Photographing Great Falls National Park

by Alex Mody | March 26, 2010

© Alex ModyJust ten miles from Washington, D.C., Great Falls National Park is an often overlooked gem of our National Parks system. Here the mighty Potomac River, which acts as a watershed basin for a 11,000+ square mile area encompassing sections of Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, drops 77 feet in just a half-mile, separating Maryland and Virginia in quite a fierce manner. The great volume of water is funneled into the 60-100 foot wide Mather Gorge, thus creating the fast-flowing, intense, and incredibly photogenic section of rapids we now call the Great Falls of the Potomac. The gorge has been cut through layers of sharp metamorphic rock formations, providing many beautiful scenes with rushing water and jagged rock shapes for your eyes, camera, and lens to feast upon. This makes Great Falls easily my favorite place to photograph in the immediate Mid-Atlantic area, although it doesn’t hurt that I live a mere fifteen minutes away from the park’s Virginia entrance.

 Great Falls National Park © Alex Mody

No season is the wrong season to be at Great Falls, though I typically like to avoid it after massive snowmelt, or in the middle of spring when the water is up at it’s highest. High water usually means the river is quite muddy, and that most of my favorite rapids are obscured by the high flow. With late spring and summer usually come the fearless Great Blue Herons and their fishing antics, beautifully foggy mornings, and preferable water levels. In autumn, the fog and water levels are likely to remain, and there is excellent fall foliage throughout the park. In winter, it is possible to get lucky with a snowstorm, or find fantastic ice formations to photograph if we’re experiencing a cold snap.

Great images can be made on either side of the park, but I tend to prefer photographing the Virginia side at sunrise and the Maryland side at sunset, due to having slightly different angles of view.

 Sunrise © Alex Mody

There are three main overlooks on the Virginia side. While one could conceivably make very nice photographs at these locations, I’ve found that all of my best shots have been from when I bushwhack down to the river and search for compositions upstream of the main falls and overlooks. I can only wholeheartedly recommend this to adventurous photographers in reasonable physical condition, because the rocks are steep, and extremely slippery when wet. There’s a very astute sign in the Men’s room at the visitor’s center that reminds me to stay careful when I’m down there. It states, “IF YOU FALL IN, YOU WILL DIE” and highlights that on average, seven people drown per year in the park. The well marked and easy to get to area called “Fisherman’s Eddy” is also a wonderful place to photograph on the Virginia side. I usually head there with my super-telephoto lens after sunrise or in the late afternoon to try and photograph the Great Blue Herons present from May to July. In addition to being a fantastic spot for the Great Blue Herons, if the weather is nice in the afternoon you will likely be able to photograph kayakers dropping the main falls and braving the Class V+ rapids.

 Great blue heron © Alex Mody

Things are slightly different on the Maryland side, with even more walking and much more scrambling in rocky areas involved with getting to the most photogenic spots. The six-mile long aptly named “Billy Goat Trail” runs along the Maryland side of the Potomac. It takes some scouting out in advance, but there are plenty of nice views of the Potomac and Mather Gorge from along the trail that can be photographed at both sunrise and sunset. Be careful when visiting on a weekend, though, as this is perhaps the most popular hike in the D.C. area. Also on the Maryland side is the Overlook Trail. If you’re sure footed and in good shape, you can scramble down to the river from the overlook to find a plethora of compositions that I prefer to shoot at sunset.

The natural beauty present at Great Falls is easily unparalleled in the area. If you find yourself around Washington, D.C., or if you’re looking for a location to photograph in the Mid-Atlantic, I highly recommend visiting Great Falls National Park.

 Waterfall photography © Alex Mody

About the Author

Alex is an aspiring young nature photographer based in Olympia, Washington. In 2009, Alex was named Youth Photographer of the Year by Nature's Best Magazine and was subsequently featured in an article on NatureScapes highlighting his accomplishments and beautiful photography. Alex is currently pursuing his bachelor's degree at Evergreen State University. To see more of Alex's work, please visit his website at

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