Thursday, January 28, 2016

Mather Gorge

Mather Gorge from near Cow Hoof Rock
2.6 miles loop, 150 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, $10 entrance fee for Great Falls Park

The manicured parklands and wide biking paths along the calm Potomac near the Kennedy Center and the Tidal Basin in Washington DC give little hint of the violent, churning waters the river experiences just a handful of miles upstream. Between the Piedmont and the Tidewater, along the fall line of the Atlantic seaboard, the Potomac River drops 76 feet in a mile, forming one of the most impressive sets of river rapids on the continent. Just downstream of the Great Falls, the Potomac carves out a scene of nearly equal drama to the falls: vertical rock walls confine the river to a narrow, charging course through Mather Gorge. Equivalently astonishing is the ease in which most visitors can access these sights: a short hike with minimal elevation gain allows hikers to see the Virginia side of the falls and walk the length of the rocky canyon. This hike follows sections of the River Trail and Matildaville Trail to make a brief but enjoyable loop that is a perfect afternoon outing from DC.

The Maryland side of Great Falls is probably better known and more often visited: it's hard to beat the direct view of the river's main channel from Olmsted Island or to one up the the Billy Goat Trail's rock scramble along Mather Gorge. The Virginia side offers an equally enjoyable hike along the Mather Gorge, albeit without the rock scramble that contributes to the excitement of the Billy Goat Trail.

I hiked this trail on a warm New Year's Eve with two of my very good friends from the University of Virginia. We met up in Northern Virginia near Merrifield and followed the Beltway to the exit for Georgetown Pike and Great Falls, which is just south of where I-495 crosses the Potomac on the American Legion Bridge. If you are coming to Great Falls Park from DC itself, you can get to Georgetown Pike by following the George Washington Parkway west to its terminus and follow signs for Georgetown Pike. Once off the Beltway, we followed Georgetown Pike west for four hilly and windy miles to Old Dominion Drive. We turned right onto Old Dominion Drive and followed the road to its terminus at Great Falls Park. The park is operated by the National Park Service, although it is not technically a national park; it falls under the administration of the agency's National Capital Parks.

We headed south from the large parking area past the visitor center to the wide trail that paralleled the river. Soon after passing the visitor center, we came to the first overlook of three overlooks of the Great Falls. We checked out all three, spending time at each to admire the roaring rapids of the Potomac at high water. During low water, two distinct levels of falls are visible in the center of the river; however, during our visit, after a week of heavy rains, the waters of the Potomac were full enough that the drops were barely noticeable as the river churned its way downstream. In many spots, the high water led to spectacular spray on the roaring Potomac.

The Great Falls of the Potomac
While at the third overlook of the falls, we watched two rescue boats work their way upstream towards the falls in what must have been a training exercise. One raft, belonging to the Cabin John River Rescue, advanced too close to the falls. The current overpowered the craft's engines, causing the raft to rotate and then capsize. One of the two men aboard was carried swiftly downstream by the river; luckily, he made his way out of the main current and into some calmer waters near the Virginia shore, where the crew of the other raft came and picked him up.

Boat capsizing at Great Falls
The man's rescue was a suspenseful moment. We wondered briefly whether the whole event was merely part of a training session but found that idea implausible: the raft capsizing did not seem at all as if it had been planned.

We left the Third Overlook and began to follow the River Trail, which split off to the left from the wide, gravel Patowmack Canal Trail that we had followed earlier. The River Trail offered few views of the river early on as it wound through the rocky terrain and forest a few yards back from the rim of Mather Gorge. At a few spots, the uneven terrain on the trail might require a brief bit of rock scrambling for some, but it is something that most hikers would be able to handle with no problem.

A few hundred yards along the River Trail, we came to the first good view of the river and the gorge. Here, a plaque proclaimed the name of the canyon and noted that it was named after the first director of the National Park Service. Mather and his deputy director, Horace Albright, were key in forming the current familiar definition of national parks as places meant for conservation, recreation, historic preservation, and science.

The entrance of Mather Gorge
While admiring the gorge and its gray cliffs of metamorphic rock, we saw a kayaker battling against the current on the Potomac. The kayaker took turns with a man on a stand-up paddleboard in heading to the middle of the river channel and paddling furiously and quixotically against the swift-moving waters.

Kayaker battling the Potomac
We continued on the River Trail, soon passing a four-way intersection with trails leading down to the river itself and back towards the visitor center. We stayed straight to cross a wooden bridge across a small stream gully. The next stretch of the trail was quite scenic, with frequent viewpoints of the gorge. A few hundred yards later, the trail turned sharply to the right and crossed the channel of the Patowmack Canal to join the canal path. We turned left and followed the canal south. It was soon clear why the trail had turned inland: the gorge rim was sliced by the canal cut where the canal descended to reach the Potomac. The canal is now long out of use: in many places, the channel of the canal is barely recognizable. It was once a project of great importance to George Washington, who hoped the canal would allow for trade by river to the upper reaches of the Potomac.

The canal path turned back into the River Trail, bringing us back to cliffs alongside the Mather Gorge after passing the canal cut. This was the most thrilling stretch of the hike: for the next quarter mile, the trail followed the rim of the gorge, offering continuous views of the river and of the rocky cliffs. The gorge walls were at their steepest here, with a nearly vertical drop from the edge of the trail to the now-more-placid Potomac.

Mather Gorge
At the end of the canyon rim segment of trail, the River Trail intersected with a paved road. The road headed downhill to the left towards Sandy Landing, a boat launch point on the Potomac; we skipped the river access and instead continued forward on the River Trail. The remaining portion of the River Trail stayed fairly far back from the river itself until we neared Cow Hoof Rock, which was perhaps another quarter of a mile beyond the road intersection. A spur trail led off to the left from the main trail towards a rocky outcrop, passing by what appeared to be an old fireplace. The view at the rock itself was quite impressive: here, the Potomac made a wide bend, exiting the straight, narrow channel that it had cut in Mather Gorge into the wider, less confined, but equally rocky downstream terrain. We sat on the rock and enjoyed the sunlight dancing across the metamorphed sandstone of the grey canyon walls as the clouds moved in and out. We ate food we had picked up earlier from H-mart and reminisced about the beautiful years we had spent in Charlottesville.

Mouth of Mather Gorge at Cow Hoof Rock
The real Cow Hoof Rock was a little further down the trail, a little bit farther uphill. We turned around at this point though, heading back along the River Trail to its junction with the road to Sandy Landing. At that intersection, we took the road heading to the left, away from the river. This soon became the Matildaville Trail, which we followed through a round, grassy field in what used to be a quarry. After passing the quarry, we took a right to stay on the Matildaville Trail near that trail's intersection with the Old Carriage Road. The Matildaville Trail followed a ridge parallel to the river, offering obscured views through the trees of Mather Gorge in the distance. Later on, the trail paralleled the Patowmack Canal, which we could also see through the trees to our right. After passing a connector trail leading to the Patowmack Canal Trail, the Matildaville Trail came upon its namesake set of ruins.

Today, Matildaville is just a set of stone foundations; in the early eighteenth century, it was a town next to the canal that relied on trade and operation of the Patowmack Canal. Just as George Washington championed the Patowmack Canal, another towering figure in Virginia history, Lighthorse Harry Lee, was instrumental in the establishment of the town, which was named after Lee's wife, Matilda. The town eventually lost relevance after the Patowmack Canal's usefulness wore out and was burnt to the ground by the mid-19th century.

After passing all of the stone foundations that remained at Matildaville, we came to the Old Carriage Trail, which we merged onto and followed to the right back to the visitor center and the trailhead, ending an easy and thoroughly enjoyable half-day hike.

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