Published First on RootsRated.com
The Billy Goat Trail near Great Falls is easily one of the best nature hikes near DC. It’s especially worthwhile if you’re looking to get a half-day dose of the outdoors and some exercise without the commitment of driving too far outside of DC, northern Virginia, or southern Maryland.
There are three main trails—A, B, and C—providing options for people all ages with various levels of overall health. Trail A is by far the most popular so this posting is focused on that.
Being one of the most popular day hikes in the area also makes it one of the busiest. The good news is that the trail network is spread out, so it’s not as though you’re holding hands with others on the trail.
Billy Goat literally has it all: it’s easy to access, it’s moderately difficult but not overwhelming, it has awesome views of the Potomac River, and it has plenty of places to stop and rest, eat lunch, and take in the scenery along the way.
One of the great aspects of this trail is the multitude of environments to travel through from the moment you leave the parking lot until the moment you return to it. Trail A starts off with an easy path through river streams, trees, and wildflowers. Just follow the blue hashes through the forest, and you are on your way. Then come the rock scrambles.
Rock hopping is super fun because you never know what lies just ahead of you and it requires a bit of focus and coordination—to many, it is this effort that makes the hike great. The very nature of using all four limbs to navigate makes you feel as though you’re truly getting to know the terrain and wildlife along the way. You’ll see frogs, small lizards, tadpoles, and sometimes a rabbit or a dear if you are there in the early morning when crowds haven’t yet scared them into hiding.
The scrambles bring you up toward the sky to overlooks directly across from the Virginia side of the river, where during spring and summer months, rock climbers learn to clip and climb while small river kayaking groups brave class II+ rapids beneath them. Hawks fly above, as might a rare bald eagle.
People of all ages and types hit this trail—small and large groups, trail runners, dog lovers, casual and more serious hikers, singles, families sharing family time—you name it.
While the length, climb and descent of Trail A seem relatively mild while in the thick of it, the exertion catches up by the end leaving behind a sense of accomplishment—and some well-earned sweat.
If trail A isn’t quite your speed, Trails B and C offer walks of comparable length on sturdier ground. They also provide wooded cover during the hot, humid summer months that the mid-Atlantic is known for.
Trail A – 1.7 miles
Full of rock scrambles and amazing views of the river
Trail B – 1.4 miles
Wooded nature walk, less strenuous with one scramble
Trail C – 1.6 miles
Wooded nature walk, less strenuous with no scrambles
Parking, Trailheads, and Regulations
To get to the Billy Goat Trail in the Great Falls area in Montgomery County, Maryland, travel on Macarthur Boulevard and look for Old Angler’s Inn. Park across the road in one of the designated parking lots or on the street—do not park at Old Angler’s. Restrooms are located at the entrance to the C&O Canal Towpath. You really can’t get lost, just follow the people and directional signage. Walk along the C&O to the trailhead where you can see a map and choose your route.
- This is a pack in pack out park (e.g. no garbage cans), so a small pack is probably a good idea.
- Bring water! There are no services along the way.
- The trail is well-marked with baby blue hashes.
- Check park updates in advance of visiting. Trail closures during spring and fall occur yearly after heavy rains that often destabilize the trail.
- Wear hiking shoes, or at the very least, shoes with ankle support. Rock scrambles and low tops can be a recipe for ankle rolling.
- About the crowds… it’s really not as frustrating as it can be on more narrow hikes. The area is well spread out and you can (and should!) always go at your own pace—bypassing slower hikers is easy to do, just as is stopping to let faster hikers pass by.
Distance from Downtown: 4.7 miles
Time to Complete: 3-5 hours
Seasonality: All seasons
Dog Friendly: On trails B & C, yes! (I see them on trail A almost each time I go, but I think it’s an ‘at your own risk’ type of thing.)