WASHINGTON -- Of the Potomac River's cataracts, Great Falls usually gets top billing as a local natural wonder. And deservedly so.
But Little Falls, at a point just upstream from where the tidal Potomac ends near Chain Bridge, shouldn't be overlooked. Although the rocky environment near the falls, crisscrossed by pools of water and tiny rivulets, is inside the boundaries of the District of Columbia, this part of the Potomac Gorge feels like it's hundreds of miles away from the nation's capital.
March is a perfect time of year to go exploring here. Why? The area's vegetation hasn't quite awakened from its winter latency, so it's easier to traverse the wild environment. You're also better able to see what the forces of the Potomac River can do. During high-water events, fragments of tree trunks, branches and other vegetation is deposited on the rocky floodplain near the falls and Chain Bridge. Some of the vegetation that has taken root between the rocks is bent over in the downstream direction.
In other areas farther from the Potomac's main river channel, there are quiet pools of water that sit in a verdant setting, a demonstration of how the Potomac Gorge is one of the most biologically diverse areas on the East Coast.
The river, naturally, is the central player in this unique spot. Looking up at Chain Bridge, it's hard to fathom that floodwaters were so high that they washed the bridge off its towering piers in 1936. It's only then you realize just how intense the Potomac's hydrological forces can be.
To reach Little Falls, take the pedestrian ramp down from Chain Bridge's Canal Road end to the C&O Canal towpath. Follow the trail from the towpath heading toward the Potomac River. Be careful where you step as the ground is very uneven. And use common sense: If the water is high, steer clear and observe from a safe distance.