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!

The Hiking Weekend: Seneca Creek State Park

Seneca Creek State Park is a place that I go to regularly. It is actually a part of one of my running loops that I can get on to directly from home. I typically run along the south shore of Clopper Lake, and on Mink Hollow Trail and the Greenway Trail, approaching and departing the park from the south.

You get a nice view of Clopper Lake and its shoreline through the trees when driving on Longdraft Road. The view tends to draw your attention (you might end up taking your eye off the road for just an instantšŸ˜‰), especially in the early mornings when the sunlight lights up the trees on the sides of the lake. From past experience, I know that this view can actually be somewhat stunning when Fall is at its peak. I had been hoping to actually see and experience this view this year. It had been a while since I took my last Autumn picture from this vantage point. A hike going through this location became a goal for the weekend’s activities.

I needed to get to the target location for the picture I wanted to take a little later in the morning, after the sun had cleared the trees. The point was to get the sun shining directly on the trees rather than have them in the shadows. Since the park was close to home, I had to make sure that I did not leave home too early.

This is a picture I got from the location of interest.My overall timing for the picture had ended up not being ideal – too late for the colors and too early in the morning to avoid shadows. This was not the picture I had had in my imagination, but it would have to do.

There happened to be a few birds in the water in that corner of the lake.
I walked along the north shore of Clopper Lake. (As I mentioned before, I am usually on the other side of the lake.)

Fall could be experienced in its full brilliance along the lakeside.But there were also other sections of the trail where all the leaves on the trees were still green. These sections tended to be a little away from the shoreline. While I was generally not motivated to take pictures of green foliage, this section of evergreens, away from the lake, did catch my eye.

I took a diversion from the lake to walk along a road leading towards the entrance of the park. I then took a trail leading down to Seneca Creek from the parking lot for the Park Office near the entrance.I ended up on the Greenway Trail which runs all along the creek, beyond the boundaries of the park itself.

This is a picture of another section of the park closer to the Long Draught Branch, a creek at emerges from the dam for Clopper Lake. The trail is called the Long Draught trail.As the pictures in this blog show, different kinds of trees dominate different sections of the park. There must be a logical reason for this.

This hike did not take too much time. I was generally zipping up and down slopes which in past years would have presented actual challenges. But I was also getting tired towards the end of the hike. I slowed down in the section south of the Great Seneca Highway closer to home.

Not having had to drive anywhere to get on the trail, and because of the relative ease of the trail, I was done with the hike rather early in the morning. I did manage to cover over over 8 miles.

The Hiking Weekend: Sugarloaf Mountain

I found myself on my own last weekend, the rest of the family – the ladies – having decided to have a weekend to themselves in NYC!

My thoughts turned to outdoor activities. This was an opportunity for me to focus on things I could do on my own, to do things my own way, and to push myself to my own limits without worrying about others.

It was too cold for biking. I decided to spend the weekend hiking. I could hopefully cover significant distances, and also tackle some challenges that I have not been able to get to recently.

I was also hoping that during the weekend I would meet with some level of success in finding places where the leaves were turning on account of Fall. (Some hopes never seem to die!) I was successful in this endeavor, but with one surprising twist. I would find areas of green, changing color, and even trees without leaves, all within within a few hundred yards of each other within a single park. There could be any number of reasons for this. Perhaps it was difference in the kind of trees in different locations in the park. It could have been the location of the trees themselves – beside a body of water, or on a hill, or in a location that was exposed to winds in a certain way. It was a “micro climate” kind of phenomena that I had not anticipated. Or, perhaps, I was being more sensitive to this phenomenon this year.

Having said all that, my focus when taking pictures during the weekend to a large extent still remained the phenomenon of Fall. How could it not be? This turning of the leaves is something that happens only once a year, and it lasts for such a short period of time. It transience is part of what makes it attractive. For that reason only, the pictures that I post will probably be primarily about Fall. The reader may get the mistaken impression that the experience of the hikes of the weekend was fully about the colors of Fall. That was not the case.

My destination for the first hike of the weekend was Sugarloaf Mountain. I was able to get out of the house very early, and was at the trail head shortly after 8 am, less than half an hour after sunrise. The temperatures had fallen below freezing during the night, and it was still cold. I was dressed warmly in a few layers.

I was able to get this picture just outside the park. The scene caught my attention as I was driving past. It has to be noted that this is a fully landscaped area with trees planted for their visual impact. This is not completely natural. But, it did have the Fall colors I was hoping to see!

I met an older gentleman at the start of the first trail I took, near the entrance to the park. From the way he was dressed up and equipped, he appeared to be a seasoned walker. As I overtook him, I made a comment about the fact that the leaves on the trees had not changed color in that area. He mentioned right away about how beautiful it had been in the Shenandoah National Park the previous weekend. He noted the bright reds of the Oaks and the Maple he had seen during his visit. Dang! We had been about three weeks too early when we made our own visit.

I was keeping a brisk pace up the mountain. I was feeling it! As I left the older gentleman behind, I was wondering what his life story was all about. His face look quite weathered. He had a Peace Corp logo stitched into his beanie, and he seemed to be able to spend his weekends enjoying the experience of hiking on his own in the mountains. These were all positive signs to me.

Surprisingly, I ran into the same gentleman in the park on two other occasions – once in the middle of the hike, and once towards the end. I was generally walking at a much faster clip than he was, but was deliberately taking longer routes. I even took a break in the middle to make a phone call to India!

Here are some pictures from the hike.

This is the extent to which the colors were turning in certain sections near the beginning of the hike.The sun was still low in the sky at this point.

My first stop was the overlook at the eastern parking lot.

The next stop was the overlook on Sugarloaf Mountain, the main peak in the park. The trails to this peak are the steepest in the park and are quite challenging. It was a good way to start the day.You can see the Potomac river and the towers of the Dickerson Power Station from the summit.

And then it was time to descend from Sugarloaf Mountain and head off towards the northern peaks of the park. This was a long stretch of hiking. I had the trail mostly to myself, very rarely running across another human being. It was very peaceful – just me, the trail, and the woods. I cannot even remember the sounds of the birds. It was quiet except for the occasional distant sound of the rumble of traffic.

The view from the White Rocks, the northernmost peak in the park, was not as panoramic as that from Sugarloaf. I took this picture to try to capture how the colors were changing in a wooded area below us.

On the way back from the northern peaks, the trail descended all the way down to the level of a road that runs through the park. (I have biked on this road before!) This was how the trees looked at that level.It felt like the phenomenon of Fall was past its peak in this section of the park.

And then it was back once again on a trail that went up the mountain. I had an opportunity to climb to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain once again, but decided not to push my luck since I was a little tired at that point. I took a trail that skirted the peak. On the way down the mountain, during the last stretch, I came upon these ruins on a short side trail.I find it interesting that a majority of of the old stone ruins that I have come across while hiking seem to have only their chimneys still standing. There is surely a logical reason for this.

I hiked a little more than eight miles on Friday. Having started early in the morning, I had time to do some shopping at the grocery store on the way back home. I was feeling good. I rewarded myself with a turkey panini from the deli. It was a very satisfying finish to the activity of the morning.