Only a few miles from Washington, DC, is the gorgeous Great Falls National Park. Here, the Potomac River dives over a series of falls in a spectacular visual and sound display of power and majesty as it squeezes through the Mather Gorge. What a sight.

I had no idea what to expect when Tom said we were going there as part of my birthday celebration. Having been on the West Coast for the past two decades, I envisioned falls similar to Bridal Veil Falls in Yosemite, or some Multnomah Falls along the Columbia River in Oregon: both tall, narrow delights.

But the Great Falls are fairly low and wide, and make a surprising cacophony as the water tumbles over the jutting rocks.

Because it was January 28, all of the trees were stripped of leaves, which allowed us to see much more than we would in the spring and summer. In fact, as we hiked along the trail, we could see the other side of the river in Maryland, and the crowds gathered at the view points over there.

You can view the falls from along the trail, though you can’t get too close to the river because of the old canals alongside the trails, but there are full views from each of the three overlooks along the Virginia side. The canals are part of the Patowmack Canal, built under the guidance of George Washington, who hoped that his canal would bind the country together and dramatically improve commerce on the Potomac River. You could say, they were the life-giving arteries of early commerce along the Potomac.

Visitors can hike along the trails, visit the overlook sites (just steps away from the easily accessible Visitor Center), rock climb, river raft (though you have to portage your boat from above the falls to below the falls, since they are impassable; and the input points are tricky to get to and look dangerous on entry), ride bikes, go fishing, ride horses, and picnic. It’s a great place to take families of all ages.

(Most photos by Aubrey Hanson)