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Thanks to discoveries of long-abandoned settlements and artifacts, archeologists know that there were Native Americans living and hunting around Great Falls for at least 10,000 years. Between 1000 and 1700, several Native American tribes, which included Piscataway, Powhatan, and Iroquois, frequented the area to trade goods between each other. European settlers arrived in the area in 1649 when English King Charles II gave a huge swath of land away to seven Englishmen. Over the subsequent decades, the land passed through individuals and organizations’ hands until Fairfax County, VA, purchased it in 1952 and turned around and sold it to National Park Services in 1965, thus making way for Great Falls Park.
The closest town is Reston, VA, which is about 10 miles to the southwest. Nicknamed the Garden City, Reston is one of the greenest towns in the region, thanks to an abundance of greenways, parks, golf courses, and bridle paths. The town holds several events and festivals throughout the year, including the Northern Virginia Fine Arts Festival, which usually takes place in May.
Although Great Falls Park is a smaller one, with just over 780 acres, the stunning views of the Potomac River Gorge more than makes up for its diminutive size. The gorge, littered by massive boulders, creates a delicious challenge for kayakers and whitewater rafts to overcome. There are eddies, boiling eddy lines, undercuts, and underwater rocks, shoots, and strainers for adventurers to contend with. In springtime, particularly after a winter with heavy snow, the rapids can achieve a difficulty rating of as high as V, and in rare years, even VI. As the snowmelt ebbs and the summer heat sets in, the river still is fun for water adventurers to navigate. There are several guide agencies and boat-rental services in the area.
Over 15 miles of trails meander through thick, deep woods, often following the contours of the river. Sharp-eyed hikers may spot an occasional deer, which can seem strange so close to Washington, D.C. In fact, this region teems with wildlife, and black bears and coyotes are also known to frequent the woods, though they tend to avoid people. A majority of the trails are open to horseback riders; however, they should check with the park rangers before setting out. A couple of trails are notorious for washing out and can pose difficulty for horses to cross.
Many rock climbers enjoy visiting Great Falls Park during the warmer months for a session of top-roping on the cliffs of the gorge. This park is one of the closest outdoor parks at which one may climb. Though it’s possible to take a trail to the bottom of the gorge, it can be quite challenging, and most climbers choose to simply rappel down, and when they’re ready to head out, climb back up. Many park visitors enjoy watching climbers ply their trade, though observing means venturing close to the top of the cliffs.
Many people rent an RV to bypass enduring noisy neighbors at hotels and get closer to nature. Unfortunately, Great Falls Park is one of the few National Parks to disallow camping. However, there are several other RV camping options in the area. Lake Fairfax Park in Reston, VA, is open year-round and has over 136 sites for RV camping. Of these, 54 have electric hookups, and most sites also have shade trees, which is a nice plus on a humid day. Pets are allowed, though they must be leashed at all times.
Just across the Virginia-Maryland state border is Catoctin Mountain Park. Catoctin Mountain Park RV campground, near Thurmond, MD, has 49 sites with restrooms, faucets with drinking water, and fire rings. However, be mindful that, due to the sharp turns, RVs longer than 30 feet are not recommended.
RV camp at Greenbelt Park in Greenbelt, MD, which is open year-round. Although there are no hookups, it does have water faucets for drinking water, restrooms, and a dump station.
Though Washington, D.C., is a major draw because of all of its historic sites, museums, art galleries, and endless events and activities, many visitors enjoy exploring the Virginia towns dotting the perimeter of the city, which is affectionately known as “NOVA.” Arlington, VA, is perhaps the best known for Arlington Cemetery, at which the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and several thousand other soldiers are buried. Pentagon is also located in Arlington and can be toured; however, be aware that reservations for the tours must be made in advance.
Located in Chantilly, VA is the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, which is an aviation museum run by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. This facility houses thousands of space and aviation memorabilia, artifacts, and genuine items like the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. The Center also has an IMAX theater, an observation tower in which visitors may go up, and two hangars that hold several planes and the Space Shuttle Discovery.
Rent an RV in Fairfax County, and embark on the perfect RV camping adventure in Virginia.