high water in his Whitewater Home Companion Vol 2. Avoid the Chain Bridge abutments at higher levels.
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This section of the Potomac is most playable between 2.7-2.9 ft. It can be run lower and much higher, though. Above 3 ft. it begins to get some push. Above 4 ft. expect a Class IVish run. Above 5 ft., some Class V characteristics may be present. Because the river necks down significantly here, 1/10th gauge changes can equal a foot change in water.
The difficulty of the final rapid and main attraction - Little Falls - varies significantly with the tides. Low tide usually means a harder while high tide means easier.
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Little Falls at 100k cfs
Little Falls rapid from VA bank
It's a Wrap!
Lower Little Falls Aerial Map (large file)
Upper Little Falls Aerial Map (large file)
Where you want to be!
Room of Doom
One of many large houses on river right
Runnable section of broken dam below Brookmont
Lock 5 putin
Little Falls/ MD Side
Little Falls/VA Side
Little Falls/MD Side
Beaver Drop Rapids
Z Turn Rapids
Graphic of Little Falls Rapid of the Potomac River
First Drop In Little Falls
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