There is just something about waterfalls. It’s a destination we can all look forward to as we tackle a challenging hike. It’s that running water you tell your kids you are in search of when they start to whine… again (I know a waterfall will always keeps my boys moving).
Waterfalls near DC don’t disappoint. Whether you are looking for a quick hike or a long DC day trip out to the mountains, you will find something for your fitness level and interest. And no, these aren’t tiny waterfalls. We’ve got waterfalls that reach almost 100 feet around Washington, D.C.
PARK CLOSURES: Please check the park and state websites carefully for any park closures in 2020. Do not head out unless you know you can access each waterfall near Washington, D.C.
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Waterfalls in Washington DC
Sadly, there are no naturally formed waterfalls in Washington, D.C., but there are plenty of man-made waterfalls you can still enjoy. Some D.C. waterfalls are artist installations, while others are features built into the design of a building. You will always find water on the National Mall, but only one true waterfall in this National Park.
If you love gardens, Cascading Waterfall, designed by artist John Joseph Earley, is an Italian villa-inspired step waterfall located in Meridian Park. Drive down 16th Street or up 15th Street to take advantage of this park, especially in spring through autumn when the trees are in bloom and flowers are popping out.
Water Wall at the National World War II Memorial
The National World War II Memorial is pleasant to walk past on a hot afternoon. Enjoy the spouting fountains and water wall, but please don’t swim in the pools surrounding it. You will see people do this in the summer months, but it is not allowed by the National Park Service. Plus, the water can be a bit questionable.
National Portrait Gallery Courtyard
If you have kids, by far the best waterfalls in Washington, D.C. can be found in the National Portrait Gallery Kogod Courtyard. Design by Seattle-based landscape designer Kathryn Gustafson, these four water “scrims” built into the black granite flooring are definitely a highlight of the building’s architecture.
While many might not consider this floor feature a waterfall, the slight tilt of the flooring does make small sheets of 1/4 inch water cascade down the four large sections of this naturally lit space. My kids love running up and down the floor waterfalls, kicking as they go. Steer clear of this third of the flooring if you don’t want to get a tiny splash; even adults like to play in this fun water feature.
On hot summer days you will find plenty of families and pups spread out across the lawns in Yards Park along the Anacostia River. Right near Nationals Park and the Washington Navy Yard, the Yards Park wading pool has a huge waterfall sheet that comes down for you and your kids to play in. You can also walk behind the waterfall for a bit of shade and cool spray if you aren’t up for a water pounding.
There is plenty of food around Yards Park to pick up some lunch, or you can pack your own picnic. Dogs are allowed at Yards Park, but please don’t let them play in the wading pool water.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
There are several water features and waterfalls incorporated into the FDR Memorial, located on the Tidal Basin. Each symbolize a different part of FDR’s four terms as president, including the Great Depression (a single large drop of water) and WWII (chaotic cascading waterfalls). Take extra time to walk the four sections, or outdoor rooms, of this memorial. It tells a powerful story of American history and resilience.
Waterfalls near DC
If you want to get a natural waterfall near D.C., you will have to hop in the car and drive out of the city. Some are a quick drive and a hike, while others are worth the DC day trip out to the Shenandoah Mountains or parks up near Baltimore.
Pack up a few water bottles and snacks; these waterfalls are worth the trek.
Great Falls National Park
- Virginia Location: 9200 Old Dominion Dr, McLean, VA 22102
- Maryland Location: 11710 Macarthur Blvd, Potomac, MD 20854
The Potomac River runs down the Maryland/Virginia border, giving you two access points to Great Falls park. Maryland is home to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park, while Virginia claims Great Falls National Park.
We are a bit biased and love the Maryland side. The Billy Goat trail is perfect for our rock climbing boys who will never take the easy path. They need some hurtles to climb over. The short hike out the Great Falls is stunning, with multiple access points along the toe path. From the Maryland side of Great Falls, you can also see C&O Lock 19, part of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, and the Great Falls Tavern Visitors Center.
The Virginia side shouldn’t be dismissed though. Hike along the 1.5 mile River Trail gives you beautiful, if not a little scary, views into Mather Gorge.
No matter which side you enter, check the weather and the National Park website for any flood zones. There are multiple waterfalls cascading through Great Falls National Park, as well as lower level zones you can enter to see the falls. The water is powerful and will sweep you away if you aren’t careful.
Scott’s Run Falls
- Location: 7400 VA-193, McLean, VA 22102
Access Scott’s Run Falls from Scott’s Run Nature Preserve. Wander the Potomac Heritage Trail, or take the scenic Scott’s Run Hiking Trail for views of Stubblefields Falls. If you want a short cut (short being not by much), walk down the River Trail to get up close to Scott’s Run Falls. Skip some rocks and let the kids play, but keep an eye on those water levels. Little ones should be kept close.
- Location: McLean, VA 22102
Stubblefield Falls, in the Scott’s Run Nature Preserve, is just barely claimed by Maryland, and accessible just across I-495 in McLean, VA. Hike down the River Trail, which splits just after the Scott’s Run Nature Preserve parking lot. Both parts of the trail will bring you to the waterfall down by the Potomac River, but the one to your left will get you there just a tad faster.
- Location: Washington, DC 20016 (near the Chain Bridge)
Little Falls is a waterfall in Washington, D.C, but again, just barely. It hugs the Virginia line and is accessible from the Chesapeake and Ohio Towpath. Keep in mind that Little Falls is more of a series of rapids than a clearly defined cascading waterfall. Depending on water levels, you might not see much.
Do not venture into the water, as the rapids can sweep you away. You can walk up to the Potomac River Belvedere Viewpoint for a great view of the Potomac and Little Falls though.
Waterfalls in Maryland
Burnt Mills East Special Park
- Location: 10701 Columbia Pike, Silver Spring, MD 20901
Just over the northern DC line into Maryland, you will come upon Burnt Mills East Special Park. Those who don’t know it, will zoom right past, assuming the parking lot on Route 29 is a county building or part of a water project. While both are true, this is a public park and has some easy hiking to enjoy.
The park runs from Randolph Road in Wheaton South across Route 29 (merges with Burnt Mills West- 2.7 acres of land along Route 29/Columbia Pike) to the Prince Georges County line. Most people don’t see these as two different parks, but there are two different waterfalls to check out. Burnt Mills West has a manmade waterfall, part of the Burnt Mills Reservoir, you can see from the road. Burnt Mills East, just across the street has natural waterfalls that you can walk around, and even cross the river at certain points.
Hike the Northwest Branch Trail along the Northwest Branch Anacostia River (located on both sides of Route 29). You can also hike the Rachael Carson Greenway Trail found on the west side of Route 29. Both give you water and waterfall access.
Gunpowder Falls at Gunpowder Falls State Park
- Location: 7200 Graces Quarters Rd, Middle River, MD 21220
Gunpowder Falls, located north of Baltimore, is actually several waterfalls within Gunpowder Falls State Park. Big Gunpowder Falls and Little Gunpowder Falls are the most notable, although even those can be big rapids sometimes. Families can easily hike Little Gunpowder Falls, with nice views along the water. The 1.8 mile Little Gunpowder Trail brings you on a nice, mostly flat route that even little ones can tackle.
Big Gun Powers Falls is accessible via the 9.2 mile Big Gunpowder Falls Trail. This hike can be a bit more challenging, but brings you through beautiful trees along the river. Two trails make up the Gunpowder Falls North and South Loop Trail, which is 11.5 mile long, with one loop being shorter than the other.
Gunpowers Falls State Park does get quite a bit of traffic on the weekends, with not as much parking, so plan accordingly before you head out.
Cunningham Falls State Park
- Location: 14039 Catoctin Hollow Rd, Thurmont, MD 21788
If you are looking for the highest cascading waterfall near Washington, D.C., you head to Cunningham Falls State Park in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland. Cunningham Falls, just north of Frederick, MD, is an easy day trip if you are looking for an easy waterfall hike near DC.
Head to the William Houck Area, located three miles west of Thurmont on Route 77, for the best access to the falls. You can tackle the hiking trail or stroll the walking path to see Cunningham Falls. Step off the path to cool off in William Houck Lake, a hot spot in the summer months.
Spring and summer are lovely, but we prefer Cunningham Falls in the autumn months, surrounded by all of those gorgeous fall colors. No matter when you go though, weekdays will always be less crowded than weekends.
Paw Paw Falls: Paw Paw Tunnel
- Location: Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath, Oldtown, MD 21555
Paw Paw Falls is definitely a trek outside of Washington, D.C., but if you are up for about two hours of driving, you could easily see this waterfall during a day trip from D.C. Head west into Maryland to Green Ridge State Forest. Paw Paw Falls is found on the Maryland/West Virginia border off WV Route 9W.
As part of the Paw Paw Tunnel along the C&O Canal, the 2-mile long Tunnel Hill Trail will give you views of Paw Paw Bend. To access the Paw Paw waterfall, you will need to walk through the canal tow path, coming out the other side to see the waterfall cascade down right next to the canal opening. The tunnel is dark, so bring a flashlight.
Step carefully with children and watch water levels for flooding. If the water level looks high, do not go into the tunnel. The semi-loop trail is 4.9 mile long.
- Location: Elkridge, MD 21075
Cascade Falls is an easy morning or afternoon trip from Washington, D.C., located on the west side of I-95, opposite BWI Airport. Head into Patapsco Valley State Park near Elkridge, Maryland. Cascade Falls isn’t far from the parking lot on River Road if you aren’t up for a longer hike. For those trying to challenge themselves with a reward at the end, park in the lot of Landing Road to hike into the falls.
The 3-mile Cascade Falls Loop Trail is beautiful, great for dogs and not too hard for older children. Past hikers have said going clockwise around the loop can be a bit confusing when trying to follow the trail markers. Go counter clockwise to make your life easier.
- Location: Rocks State Park, 1026 Falling Branch Road, Pylesville, MD 21132.
- Reservations: Reservations are required on weekends and holidays between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day.
Kilgore Falls is the second highest vertical waterfall in Maryland, coming in at 17 feet high. To access Kilgore Falls, you will need to go to the satellite park 28-car parking lot on Falling Branch Road, just 5 miles from the park’s main entrance. Spots are limited and park rangers will not let you wait around for a spot.
The ½ mile trail leads up to Kilgore Falls from the parking lot, making it a very easy hike for families. The trail is not wheelchair accessible however, so leave the strollers and large coolers at home.
Kilgore Falls does have a beautiful little pool below it to wade through and throw rocks. Bring a towel or leave a change of clothes in the car in case you get wet. There is no lifeguard on duty, so keep a close eye on children. Please do NOT jump from the top of Kilgore Falls into the pool below. You will be injured.
If you can’t get a reservation, have no fear. Rocks State Park features 855 acres to explore, including the King and Queen Seat, and Deer Creek which is great for fishing, tubing and wading. There are also 3.5 miles of marked hiking trails you can tackle as well.
Shenandoah National Park Waterfalls
Shenandoah National Park has about 12 waterfalls, and numerous rapids and cascading waters. However, Shenandoah is huge. Not all of the waterfalls are an easy day trip from Washington, D.C. or even a weekend trip from D.C. We’ve found three that are worth the drive and that you can do in a long day, but a weekend would be much better.
White Oak Canyon
- Location: Robertson, VA
The drive out to Shenandoah National Park is worth a day trip or even an overnight, especially if you want to see all of the waterfalls in White Oak Canyon. Just over three hours from Washington, D.C., you won’t want to rush this hike. There are six waterfalls, ranging from 35 to 86 feet.
Depending on the challenge you are looking for you, you can see waterfalls in a multitude of ways, difficulty levels and distances. White Oak Canyon Trail runs from mile 42.6 of Skyline Drive to the park boundary off Rt. 60. That’s a LOT of area you can cover.
Here are three popular trails to take that let you see the best, and even all of the White Oak Canyon waterfalls.
- Lower Falls from the Boundary(off Rt. 600): easy 2 miles with a 60-foot waterfall
- Upper Falls from Skyline Drive: moderate 4.6 miles with a 86-foot waterfall
- Whiteoak – Cedar Run Circuit: strenuous 7.3 miles with 8 waterfalls
Upper White Oak Falls is the farthest and does have a few swimming holes. However, the biggest swimming holes are near the White Oak parking lot and Lower Falls. The closer you are to the parking lot, the more crowds you will find swimming and hiking to the waterfalls.
Upper White Oak Falls is a bit less crowded because of the distance and terrain involved in getting there. The trail from Skyline Drive to the first and tallest waterfall, is your best bet if you have kids.
Overall Run Falls
- Location: Overall Run Falls, 1, West Luray, VA 22610
If you love bridal veil style waterfalls, Overall Run Falls is for you. About two hours outside of Washington, DC, in Shenandoah National Park, you will want to make the trip out to see the 93-foot Overall Run Falls, the highest waterfall drop in park.
Overall Run Falls can dry out in summer if there isn’t much rain, so see if any other hikers have posted about the conditions recently before you head out on this 5.1 mile round trip hike.
Start at the Mathews Arm Campground parking area at mile 22.2 of Skyline Drive. To find the trail to the falls, take “Mathews Arm Trail following it to the intersection with Tuscarora-Overall Run Trail. Go left and follow in about a tenth of a mile to a side trail. From here you can see the upper falls. Continue downhill on the main trail,” according to the National Park Service, who can explain the directions way better than I ever could.
Dark Hollow Falls
- Location: Rose River Ln, Syria, VA 22743
One of the easiest waterfalls to access, Dark Hollow Falls in Shenandoah National Park is multi-tiered falls that are worth the 3-hour drive from D.C. You could easily combine this waterfall hike with White Oak Canyon if you wanted to create a weekend hiking trip.
Dark Hollow Falls is one of the most popular trails, as a short, steep 1.4-mile roundtrip hike will get you to the waterfall and back. It’s popular with families, and crowded on weekends. If you need a little more exercise, hike the Rose River Loop along the river with waterfalls and cascades along the 4.1 mile path.
South River Falls
- Location: Stanardsville, VA 22973
South River Falls in Shenandoah National Park is a two-tiered, 83-foot waterfall. The moderate 4.6 mile South River Falls Trail is the best way to see South River Falls, but there are three moderate hikes you can try if you want waterfalls and great views of the Shenandoah mountains. You can access the trailhead at Skyline Drive mile marker 63 via the South River Picnic Area.
- South River Falls Observation Point Hike: 2.6 miles
- South River Falls Hike: 3.3 mile circuit
- Hightop Summit Hike: 3 miles round trip