Even in January, with temperatures hovering inhospitably near freezing and thick ice formations covering jagged rocks, the parking lot at Great Falls Park is dotted with cars.
The popular National Park draws more than 500,000 visitors each year to hike, rock-climb, kayak and take in the spectacular views of the Potomac and its whitewater falls.
While the 800-acre park is relatively quiet in winter, the summer peak brings swarms of visitors who officials say can cause mile-long traffic backups on Old Dominion Drive, cut their own walking trails through sensitive vegetation, and bike on paths meant only for feet.
Park managers want to discuss those issues with the public as they begin mapping the park's future, and they will start the dialogue with an open house Jan. 28. Officials say it will take more than a year to craft a plan to better protect the park's resources, serve visitors and address neighbors' concerns. Nearly $500,000, collected from entrance fees, will go toward whatever improvements and changes are prioritized.
"We're going to present some of the issues we see in managing the park and invite others to give us their ideas about how we can better serve them," said Dottie P. Marshall, deputy superintendent of George Washington Memorial Parkway. "It's an exciting project, but we can't proceed until we have a plan."
Other improvements, including an engineering study for rehabilitation of the park's only boat ramp at Sandy Landing, are already underway, and installation of a new boardwalk and improvement of one of the river overlooks to include handicapped access are planned.
Great Falls Park was established by Congress in 1930 as a site within the George Washington National Parkway intended to preserve the scenery of the Potomac River Gorge, the river's Great Falls and the historic Patowmack Canal -- one of the first canals built in the United States.
Park officials said they are particularly interested in public feedback on the issue of weekend traffic backups that limit access to the park, block neighborhood roads and make it difficult for emergency vehicles to enter the park.
Officials say water safety is also an issue. Swift currents can be deadly for kayakers. Drownings are not uncommon on the river during the summer.
"Educating visitors about being prepared is always a challenge for us," Marshall said.
Officials are also seeking comment on the increased demand for rock climbing and the resulting conflict with efforts to protect the sensitive ecosystem along the edge of the Gorge.
And on the practical side, officials said, the park has inadequate restroom facilities and food service.
Park manager Walter E. McDowney said there are several possible solutions to the traffic problem. One suggestion is to install a "fast-pass" system that would allow visitors to bypass the pay booth and enter the park more quickly. But much of the backup on Old Dominion Drive comes from visitors lining up to get into the inadequate parking lots.
"We have to ask ourselves, 'Are we making the best use of the park?' " McDowney said. "Do we have all the land we need? Maybe some rich person in the area wants to donate some."
"The park was never planned. It just evolved," Marshall said. "We're trying to bring some order to that that."
The meeting will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Great Falls Grange and Old Schoolhouse, 9818 Georgetown Pike in Great Falls.