Great Falls Race

The festival’s most dramatic and dazzling event is the Great Falls Race. This downriver race is a quick, adrenaline-packed descent of 60 vertical feet through the Potomac’s spectacular Class V+ Great Falls. Watch top kayakers from around the nation dash down the falls and compete for the Great Falls Race trophy.

Background: The Great Falls Race was one of the original extreme whitewater competitions, and nearly 30 years later, it will still be one of the most challenging. The premiere event of the Potomac Festival is a sub-60 second sprint down through the powerful cataracts dropping nearly 60 vertical feet. Only experts may compete, but the entire paddling community is welcome to watch and volunteer.

Race Types:

CLASSIC – Downriver race. The Great Falls Race demands a paddler to be steady yet dynamic and can reward or punish a racer for choosing an aggressive line. A section of the Falls will be chosen for the race based on our Water Levels Chart and common consensus. Competitors will be allowed 1 race run in their fast boat of choice, and the top 10 times will qualify for the Finals. The fastest Finals run wins the Cup!

SLALOM – The local kayaking community has long blended slalom moves in Class V whitewater. So, based on our 2015 success, the Potomac Festival will once again have a judged slalom event in addition to the classic downriver race. The slalom course will be 2-5 gates, buoys, mandatory channels, and rock touches. Race staff will set the course during the week of the event, dictated by water levels to showcase the best moves on the river and reward the most adaptable technical paddlers in 8-9 foot creek boats.


  • Classic – Women’s Kayak (K1) (all boat lengths)
  • Classic – Men’s Kayak (K1) (all boat lengths)
  • Classic – Canoe (C1) (Women & Men, all boat lengths)
  • Handpaddle (Women & Men, all boat lengths)
  • Duo (Women & Men, all boat lengths)
  • Slalom – Women (K1/C1, all boat lengths)
  • Slalom – Men (K1/C1, all boat lengths)

Race Registration: All participants in the GFR are required to pre-register. Registration will be conducted on-line, outside of the National Parks, and prior to race day. There will be no race-day registration, and no fees collected within the National Parks.

Racer Meeting & Safety Briefing: On the morning of race, the GFR staff will hold a safety staff meeting and racer meeting near the Great Falls Tavern on the Maryland side. At the volunteer meeting, the staff will go over the race course, the start and finish lines, the positioning of safety boats and throw ropes, how to stop the race in case of a problem, and how to contact help in case of emergency. In the racer meeting, the start and finish lines, the rules of the race, any up-to-date safety considerations will be covered.

Racer Skills Assessments: The GFR staff are responsible for determining whether appropriate skill level is present for each racer. As specified on the website, all racers must be able to attest to their experience paddling Class V whitewater, provide a detailed paddling history, and be familiar with the lines on Great Falls. Racers will be screened by the race staff on their capability to adequately paddle and race Great Falls. Each participant’s involvement in the race is subject to the race director’s approval. If there is any doubt about a racer competing in a safe manner, that racer will not be allowed to enter.

The exact course depends on the water level, but will take place on one of the following:

Maryland Lines < 2.8 Feet

Low water levels allow us to race on the always powerful Maryland side of the main channel underneath the Maryland overlook on Olmsted Island.
The Classic course starts on river left shore at the large rock 10 meters above the first waterfall. Racers will navigate ‘Pummel’ and then choose a line on the left through Pencil Sharpener or Z-turn. Racers will then navigate Horseshoe, likely on the right, and finish in an eddy river right at a location explained at the competitors meeting.

A Slalom event here would likely involve a tricky line through Pencil Sharpener, and the hairy ferry line at Horseshoe.

Virginia Lines: 2.8-3.4 feet

This Classic race course along the Virginia shore goes through two challenging rapids and over ‘The Spout’ an iconic 20 foot waterfall. The start is on the river right (Virginia) shore just upstream of the large square slab rock. Racers can then choose from the multiple lines through U-Hole then navigate the classic S-Turn rapid and The Spout in quick succession. The finish is a line at the exit of the ‘Kettle’ from the rock outcropping from Virginia below The Spout to the the furthest downstream point of the Flake.

A Slalom event here would change depending on the level. It could involve a mandatory line through U-hole, upstream gates in eddies in the second rapid, and a gate deep in the Kettle requiring an untraditional approach

Center Lines: 3.4-3.79 feet

The Classic start for this complex course is on the Virginia shore (river right) just upstream of the large square slab rock. Racers will ferry left above U-Hole, (the Virginia Lines) and the tip of Flake Island and navigate Grace Under Pressure – the furthest river right entrance drop into the middle channel of the Falls. Racers then navigate the maze of ledges leading to The Fingers. The Fingers is five-channel, 20 foot drop, with some of the channels being trickier than others, so choosing a good line is critical. The finish line will be a rock in a eddy river left of The Fingers near Horseshoe on the Maryland side.

Slalom here would involve an up left below Grace, a mandatory series of moves in the ledges and a drop Angel Hair (Pinky Finger), a very narrow waterfall. If that weren’t enough, expect the finish line to be an upstream ferry above a boulder (similar to the 2014 race).

Fishladder: 3.8-4.9 feet

The Fish Ladder course is the braided dual channels adjacent to the C&O Canal towpath on the Maryland shore. The race starts in an eddy 20 meters upstream of the first slide on a small island on river right. Racers must navigate the first two slides, or the sneak in Tight Quarters. Racers then will enter the crux of the run under the footbridge, where they will choose a line: either slides 3 and 4, the Back Canyon, or Bitch Monkey. In the Classic race, competitors are allowed to take whatever line they think is fastest, or safest for their interests. The finish will be below the fifth (last) slide, river left near the confluence with the main channel and Sandy Beach channel at a location explained at the competitors meeting.

A Slalom event here gives us lots of options because there are so many different lines in the Fish Ladder channel, and lots of powerful upstream eddies. Expect multiple gates in the boogie water early on, and in the hallway above the 5th slide.

Bridge Channel: 5.0-6.5 feet

This high water line through Olmsted Island starts with one of the steepest drops on the falls, a three tiered slide into a hole. The finish line will be below the Class IV runout, in an eddy at the confluence with the main channel. The format of the race may be simplified or shortened, depending on specific river conditions.

High water > 6.5 feet

The race may move to Mather Gorge if the level is above preferred Great Falls water levels. Start would be in the area of O-Deck and finish would be near/on Rocky Island.

The race may be cancelled if the level is rising rapidly above the preferred race lines, or conditions degrade the safety or integrity of the event.

Recommendations and Notes for Spectators

Spectating will depend on the race lines. Prime viewing locations differ from course to course.

Follow updates on our Facebook page:

MARYLAND LINES: Viewable from either side of the river.

CENTER LINES: Viewable from either side of the river. We encourage spectators to view the race from one of the overlooks at Great Falls Park, VA. There is only one overlook at the C&O National Historical Park (Great Falls Park, MD).

VIRGINIA LINES: Only viewable from Great Falls Park, VA. It is not possible to see any of the course from the Maryland side.

FISHLADDER: Only viewable from C&O Canal National Historical Park (Great Falls Park, MD).

Great Falls Park, VA: 9200 Old Dominion Dr, McLean, VA 22102

C&O Canal National Historical Park (Great Falls Park, MD): 11710 MacArthur Blvd, Potomac, MD 20854

It is important to the future of this event that that all participants and spectators abide by NPS regulations. EVERYONE, INCLUDING RACERS AND SAFETY, MUST REMAIN OUT OF CLOSED AREAS.

PHOTOGRAPHERS do not have special permission to access closed areas.

NOTE: We will have a US Park Police Officer on site throughout the event. She/he will be there both to monitor our permit compliance, and as a resource to us. If you see any violations of the above rules, or if there are unruly spectators, please don’t hesitate to notify the officer.

Please follow the direction of our volunteer Marshals!

Plan to arrive early—depending on the number of park visitors and spectators, there can be a line that forms at the entrance to the park. In addition, some of the prime viewing areas fill up quickly.

National Park Fee—There is a fee to enter the park. Please plan accordingly.