Billy Goat/C&O Canal Towpath Loop

  • Highlights: Waterfalls, rock scrambles, river views
  • Distance: 4.9 mile loop
  • Elevation change: 205 feet
  • Difficulty level: Moderate/Technical
  • Trailhead Parking: Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center, Potomac MD, park fee required
  • Website: C&O Canal National Historical Park
  • Beer Pairings: Old Angler’s Inn—Sam Adams Boston Lager

The Hike:

The Virginia side of Great Falls has slightly better views, at least in our opinion. However, the Billy Goat Trail on the Maryland side is a better hike. It is one of the most popular hikes in the DC area and gets very crowded on weekends. Arrive early to beat the crowds for a more enjoyable hike.

There are three trail sections of the Billy Goat Trail, creatively called Billy Goat A, B, and C. The three sections are connected by the towpath and combined are over eight miles. As of June 2021, section B was closed due to erosion issues. This hike includes Billy Goat section A and a return on the C&O Canal Towpath.

Billy Goat section A is not a hike for the faint of heart. It’s a 1.75 mile technical rock scramble. This is not a difficult hike, but does require considerable “hand and foot” climbing and navigating through rocky sections. Dogs are not allowed on Billy Goat A. Be sure to have proper footwear and bring plenty of water. The trail is well marked with blue blazes.

We were joined on this hike by Pete’s sister Nan and our niece Hannah. Hannah is an avid hiker and she has hiked Billy Goat several times. We appreciated having an experience guide as in several sections it can be tricky to find the blue blazes marking the trail.

From the Visitor Center parking area, follow the Towpath past several canal locks to a spur trail on the right. A .25 mile boardwalk leads to Olmsted Island and provides excellent views of Great Falls and Virginia. This will be the only view of the falls on this hike. The Billy Goat Trail passes through Mather Gorge which is downriver from the falls.

Return to the Towpath and continue to the junction with Billy Goat section A, just before the white covered bridge. Billy Goat A is now a one-way trail to to make hiking through the narrow sections easier and safer. 

Follow the blue blazes as the trail passes over and around rocky surfaces much of the way. Watch your footing on the rocks, but don’t forget to take in the views as you hike. About half way through the hike is the famous Traverse, a 50’ scramble up a crack in the rock wall. Take your time, it’s not as bad as it looks.

Just past the Traverse is an optional exit trail for those who have had enough of the Billy Goat. For more scrambling, continue on the blue-blazed trail to Purplehorse Beach, a sandy area with great views of the gorge and the Virginia side. 

The scrambling and climbing continue as the trail moves away from the Potomac and winds its way back to the C&O Canal Towpath. Turn left here and follow the Towpath for an easy walk along the canal back to the parking area.

Hike Photos:

Click on an image below for an enlarged view.

Beer Pairing:

We finished our hike just before noon so lunch was also on the agenda. The Old Angler’s Inn is located just down the road from the Visitor Center in Potomac. They have a limited bottled beer selection but the food is good and the location is hard to beat. They have indoor and outdoor seating.

Kathy broke from tradition and enjoyed a Moscow Mule. Nan and Hannah liked the Angry Orchard hard cider. Pete has fond memories of Sam Adams Boston Lager. It was one of the first craft beers on the East coast back in the middle 1980s. Sam Adams was a breath of fresh air compared to the bland beers mass produced by the mega breweries of that era. Boston Lager is still a solid craft beer option.

Hike and drink responsibly. Never drink and drive. Stay safe and be responsible.

1 thought on “Billy Goat/C&O Canal Towpath Loop”

  1. Such amazing pictures! Billy Goat is a favorite in my house, and your descriptions are spot on!

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