CAUTION! WARNING! Icy conditions may prevent us from finishing the trail. You should ONLY come if you like freezing cold for hours at a time, slippery rocks, and no promises of completing what you've finished!

The Billy Goat Trail
A small and intimate hike for Washington, D.C. adventurers
Sunday, January 18, 2004
10 a.m.

Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Park
Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center
11710 MacArthur Blvd
Potomac, MD 20854

The Billy Goat Trail is a picturesque 5 mile circuit hike along the banks of the Potomac river just south of the Great Falls waterfalls, in the upscale Maryland suburbs outside of Washington D.C.

For the casual hiker the Billy Goat trail offers tougher terrain than she may be used to. Climbs over rock scrambles and bluffs, and an exciting 60 foot vertical climb at the Spitsbergen Cliffs make for a challenging two hour hike. Overlooks abound along the trail.

The Potomac River drops 80 feet at the Great Falls. It's evident from topographic maps that this area forms a line where two tectonic plates rub against each other, making for some dramatic rock formations. The valley widens at this point. A side trail takes you to an island in the middle of the river with falls on each side of the island. As you cross bridges over the falls you can hear the tremendous power of the waters as they pound the rocks below. This is a popular area for Olympic class kayaking. It's also a popular spot for drowning. Inexperienced children and adults that venture too close to the water's edge are surprised how fast and powerful the current flows in this area. Signs warn that this area has 7 drowning deaths a year. But the beauty of the waterfall and its rocky environs, so close to a major metropolitan area, make this a very popular area in spring, summer and fall.

Winter is the only time that few visitors crowd the park. That's why we're going on a cold, possibly snowy weekend -- to avoid the crowds and fool ourselves into thinking we have the park to ourselves.

The Great Falls are located about 10 miles north of Washington, D.C. and about 4 miles north of the northern portion of I-495, Washington, D.C.'s Beltway.

The U.S. National Park Service maintains this park, called the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal park. The park's main attractions include the C & O canal and its wooden locks, but the the most prominent is the Great Falls of the Potomac River itself. The park is actually named for the Great Falls Tavern, which canal travelers used for drink and lodging.

The Billy Goat Trail consists of three segments, lettered A through C, ranging from toughest to easiest, respectively. It's located along the banks of the old Chesapeake and Ohio Canal that parallels the Potomac River.

Segment "A" is where we're going on Sunday. It is the high-excitement trail. It's roughly 5 miles in length, of which two of the miles are over rugged terrain. The rest of the walk is along a wide and flat canal path where donkeys used to pull barges before railroads overtook the need for waterway navigation.

Driving Directions

We'll assume you are somewhere on the I-495 Beltway heading toward the American Legion bridge.

  • Take Exit 41 (River Road Carderock/Glen Echo). Head toward Carderock. Drive 1.7 miles.
  • Turn left onto MacArthur Blvd. Drive 2.1 miles to the end of the boulevard. You'll see a sign for the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Park.
  • Drive straight ahead into the parkway entrance. Drive 1.1 miles to the ranger station.
  • Pay $5 per vehicle entrance fee. ($5/vehicle, not $5/person!)
  • Turn right into the parking lot on the right.
  • Meet at the northern parking lot at 10 a.m.

After the walk it would be nice if we retired to a close-by restaurant, had lunch, got to know one another, and embellished our stories about the hike. I'm paying for NotFabio's lunch. There's an ulterior motive: I desperately want to go waterskiing behind a big-assed nuclear aircraft carrier when NF becomes a boat driver. (Oh great. Now he informs me he's going to drive a sub. That's okay too. Just keep it on the surface until I can fit inside that right wake curl coming off the tail of your monster guppy, Fabs.)

The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal park website is at:

Print out two maps found at

The hikers are:



The trail was wet and the rocks were slick with ice. It rained half the time. Gray skies. Cold. And, yes, we loved it and we would do it again. We were the only ones on the trail until the very end. We stepped into no footprints other than our own.

A lone kayaker/canoer accompanied us down the river. Small light green patches of ice flowed down the slow portions of the Potomac river. The Spitzbergen cliff, the 60 foot vertical climb along a cleft in the hard rock face of a cliff, was made treacherous by icy foot- and hand-holds. That made it all the more exciting, of course.

I was privileged to meet NotFabio, a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD, Jurph, a lieutenant in the Air Force who's working on cool satellite stuff, and Valrus a math/computer science undergraduate at Macalaster College in St. Paul, Minn. All fine lads. All good strong hikers. They never complained and showed evident eagerness for the combination of bad weather and rocky trail. This makes them all mates in my book.

Valrus's nicely composed pictures at Wertperch's fabulous site: