Fall is one of my favorite times to be outdoors in the Mid-Atlantic region. The days start to get cooler, the humidity seemingly disappears, and the leaves start to change colors. What better way to spend a beautiful fall afternoon than hiking through a National Park in Montgomery County?
Recently, I gathered up my nieces and nephew and headed to Great Falls Park in Potomac, Maryland along the historic Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal. My nephew, Jason, is in the fourth grade in Montgomery County and eligible for the President’s Every Kid in a Park Program. Between now and August 2016, this initiative provides all Americans with access to visit and enjoy our country’s unique outdoor spaces by giving fourth-grade students and their families’ free admission to National Parks and other federal lands.
The night before we went to Great Falls Park, Jason visited the Every Kid in Park website, picked out the things he wanted to see and do at a park, and then printed out his ticket so he could go and see and do them! When we arrived at the park with his ticket in hand, the park ranger greeted us at the welcome booth and gave Jason a clipboard with his very own credit-card-sized pass to sign. Then it was officially his and we got in for free! When he finally had the pass in his hands, Jason exclaimed, “this is really cool!”
Want to learn something else cool? You can also get into a National Park for free on Veteran’s Day, November 11. No need to bring a fourth grader that day – everyone gets free admission during Free Entrance Days in the National Parks!
Once inside Great Falls Park, we decided to take advantage of all the park has to offer. We started our visit by checking out the Great Falls Tavern Visitor’s Center, which is rich with information about the history of the location. Did you know that the C&O Canal was built in the mid-1800s to ship coal from the Midwest to the East Coast? During its height, 700 barges would continuously make the 184.5 mile, 5-day journey from Cumberland, Maryland to Georgetown in Washington, D.C. The Great Falls Tavern served as a rest-stop for weary passengers to get a good meal, partake in some entertainment, and spend the night. Check out the Great Falls Tavern Visitor’s Center website for more information.
After reading about the area’s history, we took a stroll down the tow path. We were just in time to watch a group of kids take a ride on the Charles F. Mercer Canal Boat, pulled by mules just like it used to be. We even got to see them drop 8 feet through the canal lock! We didn’t have time to hitch a ride, but anyone who wants to can experience a canal boat ride in the spring, summer, and early fall for a nominal fee.
After watching the canal boat clear the lock, we started working on a homemade nature scavenger hunt. I knew these kids would love the challenge of finding insects, leaves, shells, birds, and oddly shaped rocks. Nature scavenger hunts are easy to create for yourself, or find one of many pre-made lists on the Internet. Our favorite items to find were the animal tracks and the y-shaped branches! Check out Pinterest for some inspiration to create your own nature scavenger hunt.
Next, we hiked down the tow path and walked along several bridges to make it out to the Great Falls Overlook. An awe-inspiring view of roaring falls and water rushing over ancient rocks greeted us when we finally made it to our destination. We could just imagine this spot as a trading place in the old town of Matildaville or as inspiration for George Washington’s vision to connect the east to the mid-west at this amazing location.
After a view of the falls, we circled back to act like the early explorers and climb the rocks for even more magnificent views. This was one of our favorite adventures of the day. When we got tired, we decided to take a break and have a picnic at one of the many picnic benches provided by the Park Service. Our pick was one in a nicely shaded spot. And we made sure to collect all of our trash after lunch since this is a Trash Free Park.
Overall, we had a really great time exploring the park. Of all the things to do, my niece Abby said she liked the nature scavenger hunt the most, Jason said he liked climbing on the rocks, and Emily said she liked, “that all the pathways are clear and easy to walk on.” She also underscored that all parks are important for people and animals to love and to have a place to enjoy that we don’t have to worry about being destroyed.
Thanks to the park rangers, maintenance workers, and other volunteers who work tirelessly to keep the paths safe and parks clean for us to enjoy. And, if you can believe it, August 25, 2016, will mark the 100 anniversary of the National Park Service. I didn’t know this, but my nephew Jason did, thanks to the Every Kid in the Park initiative!
Now it’s your turn to visit a park and view the sights our area has to offer; sign up and download your free pass to America’s parks on the Every Kid in a Park website. And though there aren’t a ton of National Parks in Montgomery County, Maryland, there are plenty to visit within a short distance. Check out NPS.gov and get inspired to take your next adventure!
By Lori Rhoades, guest blogger. Lori has been connected to Montgomery County nearly her whole life. She grew up in Bethesda, did a field internship at DEP in college (nearly 20 years ago!), and continues to visit Montgomery County to see her mom on weekends.