Hiking the Billy Goat Trail, Just in Time

Potomac River Great Falls
The Great Falls of the Potomac River

Two days before the Federal Government shuttered, I hiked the famous Billy Goat Trail Loop A in Great Falls, Maryland, with a friend.

Consider it dumb luck before a dumb shut-down.

The craggy rock-strewn trail – inspiring its name – is located in the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park.

I hadn’t done the Billy Goat Trail in years, but the experience brought back distant feelings and experiences…

Such as:

Breathing hard – I always forget how difficult parts of this little trail can be, once you reach its name-sake slog of boulder-scrambling. The Billy Goat Trail Loop A section is only 4.2 miles round-trip – the B and C sections extend the hike to 7.8 miles. But we stuck to A, which alone will take you a good two hours or so to clamber your way around. And admire the views.

Mather Gorge from Billy Goat Trail
Mather Gorge view from the Billy Goat Trail

At the Great Falls Tavern and Visitor Center, the trail starts along the towpath of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, a.k.a. the C&O Canal. The waterway parallels the Potomac River and operated from 1831 until 1924.

Crossing the canal at Lock 19, you continue on the towpath for about a mile until turning right at the entrance for the Billy Goat Trail, along the north (Maryland) bank of the Potomac.

After a half-mile, the real fun begins, marked by a warning via a National Park Service sign saying: Many hikers are injured every year on this section of the Billy Goat A Trail.

Greetings to you too!

Time to scrabble over sharp-edged stacks of boulders, while trying to follow the blue blazes painted on rocks and trees that indicate the trail. Good hiking boots will spare you slips and scrapes — and your pride.

Jaw-dropping views – Not since I lived out west have I seen views like the ones on the Billy Goat Trail. Huge rock outcroppings, a deep gorge, an array of thundering, terraced falls… It’s all here, in a wild stretch of the Potomac that’s barely 14 miles upstream from Washington, DC.

Billy Goat Trail cliff climb
The steep cliff-climb up the Billy Goat Trail

With more rock hopping, the trail brings you to overlooks of the river’s Great Falls. At this point, the river widens and roars as it tumbles over a series of cascades as high as 20 feet, dropping a total of 76 feet in elevation in less than a mile. This makes the Great Falls “the steepest fall line rapids of any river in the eastern United States.”

Whatever that means.

Then the Billy Goat Trail brings you to the top of Mather Gorge, named for Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service.

Featuring stunning cliffs on both the Virginia and Maryland sides of the Potomac, the gorge funnels the churning river into a 100-yard wide gulley.

Extreme-sports anxiety – On the Virginia side of the Potomac, climbers have been scaling Mather Gorge since the 1930s. I shuddered to see red and green ropes dangling down the 70-foot cliff face. Nearby in the river, a white-water kayaker repeatedly tried and failed to paddle upstream into a boiling tangle of rapids at the end of the Great Falls.

I’m sure the guy was “stoked.”

But extreme sports like these terrify me. Still, I’m glad for all the type-As in this town that this is one of the best places in Maryland and Virginia to climb and to white-water kayak. It’s also a good measure of how much scale and power mother nature can offer without humans mucking it up.

C&O Canal barge ride
Old-timey canal barge offers rides on the C&O Canal

Crowd resentment – Not since I last lived in this area have I experienced such crowds on a hiking trail. To be fair, we arrived early enough on a sunny Sunday morning to enjoy the first third or so of the hike with only a few other groups.

But when the trail dropped down to the river bank and turned back up a steep cliff – near Pothole Alley – we hit a traffic jam.

No wonder. At least two stories high, this cliff-climb part of the trail requires scaling a very steep, natural fracture in the rock face. I groped my way up as fast as I could, using the full reach of my arms and legs and never looking down.

More hard breathing – from the effort and from my sort-of fear of heights.

Up top, the Billy Goat Trail soon gifts you with a soft, shaded dirt path in the woods. You pass by a wetland, a small pond, and cross a stream over a log bridge.

It was close to noon as we completed the loop trail by returning to the C&O Canal towpath, where hordes of people appeared. This is the price you pay for the park’s proximity to the city, though it’s a small one. I’m thankful that a place this spectacular is so close and easy to reach.

Even if the rocks on the Billy Goat Trail sometimes aren’t.