The Billy Goat Trail is one of the most well known hiking trails in Maryland, and for good reason. The trail sits just a few minutes outside the Washington, D.C. Metro area, featuring rock hopping that is fun for all ages and spectacular views of the Potomac River. The Billy Goat Trail is actually separated in three sections labeled A, B and C that all start and finish along the C&O Canal. However, combining these legs will only have visitors out and back again in just over nine miles. Due to its fame and accessibility, on the nicest days, the Billy Goat Trail can be packed with crowds. However, for those that make it before noon, they can miss the majority of nature lovers looking to spend a day outside the bustling city.
|Trail Length:||9.4 miles||City/State:|| Washington, D.C.,
|Elevation:||280 feet gain
Just minutes outside of the nation's capital, visitors need only hop on the I-495 N from Washington, D.C. and take the exit onto Clara Barton Parkway to Great Falls. Just a few miles down, take a left onto MacArthur Boulevard and after another mile the trailhead will be next to the dirt parking lot across from Angler's Inn.
From the parking area, visitors should follow the path past the Great Falls Tavern and Visitors Center. While a beautiful old building filled with the history of the canal, the tavern is sadly not serving any cool alcoholic brews anymore so aside from the history, there is not much reason to stop in. Just past the building, visitors cross over the C&O Canal at Lock 19 with the official start of the Billy Goat Trail Section A starting just beyond. Those who time their hikes right will be able to view Lock 19 opening or closing depending on the needs of the canal.
The first section of the Billy Goat Trail starts easy enough with the dirt path tracing the violent, swirling waters of the Potomac River for fifty feet, but soon becomes a lot more interesting. Trail Marker 1 marks the beginning of the most famous part of the trail - the rock hopping. The trail traces the sheer granite cliffs on the banks of the Potomac with visitors hopping, climbing and scrambling along a trail that is about the width of a person's foot at best. Visitors will notice the 'Many hikers are injured every year on this section of the Billy Goat A Trail' sign just before the rock hopping begins and will hopefully take heed. Many an ankle has been twisted on this section due to shenanigans or just bad luck.
After a mile of scrambling, the trail descends from the rocks onto the pleasantly flat river banks where visitors come across a sandy beach area. While it may seem like a good place for a swim, especially on the return trip, the current is actually quite strong and visitors will be quickly swept downstream if they wander too far in. The area is appropriately laden with warning signs, but there are always a few rule breakers and a few park rangers on hand to scold them. Regardless, the sand makes a nice place for people to catch their breath.
Continuing on, the surrounding area leaves the riverside briefly to wander into wetlands; although the trail is raised enough to remain quite dry. Crossing an old log bridge, visitors arrive at a spectacular overlook that gives panoramic views of the Potomac River and Sherwin Island beyond. As the trail curves down and rejoins the C&O Canal, visitors will turn right and officially begin the B section of the Billy Goat Trail.
Section B is considerably more leisurely than the previous leg. However, don't be fooled by the series of spur trails near the beginning, they all lead to various parking lots. The trail winds through lush forests with a great views of some of the more white water sections of the Potomac River and only features a small section of rock hopping as it passes by Hermit Island. When the trail isn't quite so crowded, this rock section is a nice place to sit and watch the paddle boarders surfing the river wakes when they are out. Although the trail evens back out as it approaches the C section, there will be a series of rocky outcroppings to the side. After the first section of the trail, section B seems somehow anti-climatic as it dips down to rejoin the C&O Canal and the section C begins.
The section C features the stream-hopping section of the trail. These little creeks don't usually pose much challenge as they flow into the Potomac, but on wet years they can be quite violent. Unfortunately, the C section of the trail wanders far from the Potomac. At certain points, it is closer to the noisy Clara Barton Parkway than it is to the river. However, the trail winds down out of the woods and back to the banks of the Potomac just in time to catch the back end of the rough Stubblefield Falls.
While the trail goes on about a mile past the falls, there isn't too much to see at the end of the C section. The trail just sort of fades away will a small path leading to the road and another parking lot. After the Stubblefield Falls, hikers will be better off climbing the rocky shores, watching the falls for awhile and heading back. It makes for a more scenic end to this fun Billy Goat-style climbing river hike. There are a few side trails along the way that leads to different scenery on the way back including the Berma Road Trail and the Overlook Trail (both along the B Section). Both provide decent overlooks on the Potomac River and allow a welcomed extension to this popular wilderness area.
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