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When my friend came to visit for the weekend I thought an outdoorsy hike would nicely fill a Sunday afternoon. The previous day we had our city outing – wandering around Eastern Market so it was time for some real exercise. I chose the Billy Goat Trail which is part of the Great Falls Park in Virginia, mainly because of it’s proximity to DC. Only a half hour drive away it’s the perfect opportunity to get out of the bustling city and in with nature.
I had seen the falls themselves when I was little but had never hiked up to them. You can in fact dodge the whole trail and just drive right on up to the visitor center to scurry over to falls themselves – but where’s the sense of adventure in that?
A little bit of background. The Great Falls Park in Virginia is where the Potomac River builds up speed and momentum as it rapidly flows past the steep rocks and through the Mather Gorge. The park can be accessed from both the Virginia and Maryland side. From the Virginia side the address is 9200 Old Dominion Drive, Mclean VA and from there you can access three different overlooks. The Maryland location is off of 8600 Falls Road in Potomac MD and offers two overlooks. The best views though are seen from the Billy Goat Trail.
The trail itself is split up into three parts, A, B and C – with a total length of 4.7 miles. Section A, the one leading up to the falls, is the most popular one and spans a length of 1.7 miles. Section B is 1.4 miles in length and C 1.6 miles. The most complicated is section A with a lot of rock scrambling required and one climb down a rock facade of the Mather Gorge.
I had read that the hike was slightly advanced due to the rock scrambling and not recommended for everyone. This information is difficult to interpret though as you don’t really know the physical condition of the writer himself nor can I accurately rate how good of shape I’m currently in.
After a small bout of paranoia I decided that if the rock scrambling was the hardest part, I could somehow work through it. And so we set off.
With a late afternoon start (1 PM) – we decided to head for the beginning of Section B and parked the car at the furthest parking lot of the Carderock Recreation Area. From the parking lot we easily spotted a trail marker and set onward. The first part of Section B you’re walking through the forest filled with foliage. After a certain point you start to walk along the edge of the river with gorgeous views of the sparkling water. The trees are marked with strips of blue paint to ensure you can easily follow along.
To connect to Section A of the trail you need to walk along the towpath of the C&O Canal when you reach the end of Section B. This part is just flat gravel ground where bikers are allowed.
The real hiking begins when you reach section A – you have to turn off of the towpath which is indicated by a Billy Trail marker map (you can always just stay on the towpath if you’re not up for the challenge). There really is a lot of rock and boulder scrambling. Nothing a generally fit person in their 20s or 30s can’t handle though. At no point do you have to risk your life to grab onto a huge boulder or leap from the edge of one to the other risking doom. Generally you just need to use your hands at times to balance yourself to climb onto larger rocks. The most intimating part was climbing down the rock face which does at first look pretty steep and slightly slippery. Once again as long as you croch down on all fours to balance your weight you can slowly and easily shift down the rock face.
Unfortunately my camera died at this point (can you believe it?)! I was crushed — all this hiking and I wouldn’t even get a single picture of the falls themselves! In my defense I did find a gentleman with a canon dslr who I politely approached to ask if I could borrow his camera battery for a moment, but as luck would have it – his battery was not the same as mine. He did offer to take a few photos of my friend and I but I have yet to get those back from him….The falls themselves are a unique sight. After a fairly peaceful hike the powerful stream of water bursting through the rocks really leaves quite the impression. With multiple overlooks you can continue to walk around and see different parts of the falls and from different angles. After admiring the water for a while we made our way back to the car – choosing to skip both sections of the trail and just follow the towpath all the way back.So unfortunately I leave you here today without a photo of the finale itself but hopefully the suspense will encourage you to take this hike yourself and I guarantee you won’t regret it.
Great Falls Park: Virginia location - 9200 Old Dominion Drive, Mclean VA, Maryland location - off of 8600 Falls Road, Potomac MD
Billy Goat Trail is split up into 3 sections, A -1.6 miles (most difficult) B – 1.4 miles C – 1.7 miles (furthest from the falls)
Parking available at the Carderock Recreation Area in Potomac Maryland to access the beginning of section B (park at the furthest lot from the entrance).
Allot 4 – 4.5 hours to complete the hike (from section B to section A and back using the towpath).Bikes are allowed on the C&O Canal Towpath which runs along the Billy Goat Trail.