Portage Great Falls on the Potomac?

I am looking to paddle the Potomac from Cumberland, Maryland, through D.C., then on down river to near the mouth of the Potomac, to my new home in Lottsburg, Va., about 15 miles from Reedville.

I’ll probably do this in late July or early August, once our move is complete and the wife is settled in good. We are moving from the Eastern Shore of Virginia to Lottsburg the last weeek of June.

I have paddled most of the Potomac in day trips, when we lived near Winchester, Va, from 2004-2007, including the open tidal Potomac so know what to expect, but have not paddled the stretch from Brunswick, MD. to D.C.

I’ll be using my Mohawk Odyssey 15 solo boat, loaded as lightly as possible. So, how do you get around Great Falls? Is there a manageble portage, or will I need a vehicle shuttle? How is the river between Great Falls and Georgetown, suitable for an open solo boat?

Once I get to Georgetown, I’ll be in familiar waters again.

Thanks for any advice,

Tracy Grissett

Some info…

– Last Updated: Jun-04-10 10:34 PM EST –

Below's what someone posted elsewhere. Not relevant to portaging the Great Falls, but some other "gotcha"s

The C&O canal should be usable to go around the falls. You are not really supposed to walk in the falls area, so you should take the canal some place above the Falls, then get back on the river, probably at Rocky Island.

Sorry, not sure exactly where above the falls to go off the river or what's the best place to get back on the river for your purpose - someone else will surely chime-in on this.

There is also a low dam further down that you would be wise to portage.

Depending on the water level you might need to do some more portaging, I think.

The below applies to sections below the Great Falls down to Chain Bridge pretty much...


there are a few places on that section of the Potomac you could get into trouble. They can be avoided with skill, but if you flipped or lost control, you might be unable to do so.

I have seen someone briefly vertical pin on a rock just above S-turn. He unpinned himself because he had a relatively short boat, so his paddle could reach. I'm not certain if that rock could pin a longer boat.

If you run S-turn to river right through the curvy slot, a long boat could jam in the curve.

There is a fair amount of current running through Wet Bottom, and some rocks at the top. I've never seen anyone pin there, but people from upstream tend to avoid them, probably for good reason.

The Maryland side back channel just above Old Anglers has some complicated maneuvers you wouldn't want to miss. (OK. Unfair. That only runs at higher river levels.)

The currents are fast enough in Yellow Falls, I can imagine a flipped long boat might be able to pin its middle across the dividing rock that creates the falls.

In some of the rapids leading up to Little Falls there are many many little rocks a longer boater could get stuck between, especially if they flipped and were unable to control their trajectory.

There is a slot just right of the rock dividing the Maryland and Virginia sides of Little Falls that people run at some levels, which requires some care in longer boat. I once foolishly tried to back paddle to slow down. I didn't have enough speed to clear the drop, and went into a vertical pin. I was able to unjam myself, before someone from above managed to sheer my head off, but it was a bit scary. In a really long boat, that chute could be deadly.

Another time I flipped in the Virginia side of the Virginia chute, in the slight hydraulic just above the Pinning Rock (note the name). I was using an old spray skirt, which was sucked off, flooding the boat. I was pressed upside down against Pinning Rock by the current. I rolled against the rock, and washed out. Many people have been somewhat pinned there.

Likewise Little Falls has a bunch of little slots to river right that a longer boat could get stuck in, and there is a collection of rocks in the middle above Little Falls that people mostly try to avoid threading their way through.

If you let a certain paddler in the Georgetown Piracy persuade you to attain through Little Falls (at certain tidal stages), and paddle around the pinning rock, and you mess up, you could easily fold a long sea kayak around that rock, and never get out.

Some of the streams that end in the Potomac also have some turns you could get stuck around, if you missed a maneuver, such as in the drops from the feeder canal into the Potomac, or maybe even the spot people sometimes put in just below S-turn.

Any boater can get stuck in the hydraulic that stretches downstream across the bottom of Brookmont dam. Many have died there, and it is one of the main reasons military personnel in the Military District of Washington are forbidden to enter the whitewater section of the Potomac, last I knew.

I've never run Fish Ladder, but people do get stuck there, and it can be deadly.

On the other hand, a longer boat won't get stuck in the tiny hole in the Center Chute. I didn't even realize it was there until I ran it in a little boat. Likewise you can power your way through stuff that a little kayak user needs to run with care.

what would you do about the dams …

– Last Updated: Jun-05-10 9:09 AM EST –

....... follow the river downstream from Four Locks to halfway between Williamsport and Sheperdstown ... use the satilite view and enlarge .

The stretch approaching from above Harpers Ferry area to about halfway down to Brunswick can get serious , some fast tricky water and lots of concernable ledges (at least for someone with my skills) .


I'd get out above Little Falls and leave it at that (but's that's just me) .

I’ve done that stretch…
I think you are referring to the “Needles of the Potomac”, I’ve done that stretch in an open boat, there are some Class 3 bits but they seemed to me to be uncomplicated, a little spray in the boat, no worries…

This was at normal to low river levels, in the middle of the summer…

But, I have not seen the whole river betweeen Shepardstown and Harpers Ferry, we had an outfitter put us in just prior to the “Needles”, and ran it to Brunswick. Actually, I have seen that bit of the river, but from a bicycle on the C&O towpath. Any surprises I’m missing?

there’s real whitewater
I have taken out above Great Falls, on the Maryland side, but I can’t remember the details. I vaguely remember that we took out near the southern tip of an island, portaged across the island, and then had a little bit more paddling before we took out on the mainland. No idea if this still works today; you should get current information.

You don’t say anything about your skills, but there is real whitewater below Great Falls. The Brookmont dam is a mandatory portage no matter your skill level. Little Falls is a rapids you should pay careful attention to, but it is run often by people with good whitewater skills.

You should read up or ask around, to gauge your skill against the river. Check with the Canoe Cruisers Association, for example.

Above Great Falls, I seem to remember long stretches of river where the main danger was death by boredom.


I’ll pass on anything…
I’ll pass on anything from Great Falls to Georgetown unless it is tame class 2-3, nothing complicated. I have moderate whitewater experience, but in no way could be classified as a “Seasoned” whitewater open boater, being careful and prudent is my style.

I’d rather scout and portage than get wet, and if that involves a vehicle shuttle, so be it…

what are you planning to do …

– Last Updated: Jun-06-10 2:15 AM EST –

....... about those dams ?? They are there between Four Locks to below Williamsport (above Sheperdstown) ... you'll need to get around them to keep going , that's all . I think the first one below Four Locks is like 20+ feet high (restricted area to approach) . These are elect. dams I believe .

I like your whole idea , sounds like fun and something to do ... you just got some things in your way that are going to require some portages/shuttles .

Maybe it's called the Needles , I don't know ... just been out there hanging around maybe 30 times , more ??

ed: ... maybe not a surprise but , you know it's like a mill pond coming down from Sheperdstown "until" you come to the broken Lock (# ??) upstream of Harpers . That's where it goes all rocky and shortly after turns into multiple long skinny islands and channels . From that point on you will probably choose to stay river left (the canal and tow path side) because it is the straight through passage . The main river water along that canal/tow path side has some serious currents playing in there , it gets "very deep" in there , and that current seems to be twice as fast and very confused just about 5'-10' below the surface (I would tell you it is very dangerous stuff there although it may look much much less so to the eye because it's basically non-WW in that deep part) ... so just keep that in mind .