About 15 miles northwest of Washington, D.C., the Potomac River drops 76 feet in less than a mile, as its broad flow breaks up into rapids and waterfalls and funnels down into Mather Gorge. The National Park Service describes the Great Falls of the Potomac as “the steepest and most spectacular fall line rapids” of any river in the eastern United States.
I often visit the Maryland side of Great Falls, part of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, to walk out to the dramatic falls overlook or stroll along one of the loveliest stretches of the C&O Canal towpath. But on this hot summer morning, I’ve come here for a walk in the woods.
(I should note that there is a Great Falls Park on the Virginia side of the river, also a National Park Service site and a place well worth exploring. It’s a mere few hundred feet away across the roiling river, but about a 12-mile, half-hour drive. Everything I mention below refers to the Maryland side of Great Falls.)
Trails I’ve rarely or never walked lace the hills above Great Falls. I’ve decided today’s the day to finally explore them. I drive to a public parking lot across MacArthur Boulevard from Old Angler’s Inn, usually jammed on weekends but mostly empty on this Thursday morning. I strap on my waist pack, equipped with a camera, snacks, and two water bottles, and head down Berma Road toward the trailhead.
Berma Road is a wide, shaded, unpaved road (closed to motor vehicles) that runs along the hillside above the canal along the beautiful Widewater section. Taking the road in one direction and the canal towpath in the other makes for a nice 3-mile walking loop. The rough road overlies the Washington Aqueduct, which since 1864 has diverted river water from Great Falls to reservoirs and treatment facilities in Washington, D.C. Its name refers to the fact that it runs along the canal’s “berm” side (opposite from the towpath). The name may also be a play on words, alluding to the rugged Burma Road of World War II fame.
Today I walk the Berma Road only a short way before veering off up the Valley Trail, a gentle path that leads to the Gold Mine Loop.
Gold in the hills . . . of Maryland
A Union soldier stationed at Great Falls during the Civil War spotted the distinctive gleam of gold in the quartz-veined rocks around here. He returned after the war, purchased land in the area, and began prospecting. Although he and his partners managed to extract only a few ounces, their discovery set off a minor gold rush. Eventually, more than 30 mines pocked the hills here.
I learned all this from a nearly illegible interpretive exhibit panel [replaced since then with a new copy] along the Gold Mine Loop Trail. Nearby stand (or lean) the few rusted remains of the Maryland Mine processing mill, where the gold was extracted from the quartz. The Maryland Mine operated on and off for half a century before finally closing in 1940.
The C&O Canal Companion by Mike High, an excellent guide to the canal, adds a few more details. High notes that the Maryland Mine was one of three major mineshafts sunk in the vicinity, the others being the Ford Mine and Watson Mine. He states, “While some significant finds were made, the amount of gold that could be recovered often did not justify the cost of extraction.” With the closing of the Maryland Mine, gold mining ended at Great Falls.
The mines have now been covered over or sealed off. Little obvious evidence of them remains. But as you walk through the woods, you see a lot of things that make you wonder: round pits, mounds of rocks, cuts in hillsides and flat clearings that don’t look natural, rocky paths that must have been road or railroad beds—their purpose now obscure.
Alone in the woods
What’s golden now is the silence. As I amble along the Valley Trail, what I mostly hear is the trickle of stream water, blue jays jaying, woodpeckers pecking. The only manmade sound is the distant, fading roar of a jetliner. I pass a woman walking a dog, and then a man running. Over the next two hours, I encounter no one else.
Although the temperature this morning is already in the mid-80s and rising, it feels relatively comfortable in the shady woods. The paths are wide and easy, mostly hard-packed dirt with a few roots and rocks. The nearby trails I recently walked along the river were narrower, rockier, and much more overgrown. On these woodland trails, I can actually enjoy looking around as I stroll, without worrying about tripping or slipping or brushing against poison ivy. The woods are open and airy. I can relax.
The Gold Mine Loop, the main trail through the woods, is an easy 1.6-mile walk. About eight other trails and spurs link up with it and connect it with parking lots, Berma Road, and the park visitor center in the historic Great Falls Tavern. It’s easy to create variations on a walking route. I will cover about 4 miles today with hardly any backtracking and still not walk on all the trails.
I turn off the Gold Mine Loop to explore the Overlook Trail. As I walk along, another sound begins to dominate: the distant roar of falling water. Soon, the river, gorge, and canal towpath come into view far below through the trees. I can’t see all the way upriver to the falls, but this view from trail is still a revelation. In all the years I’ve visited Great Falls, this is the first time I’ve seen the area from this high vantage point. It would be worth coming back in the fall when the leaves are down and the view even better.
Heading back to the Gold Mine Loop via the Gold Mine Spur, I come across a landmark I have seen before: a teardrop-shaped, stone-covered path raised above the level of its surroundings. An old park trail brochure notes that it was once a trolley turnaround, but it doesn’t say where the trolley line went. The current brochure doesn’t mention it at all.
I spot other mysterious features as I walk along. A long, straight mound that looks like a large buried pipe. Sewer vents that sit oddly in the middle of the woods. I read that the several pits and rock mounds I later see beside the Woodland Trail are the remains of prospectors’ trenches and Civil War earthworks. There are many stories buried in these woods.
From the Gold Mine Loop, I take the Woodland Trail back toward Berma Road. Afterward, to reward myself after my nearly 2½-hour walk, I treat myself to blackened mahi fish tacos at (the appropriately named restaurant) Fish Taco in Cabin John on the way home.
The Ford Mine Trail
The next day I come back and walk the Ford Mine Trail, which begins at the far end of the Great Falls parking lot. The 2.1-mile trail is narrower, hillier, and a little rougher than the Gold Mine Loop Trail and crosses several streams. It loops up along the hillside and then back along the canal. The trail guide notes that it passes the remains of the Ford Mine, but I don’t recognize them. I do make lingering eye contact with a red fox and a deer, reward enough for my effort.
If you go
Be sure to pick up a trail map brochure at the park entrance, visitor center, or website. While the main trails usually are well marked with signs and blazes, there are no maps of the trail system posted along the way and almost no interpretive information. The woods can be disorienting, and some unmarked trails can lead you astray.
There is an admission fee to this area if you arrive on the main road, but not if you walk or bike in via the trails or towpath. You can access the C&O Canal park website here, and download the trail map and trail descriptions (see Maps):
David Romanowski, 2016