I have lived in the DC/Maryland/Virginia region for a long time, but only had the opportunity to visit the Potomac River Gorge upclose yesterday.  The gorge is a deep narrow valley that funnels the Potomac through a rock embedded fifteen mile long passageway.  The river drops 130 horizontal feet in those miles, but at Great Falls rapids the Potomac actually drops 60 horizontol feet in only a half mile stretch.

We visited the gorge during a time of unseasonable dryness.  It is hard to imagine the fast moving swirling and gushing waters that have left patch after patch of heavy trees and other debris in its crevices.  Its spectacular cliffs and nuances are largely unspoiled and the rangers are so careful about their desire to let nature run its course that they have carved wooden steps along the rocky pathways so that the wood planks carefully abutt but do not mar the rock surfaces.  It is intricate work and adds much to the simplicity of the natural habitat.  

We are told in the brochure that floodwaters rise enough to wash over the Gorge’s 50 foot cliffs and can eliminate in a flash decades of plant growth, rearrange and again deposit new sediment and seeds. 

Along the Gorge runs the C & O Canal, a man made wonder which has been preserved by the National Park Service.  John Quincy Adams was president when the Canal was initiated.  Construction ended in 1850, but the canal was made obsolete by the time of its own completion by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad which runs nearby.  From 1828 to 1850 thousands of immigrants were involved in the building of the canal which provided them much needed work as they completed its massive stonework labyrinth of locks, aqueducts and contoured vistas. 

On the DC side of the Gorge is a section of the Canal that continues to be maintained and restored so that visitors can see and experience the workings of the canal up close.  74 canal locks enabled settlers and boats to ascend a 605 foot elevation between Cumberland, Maryland and Georgetown in the District.   The park brochure points out that the lock gate design is “virtually unchanged from Leonardo da Vinci’s original design in 1485.”  A towpath that extends along the length of the canal draws a multitude of hikers and bicyclers to this historic attraction.

Great Falls Visitor Center encompasses both the canal and the nearby expanse of the Potomac River Gorge.  This is where Jim and I enjoyed our September 11 afternoon.

I encourage your visit to our historic waterway, especially this fall when all the leaves are turning their beautiful colors!

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