Waterfalls and Locks: Great Falls at the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal

The Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal at Great Falls

To stave off an ever-increasing case of cabin fever, we headed out to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Park on Monday. I had wanted to go for National Parks Week last week, but the weather conspired against us. But as Monday was sunny and in the high 60s, we were going, come hell or high water.

Or more specific t0 our situation, come a hungry newborn and cranky toddler. We were mostly ready to go – adults showered and dressed, the kid dressed and the newborn fed. But then Sprout wanted to do tummy time with Little Bird (he loves encouraging him). But then Little Bird needed to eat – again. But then Sprout had a meltdown because Chris was packing cantaloupe instead of watermelon and a turkey sandwich instead of peanut butter and jelly, even though he had asked for turkey earlier. But then, but then, but then. We finally left an hour later than I planned. The getting out the door routine with two kids is going to take some getting used to.

Arriving at the C&O, we snagged a close parking spot and headed towards the canal. I was nervous that the packed dirt towpath would be too bumpy for Little Bird in the stroller. Instead, it calmed him. He spent the entire trip asleep, except for a brief interlude for nursing.

On the towpath, Chris was in full explainer mode with Sprout, describing the purpose and function of the canal. He pointed out the locks, describing how they acted like “elevators for boats.” He showed him the ropes on the canal boat that ferry operators tied to donkeys. They looked at turtles sunning themselves on rocks. I watched them and smiled,  surprised that Chris was taking on the role I usually do. Apparently the explanation was good, because Sprout was keen to point out all of the locks on the way back.

Early falls at C&O National Park Great Falls location

Falls on Olmsted Island

Just off the towpath, the trail out to the waterfall is a series of boardwalks on an island with a sensitive ecosystem. The river periodically floods the island, creating a temporary wetland where unique but fragile plants thrive. Along the way, a series of bridges crosses the Potomac River’s tributaries that have their own waterfalls. The whole thing ends at Great Falls, where the mighty Potomac crashes over huge rocks.


The vast amount of water both impressed and scared Sprout. On the first bridge, he raised his arms for us to carry him. When we reached the Great Falls itself, he stared at it and clung to Chris. His arms aching, Chris put him down and gently pointed out, “Look, there’s a big stone wall between you and the falls.” Sprout shifted his grip from Chris to the wall and continued staring.

Despite that, he appreciated its beauty. He was smiling and really looking at it, not away. I think this may have been his first encounter with what the Transcendentalists called the sublime, a divine mix of fear and beauty.

As he continued to watch it, he relaxed a little. He let go of the stone wall and started walking around the observation platform. A large rock formation with a big hole carved out by erosion stuck up through the middle of the platform. The hole was total kid bait. Every kid on that platform spent far more time chilling in the hole than looking at the waterfall.

Heading back, Sprout, Little Bird and I detoured to the picnic tables while Chris retrieved the food. I picked out what seemed to be a lovely spot right by the canal – at least until we started being inundated by wildlife. The gnats were annoying, but usual enough.

But the fuzzy caterpillars were another deal altogether. As a ecologist by education and gardener, I normally like bugs, but I hate having them on me. So I shrieked like I had been bitten by poisonous scorpions when I saw not one, but two, fuzzy caterpillars crawling on my leg. Once I gained sanity, I flicked them off and went back to eating my sandwich. Much to my dismay, the incident repeated itself a couple of minutes later. (At least none of them were on my head, unlike poor Chris.) We later figured out that most of them were coming from a nest under the table, with a few probably falling out of the tree above for good measure. For a kid that was terrified a small spider was going to eat him a few weeks ago, Sprout took this with surprising aplomb, declaring, “Two caterpillars under the table.” Just as long as they aren’t on me.

Mooching goose at C&O National Park

Bad, bad goose.

Then the goose wandered by. Geese are common around us, congregating in the park near our house and the cemetery behind it. But this one was strikingly unafraid of people, coming within a couple feet of the table. Hoping to score some picnic food, it actually squawked at us! Again, Sprout was totally unafraid, yelling at it in his little voice to “Go away, go away!” We usually scold him for being rude when he uses that phrase, so I think he was thrilled he could employ it as much as he wanted.

Despite it taking so long to get out of the house and those close encounters, we were all grateful we went. My lingering sinus headache faded with the sunshine and fresh air. Sprout passed out deep on the way home, deeply asleep enough to actually stay asleep as I carried him inside. It was what we needed to recharge as a family.

4 thoughts on “Waterfalls and Locks: Great Falls at the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal

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