Ask the Expert: Is it safe to swim in the Potomac?

What's the deal with swimming in the Potomac River?

Kayak Photo credit © William MacFarland, courtesy of

Kayak Photo credit © William MacFarland, courtesy of


Walking along a riverside trail with sunlight slowly burning your cheeks and sweat dripping down your back, you stop and look longingly at the nearby river. You take a step toward the water that's gently lapping the shore and you hear a crumpling sound under your foot. Glancing down, you see a plastic bag half buried in the sand. It gives you pause.

"Is it safe to swim in the Potomac River?"

It's a common question we hear from concerned folks in the Washington, DC area. The answer is - it is and it isn’t. That sounds strange, but it’s time to clear up a few points and to provide tips to make your summer cool.

Is it legal?

It is illegal to go swimming in the Great Falls area of the Potomac River, an area also known as Mather Gorge. There are enough hazards in this section that even the best kayakers can have trouble navigating the rapids. Nearly every year, there are drowning accidents in this stretch of the river. Check out the Washington Post's interactive map to view the deadly hazards that lurk in these waters.

Great Falls might be a no-brainer, but what about the calm water, nowhere near the falls, where it looks nice and flat? Like in Georgetown for instance? Don’t let the calm-looking water fool you! There are still extremely strong currents under the water that can pull the unaware swimmer down into the river’s depths. For safety reasons, swimming in the Potomac is illegal between Great Falls and the southern Maryland/DC line.

If you're boating and wearing a personal flotation device and you happen to fall in, that is not illegal. But it is advisable that you get back in your boat ASAP.

Bottom line: It is illegal to swim between Great Falls and the Maryland/DC line. There are exceptions for those who operate a boat, canoe, or kayak and happen to fall in wearing a personal floatation device. 

Is it safe?

Is the Potomac still too polluted to swim in? Well, if you saw our latest report card, you’d see that the river’s health has improved from a D to a B in ten years. But the improved grade doesn't mean the river is always safe for swimming.

Assuming you're at a stretch of river where it is legal to swim (always check!), the weather is an important factor to consider before jumping in. If it has rained in the past three days, and the water looks brown or murky, then it is best to avoid touching local waterways. Trees and other large debris can lurk just below the water's surface and pose serious danger to those in the river.

Bacteria is also a serious concern. After strong storms, drainage and sewage pipes in and around Washington, DC can overflow. When this occurs, runoff flows directly into the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. Disgusting, right? These pipes are in the process of getting fixed, but before they are, wait out the overflow aftermath.

If you’re curious about a particular water hole or spot on the Potomac River, feel free to run your own test! Bacteria occur naturally in the water, but there are certain kinds – like E. coli – that are good indicators of sewage pollution.

Bottom line: Due to large debris and runoff pollution, you should NOT wade in local rivers or streams if it has rained in the last three days.

Where can I keep cool this summer? 

There are countless swimming spots across our region – from the sandy beaches at Point Lookout, to backyard streams and creeks. 

One of our favorite spots for cooling off on the river is Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. You can book a tubing trip on the Shenandoah or the Potomac River and decide whether you want a relaxing flat water float or an adventurous white water exploration. It's a short drive from downtown DC and the perfect way to keep cool and relax on a summer's day.

Bottom line: There are lots of local spots where it is both legal and safe to swim. Get Exploring!


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