Great Falls shortly after sunrise
National parks are a tremendous resource for nature and landscape photographers, and there are so many national parks that you have probably never heard of many of them. Of course, the most popular parks like the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park are amazing destinations for photographers. And many of the lesser-known parks are also deserving of a visit.
At 800+ acres, Great Falls National Park in McLean, Virginia is a small park by national park standards, but it is home to some beautiful scenery. If you’re in the Washington, DC area and looking for a great location for landscape photography you should visit Great Falls. About a month ago I was in DC with my family and wanted to take a few hours to visit this park for the first time. It was well worth the visit and I hope to go back again sometime in the future to see it in a different season.
Intro to Great Falls National Park
McLean, Virginia is located just outside of Washington, DC. The park is within a 30 minute drive of downtown DC (depending on traffic). Obviously, in a major metropolitan area there are not as many great locations for landscape photography as there would be in more wide open areas of the country, so Great Falls is kind of unique just because of its location. The main feature of the park is the view of the falls and rapids on the Potomac River. There is a short trail that leads to these amazing views, and the park also includes 15 miles of hiking trails and 5 miles of biking trails.
The park is open daily from 7:00 AM to sunset and there is a $5 (per vehicle) entrance fee. The fee is $3 if you are entering on foot or bike. There is no camping allowed in the park, so you will need to come and go on the same day.
The Three Overlooks
When you enter the park there is a visitor’s center and a parking lot. Behind the visitor’s center you can access a trail that will lead you to 3 different scenic overlooks of the falls. If you are facing the front of the visitor’s center you’ll take the trail heading to your right. It’s a very short walk to the first overlook, and it’s probably no more than a few hundred yards in total to get to all 3 overlooks.
When I was there the first overlook was closed due to icy conditions so I don’t have any photos from that view, but you can see one on this page. The second and third overlooks are just a little farther downstream, and a little farther from the falls.
View from overlook #2
When I was there I was literally the only person in the park aside from park staff so I had plenty of room to get the view I wanted an to set up a tripod. I was there at 7:00 AM on a late winter weekday morning , at more popular times I would imagine the overlooks can get quite crowded and finding space to set up a tripod may not be as easy. The overlooks are a decent size, but since the views of the falls are the main attraction of the park I would assume that they get quite crowded when there are more people in the park.
View from overlook #2 with a 10-stop neutral density filter
The third overlook is a longer distance from the falls, but it does have a nice vantage point.
View from overlook #3 with a 10-stop neutral density filter
Visiting Great Falls National Park
There are a few things to be aware of when planning a trip to Great Falls. First, the park is small and so is the parking lot. When I was there it wasn’t an issue because it was an off-peak time, but from what I have read the parking lot can fill up very quickly in the summer and on weekends. The park’s website mentions that there is usually a line to enter the park on nice weekends. They recommend arriving early or late in the day to avoid the biggest crowds, which is good news for photographers who prefer those hours anyway.
The Maryland side of the Potomac River is home to C&O Canal National Historic Park, which also includes a view of the falls.