Billy Goat Trail: A Hiker’s Review

Billy Goat Trail (Sections A and B), located in Potomac, Maryland


I was so excited to hike the popular Billy Goat Trail! The sun was bright as I stepped outside of the car. The air held that extra zing of cold that it only has when it’s close to freezing. Not too cold for a great hike though. I immediately put on my extra coat. Luckily for me, the cold meant that parking spaces were aplenty at the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park. Long name, but if you type that in to Google maps, it takes you right to parking for Billy Goat Trail. $10 fee at the gate, but if you forget cash, they accept a credit card!

After passing the Great Falls Tavern and Visitor Center, I walked down along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath until I got to the beginning of Billy Goat Trail Section A. Right away it’s obvious this is a great place for a hiker/climber hybrid! (Or you know, just a hiker, or just a climber). This place is rocks galore, ranging from 60-foot cliffs on the river’s edge to small rocks that children would love to climb on. A few rock climbers were setting up on the cliff side across the water from Trail A. There were even a handful of brave souls kayaking down the river clad in thick wetsuits and whooping it up. For the more weather-conscious ‘yaker, this park would be a great place to put in during the warmer months.

Terrific Views

There are three sections of the trail, (A, B, and C, conveniently enough) each continuing in a loop that eventually meets back with the Canal Towpath. I stuck to A and B for the day. Unfortunately, the Overlook bridge was closed the day I visited, but I highly recommend checking it out! It has some of the best views of the Potomac River rapids.

Trail A immediately gets rocky as it bends to follow the curve of the river.
Right from the start, the views are terrific. The cliffs between the trail and water offer a great downwards view of the pretty blue-green shades of the Potomac.

This trail is a great trail for getting acquainted with scrambling. Scrambling refers to hiking on rocky inclines, where the use of one’s hands are frequently needed for balance. It also refers to mixing together eggs while they cook in a pan (heh heh). This trail has lots of great places where you have the option of taking a gentler dirt trail, or climbing the rocks like a mountain goat. Just don’t climb too close to the edge; there are lots of places where a fall would be bad news.

A Fun Climby Bit!

The one part of the trail that gets backed up is this vertical section, shown to the right:

The black arrow shows the path you follow up the small depression in the rock face (please excuse my messy arrow!). People who are not so great at rock scrambling will take a long time on this, especially when coming down from the opposite direction. An alternative is to simply climb a different section of rock, if you have any experience with scrambling and you don’t feel like waiting. It’s probably more risky, however, especially if you aren’t wearing shoes that grip. Use best judgement.

Section A winds through trees, comes across a small beach that is great for lunch, and passes through some boggy areas before coming back to the Canal Towpath. If you continue down the Towpath, you arrive at Trail B.

Trail B is considerably less rocky and more of a dirt path. This trail is also usually less crowded than Trail A, which on nicer days is cluttered with hikers. At this time of year, the green was just starting to come back! Bright patches were forcing their way into the sun along the banks of the trail. This section also follows along the river. On the back end of the loop, there were a few potential bouldering spots, if you’ve brought any bouldering gear.

Getting Back

If I estimated right, Trail A was about a 1.5 mile hike. Trail B was a little shorter. This didn’t include getting to the trails or getting back. For more of a challenge, add Trail C! Trail C passes by an area heavily used by rock climbers. But don’t forget that the more you hike, the longer it’ll take you to get back to your car. For just Trail C, there is a separate parking lot that’s closer.

To get back to the initial parking lot, you can hike the trail sections in the other direction for a longer walk, or take the Canal Towpath back. On part of the way back there’s a trail on the other side of the Angler’s Bridge off the Towpath that is less of a straight gravel road. However, the Canal Towpath has a couple nice views too, like the one to the right:

Overall, I highly recommend both trails. Section A is a little rockier, while B is more gentle. Both offer great views of the Potomac. Both may get a little crowded as the weather gets warmer. Trail A has that rocky climb that can get backed up. Billy Goat Trail is uniquely rocky for a typical Maryland hike. This alone makes it worth a visit, whether for hiking, climbing, or kayaking!


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