Why You Should Hike the Billy Goat Trail

With uphill climbing on this trail, it's not your average walk in the park.

Rock solid: Section A of the Billy Goat Trail is a popular hike for panoramic Potomac River views. Photograph by John Baggaley.

People don’t think of Washington as a region of craggy terrain, but section A of the Billy Goat Trail may surprise them—it’s no easy stroll. The trail includes some intense rock-hopping and a steep climb along a cliff. The effort is worth it: The Billy Goat runs along the edge of the Potomac River, offering panoramic views, and takes you high up to see the dramatic cascades of Mather Gorge. All just minutes from downtown DC.

The Billy Goat is divided into three trails: A, B, and C. The sections don’t connect but are all off the C&O Canal towpath. The northernmost, section A, is the most popular and strenuous—and has the best views.

To reach it, park at the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center (11710 MacArthur Blvd., Potomac; 301-767-3714; $5 entrance fee), then stroll downstream on the towpath for about a mile to enter the trail on the right. It can get crowded on weekends, so best to get an early start.

The 1.8-mile loop takes about two hours, plus time on the towpath each way. I like to stop and peer into the little pools amid the rocks, where you may see frogs, turtles, and even snakes. At the top, as you gaze down on the river and Mather Gorge, you might spot whitewater kayakers navigating the rapids and rock climbers dangling on the Virginia side of the river.

Dogs aren’t permitted on this trail, and be sure to wear sturdy shoes. Because you may need to use your hands at times to stabilize yourself on the rocks, you may want to wear gloves (bike gloves are perfect). If you get tired, you can take an emergency-exit trail back to the towpath. Given how rocky the Billy Goat is, I don’t recommend hiking with a picnic. Instead, leave lunch in your car and enjoy a picnic later along the towpath.

For more information, go to the National Park Service and search for “Billy Goat Trail.”

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This article appears in our May 2015 issue of Washingtonian.