Monday, February 3, 2014

Great Falls: Avoiding the Crowds

Sunday was beautiful, especially for the beginning of February. Since Michael and I were invited to a party for a particular football game that night, we decided to a local hike. After some deliberation, we landed on Great Falls. To be honest, we've avoided the Billy Goat Trail at Great Falls in Maryland like the plague. Michael and I hiked Loop A once, several years ago. We went on a Saturday afternoon in October during fall colors. Talk about a trail that has all of the challenges and problems of Old Rag (complete with a rock scramble), but compounded by the fact that it is ten minutes from the Beltway and half as long of a hike. I think we were out there with most of the rest of the city. The crowds were so overwhelming that we didn't even make it to Olmstead Island, but some recent posts on hiking forums about hiking there made me want to try again.

We picked up a friend and headed out early Sunday morning. To beat the crowds, we hiked Olmstead Island first, then Loop A of the Billy Goat Trail (the most popular), followed by Loops B and C, a total of about 10.5 miles. When we arrived, the fee station hadn't even opened. We saw a handful of people on the boardwalk on Olmstead Island. We probably encountered fewer than a dozen people each on Loops A, B, and C. We returned to the car via the C&O Towpath, which was fairly crowded by mid-afternoon, when we were on our way back. Given the warm weather on Sunday, we managed to avoid the crowds pretty successfully.
Great Falls of the Potomac River from Olmstead Island. The weather on Sunday couldn't have been better. By mid-afternoon, it was almost 60 degrees.
A smaller waterfall on Olmstead Island.
 Ice crystals in a boot track on the Billy Goat Trail Loop A.
A frozen pool along the trail. These little pools are important to amphibians in the area.
The Potomac River from Loop A.
Shells on Purple Horse Beach.
Rocks worn by the strong currents of the Potomac on Purple Horse Beach. I did a search to find out why the beach is so named. Unfortunately, the first page of google hits were for drownings at the beach (the current in the river is deceptively strong, even where it looks placid. The Washington Post did an excellent story last year on why the river is so dangerous around Great Falls).
 Ice and some wicked standing waves on the river.
On Loop B, we saw a lot of evidence of beaver activity. The teeth marks on this tree are pretty impressive.
 They are even more impressive when looking at the whole tree trunk.
 A Great Blue Heron on the C&O Canal.
The canal was frozen over in most places.
On our way back, a Red Shouldered Hawk (Thank you, Katrina! if anyone knows the species, please let me know) swooped low over us and landed in a Sycamore Tree across the canal. In this picture, it is watching a squirrel below it.
By afternoon, the skies were overcast, giving the frozen canal a steel blue color.
An island in the canal.