The Billy Goat Trail is one of the most well known hikes in the Metro D.C. area, and for good reason. With nearly a mile of fun rock-hopping, and spectacular views of the Potomac River along the way, this circuit is loads of fun with plenty to see. We have the circuit rated as only a for difficulty, but be prepared to jump from rock to rock.
The Billy Goat Trail is very busy on nice days anytime of the year, however if you get on the trail by 8:00 a.m. you can miss all the crowds. The entire Billy Goat Trail is made up of 3 separate sections A, B, & C, that start and finish on the C&O Canal. The 7.8 mile circuit we have mapped here follows the rock-hopping section A, the more casual hike on section B, with a return back to the Great Falls parking area using the Berma Rd. Trail and Overlook Trail.
Mile 0.0 – From the parking area at Great Falls Park follow the path past the Great Falls Tavern and Visitors Center, cross over to the C&O Canal at Lock 19, then follow the C&O canal down to the entrance for the Billy Goat A Trail 50 yards before the covered Stop Gate.
Mile 0.9 - Turn right onto the Billy Goat A Trail where shortly it starts paralleling the Potomac River. The Potomac River is approximately 50ft below at this point. From here the trail becomes more of a rock-hop then arrives at Trail Marker 1.
Mile 1.4 - Trail Marker 1 is the point where the rock-hopping becomes more intense. There is a National Park sign warning hikers that 'Many hikers are injured every year on this section of the Billy Goat A Trail' so be prepared for a little more scrabbling. Between Markers 1 and 2 you also need to climb the 50ft traverse mentioned on the Trail Marker 1 sign. Although this might look slightly intimidating to some people, once on the traverse it's not that difficult.
Mile 1.9 - From Trail Marker 2 the scrambling diminishes, and the trail descends to the river bank where there is a nice beach area. DO NOT be tempted to wade into the water as the currents are deceptively strong, and you can be quickly washed down stream. Continue along the trail passing a wetland, small pond, then crossing a small log bridge. On the opposite side of the log bridge is Trail Marker 3.
Mile 2.2 - From Trail Marker 3 there is one more spectacular panorama of the Potomac River before the trail becomes more gentle passing by Sherwin Island and arriving back at the C&O Canal.
Mile 2.5 - Turn right on the C&O Canal following it for 0.6 miles to the entrance of the Billy Goat B Trail.
Mile 2.8 - Turn right on the Billy Boat B Trail. The trail is considerably more leisurely than the Billy Goat A Trail, with only a small section of rock-hopping where the trail passes Hermit Island. Where the Potomac River passes Hermit Island is a favorite spot for Paddle Boarders surfing the river wakes. Continue on the trail passing the Marsden Tract Campground, then arrive back at the C&O Canal.
Mile 4.4 - Now turn left on the C&O Canal heading back towards Great Falls. In 1.1 miles reach the Anglers Parking Area bridge over the C&O Canal.
Mile 7.5 - Turn left at the Lock 19 Trail and follow it back down to the main Great Falls Park area. Continue past the Great Falls Tavern and Visitors Center back to the parking area.
Mile 7.8 - Arrive back at the parking area.
Billy Goat Trail
Billy Goat Trail Hike Comments
Date of Hike: Saturday, April 14, 2018
If you enjoy long walks/hikes in nature, and hate driving/don't have time for Shenandoah, then Billy Goat Trail is perfect for you. I've been here 4 times in 7 months. So far, every season has presented a different look of this trail, and I've loved it every time. Whether you're watching geese in the river, dogs strolling along, kids scampering all over, or are just one of the several people navigating the 50 ft cliff, this place gives ample opportunities to connect with nature despite the crowds. My favorite thing about it is that it is short enough to squeeze it into a workday, strenuous enough to break a sweat, countless spots to take a break, and beautiful views to keep you going!
Date of Hike: Sunday, July 16, 2017
Flat out... my favorite hike. With over 1700 legs of the "A" Trail in 16 years, I may know Bear Island better than the deer or foxes. There is NO better hike within 70 miles of Washington, DC in any direction. This is where you come to sweat, get scraped up and commune with nature. Here I would like to ask that all the potential hikers who check in here, please observe a certain amount of courtesy for the trail and other hikers. Also, RESPECT the trail. It is DANGEROUS! Over a dozen lives a year are lost out here by those who are either ill equipped, out of condition or inattentive to the terrain. Please use adequate footware. Cabin John VFD River Rescue respond to over 100 calls per year for orthopedic injuries or exhaustion. I've seen them have 3 separate calls in one day during the spring and summer on weekends. This is NOT the place to bring mom for beautiful stroll into nature. Take her to a restaurant. Now for those who wish to hike the trail. Please don't show up with more than 4 or 5 to your party. Much of the trail is single passage. Traffic runs both ways. Be considerate to the other hikers who arrive in 1s and 2s. Also parties of 4 or more typically travel much slower and make a lot of noise. There are foxes out here that may be visible to the quiet. Hognose snakes can be heard to "hiss" when near if you are quiet. Snappers can hear people 40 yards away and just disappear until the quiet returns. You also want to hear the Piliated Woodpecker which sounds like "Jungle Monkeys" out here.
Please stay out of the water, as it is a CFR VIOLATION and fine. It's also a major cause for the loss of life out here. And no one wants to see this place closed off to the public. I would also recommend that headphones/ear buds be put away. Stay off of phones unless stopped. You need all of your senses in gear as there are not two flat areas next to each other out here. Its too easy to roll an ankle out here when talking, looking behind or just not paying attention to exactly where one is stepping.
One small piece of advice, upon approach to Purple Horse Beach, note that the rocks here are more weathered and rounded. They are the slippery even when dry. Also note these same rocks are darker than anywhere else around here. They have been in the sun all day and radiate heat. It is a giant sauna bath. Many approach heat exhaustion in this area. This is "Ground Zero" for Cabin John River Rescue on emergency calls. It is also typically the place where bodies will wash up of those who were stupid enough to jump off the cliffs.
Please, enjoy the BGT "A". Respect it and the other hikers who have come to love this small area of paradise. All of Bear Island is one big rock, so please be careful as any slip has the potential to be critical.
Getting off my soap box now. I love this place. Hope to see you out here.
Date of Hike: Saturday, June 24, 2017
First time doing the Billy Goat A trail from beginning to end. The 50 foot wall is a challenge but doable. If you like rock hopping you will love this hike. Stunning views! I went on a Saturday afternoon and while there were many people on my he trail I was hadn't call for t crowded. Very little waiting time.
Next time I'll wear my gloves.
Date of Hike: Saturday, June 10, 2017
This was an amazing hike! You get a great workout in and the views are spectacular. I arrived at the parking lot at 8 am and the lot across from the Old Anglers Inn was full, I got lucky that someone was leaving as I was pulling in, so definitely get there early. When I started the trail there was already 3 groups ahead of me and about 5 groups behind me. I expected that due to hiking on the weekend, but if you want a quiet trail you have to get there earlier.
The trail itself was tons of fun, I am in shape, but in no means a hiker so I was nervous doing this trail but it wasnt bad! Plus, there were other people who were also doing the trail that helped other hikers out. There were already people sitting on the overlooks when I got there but I was still able to find some spots to sit.
Overall this was an awesome hike, arrive early and have fun!
Date of Hike: Saturday, April 15, 2017
Re Section A: Wonderful trail, but follow these simple rules for maximum enjoyment for yourself and others.
Arrive early, especially on nice weekends. The trail gets very crowded and by 10 am, there can be long waits at certain spots on the trail.
Leave your pet at home. Pets are not allowed on Section A of the Billy Goat Trail.
Stay on trail by following the blue blazes. BGT-A is on Bear Island, full of rare and endangered plant species. You'll also avoid the ticks, chiggers, copperheads, and northern water snakes.
Do not enter the river. The Potomac is very dangerous and entering the water is illegal. Even wading can be deadly.
Bring plenty of water and wear appropriate clothing. Injuries are frequent, rescue is difficult, and caution is appropriate.
Date of Hike: Sunday, January 22, 2017
Started the trail on a foggy Sunday morning at 8:30 and empty car park.
Took a leisurely walk round the trail, one technical bit that is fine don't let it stop you if are nervous, take it slow and dont let ppl pressure you, there plenty of hand holds and the rocks arent slippy
Definitely go the rotation as described as one technical bit would be tricky going down.
-easy to get to
-AWESOME VIEWS, needs stated twice to have a such a view so close is really lucky
-interesting trail with lots of technical like scrambles that are really enjoyable
-i can see this trail being packed very quickly a problem of its location and amazing views, but its to be shared with all
I can't tell you how much i really enjoyed the hike, really beautiful.
Date of Hike: Saturday, November 26, 2016
We went the Saturday after Thanksgiving around 10 AM and parking lot wasn't too full at that point, but started to get busy quickly. The trail is one of our favorite ones in the area and is quite a workout if you do it quickly. Starting at the Great Falls Parking area and doing the full Billy Goat Trail A and coming back along the tow path takes about 2.5 hours if you go at a good speed and it's not overly crowded. Once you get onto the trail just past the Falls you will find a nice easy trail into the woods which seems like it will be a piece of cake, but then the rock hopping begins. Quite a variety of rock hopping which added to the fun of it (especially for kids) over the 1.75 mile section A. Some of it is fairly easy hopping from one rock to the the other while other sections require both hands as well. Some pretty good climbing sections especially the 50 foot traverse about midway through (that can become a bottleneck). Great views along with the whole hike of the river and the people doing a similar hike on the Virginia side. Water levels were really, really low this trip. Have always done the hike starting from the Great Falls Park end (and not the Anglers Inn side), but it's about the same number of people doing it each way. You certainly will have no solitude at all on the weekends as it can be very, very crowded so definitely try and go early. Have never been on a weekday, but hope to do that soon. Overall one of the best hikes in the area, a great workout and spectacular views.
Date of Hike: Wednesday, November 2, 2016
I regularly hike the Billy Goat A trail. Round trip from the tavern is about 4.5 miles and normally takes 2.5 to 3 hours. This is a challenging but short technical hike with a bit of rock scrambling and a climb up a 50 ft rock wall. Billy Goat A is the only difficult trail within the C&O National park. B is also the only one through a protected area of the park (Bear Island) - therefore no pets are allowed. Billy Goat B trail is almost as pretty but is a fun walk, not a hike. It's also usually much less crowded. So if you are not an experienced hiker or if you bring a dog try Billy Goat B not A. If you are hiking A wear hiking boots or tennis shoes with good rubber soles, bring water and a camera.
- Gorgeous views of the Potomac River especially Mather gorge. Take the time to also visit Olmstead overlook on your way. Its a 15 minute side trip over a boardwalk area, handicap accessible (but no pets or bikes) and the best river views. Billy Goat B views of the river are also wonderful.
- Billy Goat A is a very well marked trail, actually overblazed. Follow the blue blazes. Hiking off trail is prohibited as it damages the rare & fragile plant life.
- Herons, turtles, woodpeckers, deer turkey vultures and lizards abound especially in the mornings.
- Billy Goat A is the only area of the park actively patrolled by "Billy Goat Trail Stewards" They are likely the first people you will see when you need rescue or just help getting back on the trail.
- Go early in the day on weekends, holidays or free park days as the parking lots and this trail get crowded.
- Lots of people on this trail who are not hikers and or are ill prepared. Helicopter rescues, river boat rescues and rescues by the Trail stewards & Rangers occur on many weekends. I've seen several ankle injuries, concussions and broken arms in additions to lots of people being treated for dehydration during the summers.
- There is no swimming in the park - very hefty fine.
- Copperheads and northern water snakes, plus ticks. Greater chance of finding these off trail, another good reason to stay on trail.
Also this is a trash free park so if you bring it in please bring it out with you.
Great trail to hike, one of my favorites.
Date of Hike: Saturday, October 29, 2016
My husband and I had a great time hiking Billy Goat Sections A and B! We started early and ended the hike around 1 PM--as we were leaving the parking lot was PACKED. We were so glad we listened and got there early.
The rock scrambling was a bit more strenuous than I had expected reading the instructions for the hike, but we were prepared. Next time, I plan to bring gloves for better gripping on the rocks. We did see a lot of people there, especially families with children, that had me concerned about their preparedness.
The ONLY negative thing we had to say is regarding the instructions on Hiking Upward. I would recommend clarifying that you will be parking at the Ohio and Chesapeake Canal NHP parking lot, which costs $10. If you use the directions function on the website, to Carroll Branch, we ended up in a housing development that did not have access to the park. There were other options for free parking farther away, but as we were leaving, we saw the police giving out TONS of parking tickets to people parked illegally.
Date of Hike: Saturday, September 10, 2016
This was my second hike and much more technical. I was with one other person so we can help and support one another in case of any emergencies. I do not prefer to hike on my own and I do not recommend it is possible. I am dealing with some major injuries to my ankle and knee so it was also a good gauge to let me know of my limitations. I left my trekking poles in the car but the smarter move would have been to bring them along. We chose to take the more difficult path. We started with Billy Goat A entrance on the right side which does not take long to get rocky. This was nice and just what I needed. The trail is well marked here (blue blazes). Great scenic views, high cliff that drop almost completely vertical. Nice place to get some eye candy sit and eat a snack. I printed out the directions for trail which were most easy to follow. We did the entire loop back to the parking lot at the top and I think the total was about 10/12 miles. One item that surprised me was the lack of carry on items other hikers had. Many did not even carry water! Everything I have read and even conversations with avid hikers the one constant is WATER. Perhaps we were the very few that were doing the largest loop and others were hiking shorter routes. I did not see anyone other than ourselves breaking a sweat. It seemed that most people were so underdressed and prepared. Anyways... I am working on developing my hiking legs so I can go bigger such as Old Rag and other interesting and technical hikes. This one is fun and has its technical parts and others that allow a good mixture to keeep the trail interesting.