Hiking the Billy Goat Trail
Make like a goat and hoof it to the trail: just a hop, skip, and a jump from D.C.
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The name suits it: Like the path’s namesake, hikers on the Billy Goat Trail can find themselves balancing on slim ledges, hopping across deep gaps in a rock wall, and staring down a steep cliff face to the roaring Potomac River below. If you’re in the metropolitan D.C. area and up to the challenge, the first of the trail’s three sections is the perfect way to channel the spirit of the bluff-savvy billy goat. If you want to explore Maryland’s Bear Island and catch some great views across the river to Virginia, but aren’t so wild about heights, the other two sections make for a leisurely stroll with some light rock scrambling. Either way, let us be your guide.
How long is the Billy Goat Trail?
The Billy Goat Trail’s three sections aren’t contiguous—instead, they’re side hikes off of the C&O Canal Towpath. Connecting all three makes for a a strenuous hike of about 8 miles total and takes about 4 to 5 hours.
How difficult is the Billy Goat Trail?
The Billy Goat Trail A is the most difficult, with near-vertical rock scrambling and precarious ledges. The other two sections are far easier, with some moderate scrambling on Billy Goat Trail B and a laid-back walk in the woods on Billy Goat Trail C.
Where are the trailheads for the Billy Goat Trail, and how do I access them?
There are three different parking areas available to hikers along the Billy Goat Trail, with at least one near each trailhead.
Billy Goat Trail A:
● Anglers Inn: There are designated parking lots across the street from Old Angler’s Inn on Macarthur Boulevard. This is between sections A and B, and will require about .5 miles of hiking along the towpath to get to the trailhead. Street parking also available here.
● Great Falls: From the overlook, hike .6 miles 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 timeline for reopening.
● Anglers Inn: There are designated parking lots across the street from Old Angler’s Inn on Macarthur Boulevard. The western trailhead is located just off the towpath near the parking lot.
● Carderock Recreation Area: Hike .4 miles along the towpath from the parking lot to the trailhead.
Billy Goat Trail C:
● Carderock Recreation Area: The trailhead is just off the parking lot.
What to Expect on the Billy Goat Trail
● Views over the Potomac River
● Spotty cell service
● Bathrooms (open daily at the Great Falls Tavern parking lot)
● Ticks, snakes, and poison ivy
● Rock-hopping and scrambling
● Crowds: This is a popular hiking spot, especially Billy Goat Trail A. If possible, aim to wrap up your hike before 8 a.m. on weekends to avoid traffic delays.
● Hazardous terrain with risks of falling: There are over 400 emergency calls and rescues on the trail each year. Don’t be one of them.
When should I hike the Billy Goat Trail?
The trails and the Great Falls Visitors Center are open year-round. Spring and fall often see trail closures after heavy rains, while winter weather can lead to ice on the trail—not good, given the exposure on the first section. Always check weather and trail conditions before hiking.
What should I pack for a hike on the Billy Goat Trail?
● Sturdy hiking boots. Good shoe grip is important because much of the trail is on precarious rocks, cliffs, and hills.
● At least two liters of water per person (there are no fill-up points along the trail)
● Sunscreen and hat
Safety Considerations on the Billy Goat Trail
● Never go into the river. Currents are strong, unpredictable, and dangerous, and even wading in or standing on rocks at the water’s edge can put you at risk of being swept under. Multiple people die every 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 off slippery rocks and cliff faces, and watch where you step.
● Check the weather and trail conditions ahead of time
● Wear sturdy hiking shoes with good grip
Can I bring my dog on the Billy Goat Trail?
Section A is too dangerous for dogs. (Don’t bring small children, either.) On Sections B and C, dogs are allowed but must always be leashed.
Do I need a permit to hike the Billy Goat Trail?
No permit is required to hike the Billy Goat Trail.
Can I stay overnight along the Billy Goat Trail?
No. There is a group campground near Section B, but it’s reserved for organized scout or civic groups only. Plan on getting it done in a day.
Section-by-Section Directions to the Billy Goat Trail
This is the most technical, strenuous, and 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 out easy with a half-mile of river, forest, and wildflowers 50 feet above the Potomac. The rock scrambling starts around Trail Marker 1, where a national park sign warns about risk of injury. From here, the Billy Goat Trail earns its name with hand-over-foot climbing, including a 50-foot near-vertical traverse. To stay on-trail, pay close attention to the blue blazes painted on rocks and trees.
Cross Pothole Alley, an expanse of porous rock with deep crevices overlooking the Mather Gorge and the Potomac River below. Soon after, you’ll reach the so-called Purplehorse “beach,” where sand and rock slope down to the river.
Loop back on the more leisurely C&O Canal towpath, or head back the way you came.
Note: As of 10/15/21, section B is closed due to trail damage. The National Park Service has not provided a timeline for reopening.
Stroll through floodplain forest on much more moderate ground than Billy Goat Trail A, with a few rock scrambles where the trail passes Hermit Island. This is the best section for bird watching — hawks, great blue herons, a menagerie of songbirds, and the occasional bald eagle.
The most laid-back of the three sections, Billy Goat Trail C winds through the shade of maples, sycamores, and box elders, over a little bridge and past a small waterfall.
Published in March 2019; updated in October 2021