You can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can judge this trail by its name. Billy Goat Trail is one of the best known and most accessible day hikes in the greater Washington D.C metropolitan area. The trailhead is just 15 miles from the White House.
What was the last trail you hiked that was named after a sure-footed animal? Your chance has arrived. You’ll want to use your best biomimicry skills on Billy Goat Trail on the Maryland/Virginia border.
Billy Goat’s trail is a much-loved and challenging hike, not to be undertaken by the accident-prone or easily exhausted. The trail has 3 sections that range in difficulty from the very technical to easy and non-strenuous. It is a short day trip from the D.C. metro area, and will lead you to stunning views of the Potomac River and beyond into Virginia.
Billy Goat trail is among a series of trails that explore Bear Island and follow the Potomac River, Mather Gorge and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and Towpath (the C & O Towpath). Bear Island is a long, irregular shaped island that sits in the Potomac, just on the Maryland side of the border.
It is one of many trails in the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park.
Am I Ready to Boulder Scramble?
You might be. Billy Goat trail is divided into three sections: A, B, C. These sections do not connect directly. You must use the C & O Towpath to move from section A to B and B to C. You can return to the trailhead directly along the towpath or retrace your steps along Billy Goat Trail.
The full trail consists of a long loop that will take you southeast along the Maryland / Virginia border. You’ll snake along the Potomac for the majority of the trek.
Since each section of the trail connects to the towpath, you can choose which (or all) of the three sections you want to hike. Your total distance for all three sections and returning to the parking area is just shy of 8 miles.
Follow the Blue Blazes of the Billy Goat Trail
Section A is a technical hike. You will navigate boulders, slippery rock faces, steep climbs, and angled surfaces in this section. The total distance is 1.7miles. Allow for 2-3 hours for this section of the trail and exercise caution as you move. Technical = Tricky.
Due to the difficulty of the route, pets are not allowed in Section A of Billy Goat Trail. They are allowed in other areas of the park on a leash.
Blue Blazes have been painted on rocks and trees to assist hikers with navigation all along the trail.
Sections B and C are much milder, wooded sections. You’ll enjoy a leisurely terrain in these areas, after one boulder-scramble in Section B.
What are Blue Blazes?
Blue Blazes are historic trail markers. They are part of a system first put into use in the United States in Connecticut in 1929. Their use has expanded all over Appalachia and connected trails and natural areas. More often than not, a Blue Blaze indicates a spur off the Appalachian Trail that will lead to a point of interest or worthwhile viewpoint.
How Do I Get There?
The Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center in Potomac, MD is a good spot to begin your goat-trek. The Visitor’s Center is located at 11710 Macarthur Blvd, Potomac, MD 20854. The trailhead to Billy Goat Trail Section A is just a few hundred meters down the C & O Towpath.
The Great Fall Tavern itself is an attraction, with park information, closures and alert information, knowledgeable staff, and even a paddle boat ride coming in 2019.*NOTE: The Visitor Center is closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
5 Essential Items to Have
- Weather Appropriate Gear. Billy Goat trail is a long trek, with many sections that are fully exposed to the weather, be it bright and sunny, hot, or cold and windy. Bring sunscreen, chapstick, gloves and layers, as the weather dictates.
- Hiking Boots. Appropriate footwear is a must on this trail, and not just in Section A. You’ll be best served by hiking boots with ankle support and good tread to help safely navigate the boulder scrambling areas. Long socks are also recommended to help protect against insects, and scrapes.
- A Camera. The views of the Potomac, Mather Gorge, wetlands, a pond and the surrounding area islands are not to be missed.
- Water. As we’ve mentioned above, the trail is rigorous and lengthy. Even just hiking Section A and returning by the towpath puts hikers out for a 2- or 3-hour loop with some strenuous areas. Hiking the full 8-mile trail can take all day. Regardless of the weather, hikers need to bring plenty of water and to drink it regularly along the hike.
- Snacks. Just like the above recommendation, but for calories and food. It is important to replace the calories burned, even on shorter stints.
* NOTE : For those hiking to the end of Section C, you’ll find the Carderock Recreation Area. This is a great place to park a second vehicle with picnic supplies and to stop and savor the trek you have just completed.
The Top 3 Things You Must See along Billy Goat Trail
- A Potomac Panorama. Case in point. There are a few spots that will offer great river vistas, the first of which is located just after Trail Marker #3 of Section A. The panorama will vary depending on the time year, amount of foliage present, and level of the river.
- Hermit Island. Significant wakes are created where the Potomac rounds Hermit Island. This area is popular for paddlers of all types surfing the wakes. Plan for time to watch these athletes and adventure-seekers at play.
- Great Falls Vista. If you’ve progressed as far as the Marsden Tract Campground, your return trip will offer a spectacular view of the Great Falls area from the Overlook Spur Trail. Stop, savor, selfie.
The 3 Absolute DON’Ts along Billy Goat Trail
- Don’t Swim. The trail will pass along a few nice beach areas of the river. Do not enter the water. River currents are unpredictable, powerful and swift. The falls and Mather Gorge are very inhospitable to swimming. Every year, hikers ignore the NPS posted signage, attempt to swim in the river and are swept away in the strong currents. Multiple deaths occur in this area every year. Instead, enjoy the river and falls from the safety of the shore.
- Don’t Bring Pets. The difficulty of Billy Goat Trail Section A makes pets a danger to themselves and others. Pets are prohibited by the NPS. Note this particularly difficult section of the hike as evidence as to why our furry friends are best left at home for this hike.
- Don’t Hike in Inclement Weather. You can check the NPS website for Billy Goat trail advisories here. The Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center is also a good resource to check for closures and weather alerts. As you’ve read above, Billy Goat Trail is a serious hiking trail. Avoid hiking in weather that exacerbates existing dangers and creates deteriorated trail conditions. Respect posted signage and alerts.
How to Have a Great Time Hiking Billy Goat Trail
Really, this part is easy: prepare yourself and go. You can tailor the hike to fit your schedule and abilities and you can get there easily from anywhere in the Washington D.C. Metropolitan area. Pack your day bag and get out there.
As we’ve noted above, there are serious, technical sections of this hike and it is essential that hikers come prepared for the terrain, the difficulty and the duration of the hike they chose to undertake. Your efforts to come trail-ready will be rewarded.
Talking about the Weather
This area of Maryland experiences all four seasons. Expect a swollen river in spring, a hot and sunny hike all summer long, the drama of fall leaves and wet weather in autumn, and the difficult cold and possible snow closures that winter may hold.
If you finish hiking Billy Goat Trail with time and energy for more activities, there are many options for activities in the immediate area. These range from cultural activities, more experiences in nature and even big city options in the nation’s capital.
Other attractions include:
- St. Augustine’s historic Catholic Church
- Washington County Museum of Fine Arts
- Antietam National Battlefield
- The White House
- The Lincoln memorial
- The Library of Congress
The list in Washington D.C. goes on and on so you’ll never run out of new places to explore in the area.