Great Falls Park River Safety

A person being rescued by the U.S. Park Police helicopter
U.S. Park Police helicopter rescue

NPS Photo

Still Waters Run Deep

On average the Potomac River is 27 feet deep, and has strong undercurrents below the surface. The average flow rate is 10,000 cubic feet per second on this 383 mile long river. Mather Gorge in Great Falls Park is one of the most dangerous sections on the Potomac. This area is NOT a swimming hole. Many people have died swimming in the Potomac River Gorge, as-well-as slipping and falling in the river along the rocky shorelines in Great Falls Park. Fifty-one percent of all river related injuries in the Potomac River Gorge are fatal. Seventy-two percent of river related incidents are from swimmers, and people wading or slipping off rocks into the river. It is uncommon to have boating accidents in the gorge (not kayaking/canoeing).

The appearance of the Potomac river can be very deceptive, and that is why it has been so deadly. In many places, the river looks calm on the surface, but invisible underwater currents (and whirlpools), move downward and can pull a person or pet down to the bottom and hold them there; up to 15 - 30 feet below. For this reason, swimming and wading are ILLEGAL. These offenses are subject to a $200 fine, and appearance in federal court or even formal arrest. It is most important stay out of the river and stay alive.

Some recreational visitors enjoy whitewater boating (kayaking or canoeing) on the Potomac River . Kayaking is a specialized sport; it is common to see kayakers running the falls and surfing the rapids of Mather Gorge downstream. Life Jackets are mandatory for all boaters. Helmets are also required for kayaking. This one and a half mile section of river in Great Falls Park requires at least intermediate skill, and self-rescue training before entering these class 3-5 rapids.

Paddlers must use proper equipment to navigate the river and be able to self-rescue during any potential emergency. It is HIGHLY recommended that first time boaters to this area follow these guidelines:

  • Be at a least intermediate level; this requires prior whitewater training and experienced self-rescue.
  • Consult local paddlers about this unique river environment. The greater Washington area has plenty options to seek instruction from river guides and outfitters.
  • Track the daily conditions (height gauge and flow rate) of the Potomac River. Know before you go!

US Geological Survey, American Whitewater, and others also provide current information on river conditions and river recommendations available on the Internet that all boaters should be aware of.

In all water activities, never go alone! Paddling with others adds a significant safety advantage to you. It's always smarter to use the buddy system.


Multimedia River Safety Resources

News Report: Hear from volunteers, fire and rescue personnel, park rangers, and survivors, who spoke at the press conference on May 22nd, about river safety.

Movie: How long can you hold your breath? Park rangers and river rescue personnel talk about what happens in the Potomac when people take risks. Also available in Spanish and Vietnamese.

From the Washington Post: an interactive article on river currents and why people drown in the Potomac at Great Falls. There is also a feature article on the factors that cause drowning's, and an interview with a survivor.

Learn more about kayaking on the Potomac.

Last updated: December 25, 2019

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Great Falls Park
c/o Turkey Run Park
George Washington Memorial Parkway

McLean, VA 22101


(703) 757-3101
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