Fast moving water moving over and around rocks that appear – as if from nowhere. Rocky cliffs whose steep edge are reason to pause – even if just for a second. The hiking trails of Great Falls Maryland, that span the area between the Potomac River and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Historical Park empty your mind of your Washington DC surroundings. Instead, each new step is rewarded with vistas that rival the most scenic of hiking locations around the world.
Where to hike in Washington DC
You mean there is hiking in Washington DC?
Yes…though some would argue – Great Falls is not technically located in Washington DC. Although hikers can find trails within the District along Rock Creek Park, Great Falls National Park beckons just a few miles outside of the city limits. The Billy Goat Trail ranks among the most well known of all the trails at Great Falls, full of hikers since the mid- 1800s.
The Billy Goat Trail has three distinct sections.
The National Park Service describes them as:
- Billy Goat Trail Section A: 1.75 miles, Difficult
- “Scrambling over angled rocks, boulders and climbing required.”
- Billy Goat Trail Section B: 1.4 miles, Moderate
- “Trail passes through floodplain forest and along the river. Minimal rock scrambling.”
- Billy Goat Trail Section C: 1.6 miles, Moderate
- “River views and a small waterfall are encountered on this trail.”
Hike the Billy Goat Trail (With Kids – or Without)
In an effort to spend more mother/daughter time outside, my almost ten-year old daughter and I set out on regular hiking dates throughout the summer. (She will tell you that the downside of me becoming healthier and stronger is that we don’t take as many breaks as we used to …and that now she has to move a bit faster if she wants to maintain her pole position as first in line on the trail!)
Although she demonstrated master rock scrambling aptitude (and interest) during a hiking trip to the red rocks of Sedona, our first Billy Goat Trail attempt was Section B. Equipped with a picnic lunch and water bottles – we made traversed the trail catching glimpses of Offutt Island and Turkey Island. Instead of walking back along the C&O Canal Towpath, we doubled our hike by coming back the way we’d been. It was a nice hike – with a few spots where you had to think about your footing – but we were ready for more.
It was not until the very end of the summer – but eventually we set out early one morning for the Billy Goat Trail Section A.
I won’t lie. There were parts of the trail that were difficult (probably more for me than my daughter!). The movements from one rock to another required serious stretching and a few leaps of faith. But the reward – with views of the Potomac River looking over to the Virginia side of Great Falls Park – made it all worthwhile.
As we went, we allowed faster hikers to pass us – and even passed a few groups on our own as they stood back to ponder how they might attack the next set of rocky steps along the trail. Depending on which way you start on the trail, there are ways to avoid the steepest rock scrambles (coming from the trail head near mile 13 on the C & O Towpath – going towards Great Falls Overlook). We saw several groups of high school students on a field trip did decide to take the more moderate path. I am pretty sure that I saw my daughter stand taller when she realized that she was the youngest person she had seen on the trail that morning.
Our 3.5 mile hike (we walked along the towpath to get to the farthest trail head) took 2 hours and 40 minutes including stops for snack and to catch our breath.
The hike takes you across Bear Island – which is known as one of the most biologically diverse areas in the country. The geography, topography and regular weather “events” like flooding have made the island home to rare and sensitive habitats – which is why the National Park Service asks hikers to stay on the marked trail to lessen the ecological impact.
Even though there was more scrambling than hiking – I would love to hike the Billy Goat Trail, Section A again – during the fall – to see the assortment of colors reflected against the rocks and river.
Tips for hiking the Billy Goat Trail:
- Explore the Billy Goat Trail map.
- You do not need trekking poles for the hike on Section A. They actually become more of a hindrance than a help when scaling the rocks.
- Hike early especially in the summer to avoid the heat. Even on a spring or fall day, the large rocks can absorb the heat – so bring gloves to touching the hot stones.
- The Billy Goat Trail is divided into three parts: A – the hardest, B – moderate and C – easy. The main difference between A and B is the significant increase in rock scaling on section A.
- While I think that Section B and C are very family friendly – Section A requires patience and enough maturity to pay attention to footing. Also, little legs might have difficulty with some of the steps between rocks.
- Technically, the Billy Goat Trail is located at Great Falls National Park – in Maryland. But the trail and park are just moments outside of Washington DC.
- Parking for a hike on the Billy Goat Trail (Section A) can be found either at Great Falls Visitor Center (for a fee) or at the access across from Old Angler’s Inn (for free). If you are planning to hike on a weekend, be aware that parking at the Old Angler’s lot fills up (so it is best to get an early start).
- The best parking for Section B is at the access across from Old Angler’s Inn while parking for Section C can be found at Carderock.
Wellness travel quotient: Hiking is one of my favorite ways to explore a new destination – both for the physical nature of exercising and the emotional well-being that comes from trekking. Our family hikes in Sedona, Arizona, Cortina D’Ampezzo, Italy and Snowshoe, West Virginia are some of my most favorite travel memories.