Bird Watching

Hike the Billy Goat Trail near Washington, DC

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The name suits it: Like the namesake of the path, hikers on the Billy Goat Trail can find themselves balancing on thin ledges, jumping through deep holes in a rock face and gazing down a steep cliff to the river. Roaring potomac below. If you’re in the DC metro area and up for the challenge, the first of three sections of the trail is the perfect way to channel the mind of the bluff-loving goat. If you want to explore Maryland Bear island and take in some great river views all the way to Virginia, but aren’t that crazy about heights the other two sections are a leisurely walk with a slight scramble in the rock. Either way, let us guide you.

How long is the Billy Goat Trail?

The three sections of the Billy Goat Trail are not contiguous. Rather, they are hikes next to the towpath of the C&O canal. Connecting the three is a strenuous hike of about 8 miles in total and takes about 4-5 hours.

How difficult is the Billy Goat Trail?

The hiker rushes along the edge of the cliff on the Billy Goat Trail. (Photo: Rory Finneren)

The Billy Goat Trail A is the most difficult, with almost vertical rocky scrambling and precarious ledges. The other two sections are much easier, with some moderate difficulty on Billy Goat Trail B and a relaxed woodland walk on Billy Goat Trail C.

Where are the Billy Goat trailheads and how do I get there?

There are three different parking areas available for hikers along the Billy Goat Trail, with at least one near each trailhead.

Billy Goat Trail A:

● Anglers Inn: There are designated car parks opposite Old Angler’s Inn on Macarthur Boulevard. This is between Sections A and B and will require approximately 0.5 km of hiking along the towpath to get to the trailhead. Street parking also available here.

● Great Falls: From the lookout, travel 0.6 km along the towpath to the trailhead.

Billy Goat Trail B:

Note: as of 10/15/21, section B is closed; the National Park Service has not given a timetable for the reopening.

● Anglers Inn: There are designated car parks opposite Old Angler’s Inn on Macarthur Boulevard. The west trailhead is located right next to the towpath near the parking lot.

● Carderock Recreation Area: Take a 0.4 mile hike along the towpath from the parking lot to the trailhead.

Billy Goat Trail C:

● Carderock Recreation Area: The trailhead is right next to the parking lot.

What to expect on the Billy Goat Trail

● Views of the Potomac River

● Irregular cell service

● Bathrooms (open daily in the Great Falls Tavern parking lot)

● Ticks, snakes and poison ivy

● Rock jumps and scrambling

● Crowds: This is a popular hiking spot, especially the Billy Goat Trail A. If possible, try to finish your hike before 8 am on weekends to avoid traffic delays.

● Dangerous terrain with risk of falling: There are over 400 emergency and rescue calls on the trail each year. Don’t be one of them.

When should I hike the Billy Goat Trail?

Trail sign
Billy Goat Trail sign (Photo: Rory Finneren)

The Great Falls Trails and Visitors Center are open year round. Spring and fall often see trail closures after heavy rain, while winter conditions can result in ice on the trail, which is not good given the exposure of the first section. Always check the weather and trail conditions before going on a hike.

What should I pack for a hike on the Billy Goat Trail?

● Sturdy hiking boots. Good shoe grip is important as much of the trail takes place over rocks, cliffs, and precarious hills.

● At least two liters of water per person (there are no refreshment points along the trail)

● Sunscreen and hat

● Map

● Snacks

Safety Considerations on the Billy Goat Trail

● Never go into the river. The currents are strong, unpredictable, and dangerous, and even wading or standing on rocks by the water’s edge can put you at risk of being swept away. Several people die each year trying to swim in the Potomac. Swimming in the Potomac along the Billy Goat Trail can also result in fines of $ 200 or more.

● Stay away from slippery rocks and cliffs and watch where you step.

● Check the weather and trail conditions in advance

● Wear sturdy hiking boots with good grip

Can I bring my dog ​​on the Billy Goat Trail?

Section A is too dangerous for dogs. (Do not bring small children either.) On sections B and C, dogs are allowed but must always be kept on a leash.

Do I need a permit to hike the Billy Goat Trail?

No permit is required to walk the Billy Goat Trail.

Can I stay overnight along the Billy Goat Trail?

No. There is a group campsite near section B, but it is reserved for organized scouts or civic groups only. Plan to do it in a day.

Section by section route to the Billy Goat Trail

Section A

1.7 thousand

This is the most technical, the most arduous and the most dangerous section of the Billy Goat Trail; the National Park Service recommends hikers only go one way, downstream. Allow 2-3 hours for cliff scrambling.

The trail starts off easily with a half mile of river, forest, and wildflowers 50 feet above the Potomac. The rock scrambling begins around Trail Marker 1, where a national park sign warns of the risk of injury. From there, the Billy Goat Trail gets its name from hand-to-foot climbing, including a nearly vertical 50-foot traverse. To stay on the trail, pay special attention to the blue flames painted on the rocks and trees.

Pass through Pothole Alley, an expanse of porous rock with deep crevasses overlooking Mather Gorge and the Potomac River below. Shortly after, you will reach the so called “beach” of Purplehorse, where sand and rocks descend to the river.

Return to the quieter C&O Canal towpath or come back where you came from.

Section B

Note: as of 10/15/21, section B is closed due to trail damage. The National Park Service has not provided a timetable for the reopening.

1.4 thousand

Walk through floodplain forest on much more moderate terrain than Billy Goat Trail A, with some boulders where the trail passes through Hermit Island. This is the best section for bird watching – hawks, great blue herons, a menagerie of songbirds and occasionally a bald eagle.

Section C

1.6 thousand

The most relaxed of the three sections, Billy Goat Trail C winds through the shade of maple, sycamore and elderberry trees, over a small bridge and past a small waterfall.

Published in March 2019; updated October 2021