Looking for a new hike to try in the DMV area? The Billy Goat Trail might be the one for you.
The Billy Goat Trail at Great Falls National Park (the Maryland side) is by far the most challenging hike I’ve encountered in this region. But, it is also incredibly rewarding. For any of you who have heard whispers about the best hiking in the DMV being the Billy Goat Trail at Great Falls – take heed that they mean Great Falls Maryland. Then go. Go right away and see what all the talk is about.
The Billy Goat Trail is on Manahoac and Piscataway land. The trail is broken down into three sections: A, B and C. Section B is closed due to trail damage and erosion. Section C can be accessed from the Carderock entry to the C&O canal – about 12 miles away or a 20-minute drive from Georgetown. Section A, at the Great Falls Maryland entrance, is the portion of the trail I highlight in this article, and it is the most popular section of the trail. It is a quick 30-minute drive from Georgetown at just 16 miles away. And if you were so inclined, you could bike or hike along the C&O canal or the Capital Crescent trail the whole way to Great Falls from Georgetown. Biking will take you roughly 1-hour and hiking would take you roughly 4 hours. For anyone located further away or in Virginia, the best bet is to drive to the Great Falls Tavern Visitors Center and walk along the C&O Canal path until you reach the entrance to Section A of the Billy Goat Trail.
How Long and How Difficult?
The 1.75-mile Section A of the Billy Goat Trail will seem a lot longer than that. Keep in mind you are hiking 1.75 miles out on the Billy Goat and then another 1.75 miles back on the C&O canal towpath, for a total of just under 4 miles. The entire hike out and back will take around three hours. This hike is difficult, and I do not recommend it for young children or those with any mobility issues. While I have seen children on this trail, it always makes my heart beat a bit faster because there are several points along the trail where hikers can get very hurt. If you are up for a little bit of adrenaline-pumping adventure, you want to feel like you are climbing free solo up the face of a mountain (it’s not actually a mountain, but a rock wall near the edge of the Potomac), then this is definitely the hike for you. If you prefer a more chill flat path, take the C&O canal trail that runs parallel to the Billy Goat. It is equally beautiful but not nearly as dangerous or exhausting.
Who Should I Bring?
This trail is best suited to those who are physically fit enough to ascend and descend cliffs and hop between jagged rocks. The National Parks website lists it as “Technical and Strenuous,” and I would agree. Like I mentioned before, I do not recommend bringing your young children or anyone with mobility issues. This trail is dangerous so only people who know fully what they are getting into should attempt this hike. That being said, if you are able to do this hike, I highly recommend it because it is a great workout and so much fun. I always feel empowered by the end of the trail because I know I’ve just overcome a difficult feat. There is also real beauty in the way this trail makes you slow down and take your time to get from beginning to end. Check out this outdated video with an odd selection of Irish music in the background which explains what to expect on the trail: Remain Safe on the Billy Goat Trail.
Some of the best moments of the hike include ascending a cliff face, rock scrambling and boulder hopping. There are also gorgeous views of the Potomac and the Virginia side of Great Falls. On top of that there are waterfalls, canals and locks. To top it off there’s a small sandy beach offering a moment of respite (though swimming is prohibited).
The C&O Canal towpath is accessible, and this is the path you take to get to the Billy Goat Trail. But, the Billy Goat Trail itself is the antithesis of accessible. This is another one of those hikes that I prefer to wear my knee brace while hiking, because of all the rock scrambling.
What is the Best Path to Take?
Start off at the Great Falls Tavern Visitors Center and walk on the C&O Canal towpath in the direction of the canal boat you’ll see when you look to the left. About a quarter mile down the towpath, you will find an accessible trail to the right which leads you to an overlook where you can see the full majesty of the Great Falls. Once you’re done with that detour, head back to the C&O and continue until you see a walking bridge above the trail with a white structure on top. The entrance to the Billy Goat Trail is just before this bridge on the right-hand side.
Follow the blue blazes throughout the length of this trail to ensure you are on the right path. Sometimes you might find yourself confused about where the trail is located so just reorient yourself by finding the blue blazes. After some manageable rock scrambling at the beginning of the trail, the first real challenge you’ll face is a strip of disconnected boulders you must navigate through by either jumping between the tops or scooting slowly on your booty from one to the next. I see many people squatting low and using their hands to steady themselves from boulder to boulder. This section of trail is referred to by park rangers as “pothole alley.” There are some deep crevices between the boulders that can be problematic if you fall into them. This is one section of the trail that often leads to falls or sprained ankles if you aren’t careful. But if you go slow and steady, you’ll do just fine.
After “pothole alley,” you’ll navigate through the blue blazes for a while through a beautiful wooded area beside the majestic Potomac. Then you’ll arrive at the second challenging section of this trail, one which many people find so intimidating that they turn around, what park rangers dub “the traverse.” At this section of the trail, you have to traverse or climb the rock face of a cliff. This is a full-body activity, and it is best to follow behind someone else to see where they place their foot and hand holds if this is your first time attempting this climb. Once you ascend the traverse, if you are totally exhausted, I highly recommend taking the emergency access exit trail to the left shortly after completing the traverse. This will take you straight back to the C&O canal trail and cuts off easily another hour of time.
If you stay on the trail, you will arrive at a sandy area where you can briefly dip your toes or hands in the Potomac. But as you will see there are signs posted everywhere that prohibit swimming in the Potomac. This is a nice spot to stop and have a snack if you’re feeling like you need a boost. Once you’re done at the beachy vista, you’ll do some more rock scrambling but beware that the rocks will be very sandy from the shoes of the hikers who have gone before you. The sand on the rocks makes for slippery conditions. I have fallen at this section of rocks before and thankfully my phone caught the weight of my fall instead of my hip, it was much easier to replace my phone than it would’ve been to recover from that injury. So go slow and steady and careful through this section of rock scrambling and don’t hesitate to slide down on your butt at some of the extra slippery locations.
The rest of the trail moves between easy shaded sections of flat wooded path and full sun sections of rock scrambling with gorgeous vista points of the Potomac. Eventually, the trail wraps back around to the C&O canal towpath. Turn left once you exit the Billy Goat Trail in order to head back toward the Great Falls Tavern Visitors Center. You may be achy the next day depending on your level of fitness, but you’ll know they were aches well earned.
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