Virtual Hike: Billy Goat Trail Section A
For our second hike we head to an old favorite, Section A of the Billy Goat Trail in the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal National Historic Park just across the Potomac River in Maryland. For our version we’re keeping things simple and beginning and ending at the Great Falls Tavern and Visitor Center entrance. Note this entrance does require an entry fee of $20 which is good for a week at both this park and Great Fall Park in Virginia. You can also gain entry with an Interagency Annual Pass, or park at a different point along the tow path (try Old Angler’s Inn or Carderock parking) for free entry.
This approximately 4 mile hike is a mix of casual tow path hiking and the more challenging Billy Goat Trail along the clifftops of the Mather Gorge of the Potomac River. This rocky hike has very little elevation change (few hills), but has lots of uneven terrain and places where using your hands will be required to keep moving.
During the pandemic Section A is one way from the north end, which means if you choose to start from Carderock, a longer though no more challenging option, or Anglers, about the same distance as the hike discussed here, you will need to start the trail from the north, closest to the Visitor Center.
CAUTION: This trail goes along cliff tops for much of its length. There have been many accidents here. DO NOT put yourself in a position where a single stumble could send you over the edge. Stay a safe distance back. There are also sections of this trail that bring you down to river level. This stretch of the Potomac is very dangerous and many people have drowned here. The gorge is filled with strong turbulent currents and deep water. For this reason it is illegal to enter the river for the purposes of swimming or wading anywhere along this hike.
From the Visitor Center parking lot head south towards the Visitor Center. At the Visitor Center cross over the canal to get onto the tow path. Head southeast (left) on the tow path. For great views of the actual falls turn right onto the Great Falls Overlook trail and Olmsted Island. This is a worthy side trip and adds about a half mile to the total hike distance. This section of trail gets particularly crowded so don’t forget your mask. From the Visitor Center it’s a bit over half a mile (or a full mile if you went to the overlook) to the start of Section A of the Billy Goat Trail. The trail heads off on the right just before a white covered bridge.
The Billy Goat is blazed with blue blazes. These are mostly located on trees, but are painted on rocks during the rockier portions. A note of caution, when in doubt follow the blue blazes. Several parts of the trail have “social trails” that are locations where A LOT of people have gone off trail making a fake trail that might lead you astray.
A single blaze marks the trail.
Lesson: How to read a trail blaze or trail marking. A single blaze marks a straight section of path. When you see two blazes on the same tree or rock this indicates a turn in the trail. The top blaze or marking tells you the direction of the turn. In the above image you see two blue blazes. The top blaze is off set to the right of the bottom blaze; this indicates a right turn in the trail. Three blazes are used to mark trail intersections.
The most challenging part of the hike for many people is a rising scramble across a cliff. This is marked on the map above as the “traverse”. A photo can be seen below, though the actual scramble is not as steep as this photo makes it look. This section, like others, does require the use of your hands and careful consideration of your foot placement. Good shoes make a big difference too.
The scramble as seen from the top. The yellow arrows indicate the approximate path of the trail. The red circle shows people waiting at the bottom of the scramble to give you an appropriate sense of perspective. This is not as steep as it looks here.