As the humidity and heat of the summer fade, cool breezes usher in chilly nights and dew-soaked mornings. With a fantastic, firecracker explosion of color, fall is here! Just look at the red, gold, green, yellow, brown and orange colors of the trees. It’s difficult to fully capture the colorful magic of the season without a trip to Great Falls National Park.

Located on the Potomac River in Fairfax County, Great Falls Park is best known for overlooking a canyon of seething, bubbling waterfalls, particularly impressive after a rainfall. The park includes a pleasant, grassy picnic area perfect for tossing a Frisbee around, eating, and lounging about. A visitor’s center contains a colorful and informative museum about the history of the land including the Native American tribes and early English settlers that used to call the area home.

Hiking trails span the length of the park, allowing you to choose your own adventure by skirting the length of the Potomac on the River Trail or by losing yourself among the many tall trees that crowd the Ridge Trail. The longest trails are 3 miles long. The park encourages mountain biking and horseback riding. Particularly adventurous sorts can go rock climbing (with equipment) and kayaking, but caveat emptor! People die in the river’s rapids every year, and only experienced kayakers should take this risk.

By far, my favorite part about visiting this park is walking along the Old Carriage Road and Ridge Trail, soaking up the crisp fall air and experiencing the shocks of orange, red, and yellow leaves. Both of these trails span the ridges and hills above the river. They are fairly deserted, providing you with an opportunity to lose yourself in the peace and solitude of the woods.

Great Falls National Park is open year round from 7am until dark. I recommend packing a lunch, although unsavory snack bar food is available at the visitor’s center. For more information, give the visitor’s center a call at 703-285-2965.

Getting There and Away:

The only way to reach the park is with your own vehicle: from GMU’s campus, between 30 and 40 minutes. The entrance fee is 5 dollars per vehicle. The receipt, valid for three days, also includes admission to the Maryland side of Great Falls, known for its steep and exciting Billy Goat’s Trail.

If you are feeling particularly bold and adventurous, you can park outside of Great Falls and hike into the park, exempting yourself from the park entrance fee. Don’t worry, this is completely legal. Although it will take you about an hour and a half to hike to the visitor’s center, you will have plenty of company and lots of exercise.

As you approach the intersection of Old Dominion and Georgetown Pike while driving on Old Dominion, continue straight to enter the park, or take a right turn onto Georgetown Pike. Several hundred meters along this windy, twisty road, make a right hand turn into an unmarked, gravel parking lot. Here’s where you will park to hike into the park for free. After parking, begin your hike along Difficult Run Trail (right side of the parking lot as you face Georgetown Pike) into Great Falls.