The Hiking Weekend: The Billy Goat Trail (And Other Trails At Great Falls)

The Great Falls of the Potomac river are located not too far from where we live. There are parks associated with these Falls on both sides of the river. Great Falls Park is on the Virginia side of the river. On the Maryland side, the park is considered a part of the 184.5 mile C&O Canal National Historic Park that runs from Washington, DC, to Cumberland, MD. The Billy Goat trails are located in the Great Falls section the national historic park. There is an old tavern beside the canal at Great Falls that now serves as a Visitor Center for the park. There are many visitors to this section of the C&O canal, most of them who have come to get a view of the Potomac river and the Great Falls from Olmsted island. You can see the river in all its fury as the river channel narrows and the mass of water is funneled down into the Mather Gorge.

But the adventure that drew me to this location was not the Great Falls themselves. I was here because I wanted to hike the Billy Goat trail, Section A – the original Billy Goat trail. (Sections B and C are more recent additions.)

It had been many years since I had faced the challenge of the Billy Goat Trail. It was a distant memory by this point. I remember clambering over rocks of random shapes and sizes and negotiating rocky cliffs. I remembered having to use my hands for climbing, and my butt for sliding down. I also remembered the views of Mather Gorge from the trail. I had a memory of how much fun it all had been.

The trail system around Great Falls was not well developed when I last explored the original Billy Goat Trail. I decided that I would get my miles in by exploring these newer trails also this time. I finished the day walking almost 9 miles.

This Billy Goat Trail has become more and more crowded in recent times because of of its location. This is a well populated section of Montgomery County, the place where we live. These are also the suburbs of Washington, DC – a big city and the capital of the country! The Billy Goat trail is probably the most challenging trail close to us.

In order to better manage an untenable situation with an increasingly overcrowded trail, starting in 2020, the authorities have strongly recommended its usage as a one-way trail. (Indeed, all the relevant trail markers do not indicate that this is only a recommendation!) This setup prevents one from running into people going in the opposite direction in sections where it is clearly impossible to pass each other. You are supposed to hike the trail from north to south. The best place to park your vehicle to get to the trail head as quickly as possible is at the Visitor Center at Great Falls, a location less than a half-an-hour drive from home. So, there I was!

This was the morning after the change from Daylight Savings Time to Standard Time. As a result, I was at the park very early. I walked south along the canal towpath to get to the entrance for the trail.

There were other signs warning people about the challenging nature of the trail. This was not a hike primarily about climbing great heights or descending down mountains. The main challenge is keeping your footing when climbing up and down the big rocks. Dogs are not allowed on this trail!

The early sections of the hike were relatively easy, but the random rocks that you saw along the way were an indication of what was to come.The trail ran parallel to the Mather Gorge. There were certain places where you could walk up to the edge of cliff to view the gorge. This is a panoramic view of Mather Gorge early in the hike. (I “stitched” three individual picture to create this view.)From the pattern of the shadows in the gorge, you can make out that it was still early in the morning when I took the picture.

Soon we were clambering over rocks. It was easy to get lost because there was no obvious trail, and the only indication that you were headed in the right direction were the trail markers, sometimes at a distance, painted on the rocks. You had to scan the horizon (in a manner of speaking) to find out where the next marker was located since the path to be taken to get across the rock piles was not necessarily a straight one. Having said that, it would probably be difficult to get lost in this space if one kept going a generally southerly direction. The primary issue when going off-trail was probably wandering into ecologically sensitive areas and causing damage.

You had to use both your hands to climb up and down rocks, and to keep your balance on uneven surfaces. There was the occasional use of the butt to slide down rocks. The trail even went up and down the side of the cliff beside the river on a couple of occasions. I had to put my camera away in the backpack so that it would not bang on to the rocks and get damaged. I would only take it out on occasions when I sensed a photo opportunity.

It was about this time of the hike that I began to feel the draw of this particular trail in a stronger and more insistent manner. This was exciting! The adrenaline was flowing.

Here are a couple of pictures of the gorge taken a little later in the morning.
The most challenging section of the hike was the location seen in the picture below. I believe that unofficial name for this place is The Traverse.

Although difficult, the challenge of The Traverse is probably more mental than physical. You do have to overcome your fears. You will reach out with your hands and feet for something that seems unreachable. You will have to also trust the traction on your shoes as you step on the inclined rock. (Do not wear shoes with worn out soles!) In the end, people of varying abilities and of a wide range of ages seemed to be able to make it through. Of course, you would not want to try to get across The Traverse if you had some infirmity that limited your movements in any way.

After a while, the trail veered away from the river towards its termination point on the the C&O Canal towpath at Widewater. The nature of the trail changed somewhat,although there were still some rocky sections like this one.Once I was back on the towpath next to Widewater, I proceeded south to the bridge at Anglers Inn.

I crossed the bridge

and got on the Berma Road trail to connect to the newer trail system at Great Falls (that I talked about earlier). I took a random path through these trails, moving generally in a northerly direction, but also checking out as many of them as I could in the process. The Gold Mine Loop Trail appears to be the trail of note here. The trees were generally still mostly green in the woods.I was able to make my way back to The Tavern using the Overlook Trail.

I could have ended the hike at this point since I was back at the place where I had started it, but the distance I had covered at that point was less than what I had covered the other days of the weekend. It did not feel right! I compensated by walking a further couple of miles – going north on the River Trail and returning to The Tavern on the towpath.

This was a fantastic end to a weekend of hiking!

Published by

K. Joseph

I am an engineer by training. I am exploring new horizons after having spent many years in the Industry. My interests are varied and I tend to write about what is on my mind at any particular moment in time.

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