One of our all time favorite hikes is located along the C & O Canal near Great Falls in Potomac and is called the Billy Goat Trail. It is well named, as there is plenty of scrambling and rock hopping along the trail—which makes it perfect and exciting for kids young and old. Along with the fun hiking, the views of the Potomac River are beautiful.
There are three sections to the trail—A, B and C. We always do the A trail, as that is the trail with the most rock climbing involved. That trail can take us two to three hours—on the longer side if we have younger kids with us or if we stop for lunch, so do pack a lunch, water and snacks and make a morning or afternoon or even a day of it.
With all the mention of rock-climbing, you’re probably wondering how old your kids need to be to go—that kind of depends on you. I’ve gone with someone carrying a baby in a backpack. I think that would challenge me, but they seemed fine with it. My nephew, who is pretty agile, did fine on the trail when we was only three years old. So, it’s up to you. There are a lot of rocks to scramble over, and at one point we come to a place we refer to as “the elevator”. It’s an uphill climb on a narrow passageway, which scares most people at first, but isn’t that bad once you’re on it. So don’t look down, just keep plugging along.
My older kids still love the trail. Whenever they’re home from college for a break, they usually head to the Billy Goat Trail—sometimes without me now, which makes me sad when I hear of the fun I’ve missed.
To get to the Billy Goat Trail, you have two options:
1. Park at Great Falls Park (part of the National Park Service). To get there, take Falls Road to MacArthur Boulevard and turn right. There is a $5 entrance fee. Walk along the canal towpath past the Visitors’ Center and other buildings. The entrance to the Billy Goat Trail will be on your right and is well marked. From the parking area, it is about .9 miles. After hiking the trail, you will come back out on the towpath. Take a left to get back to the parking area. This is the hard part for kids, because the excitement of all the climbing is over, and it’s almost a two-mile walk back.
2. Park for free along MacArthur Blvd right across from Old Anglers Inn. Instead of turning right to enter the park under Option 1, turn left instead. Go down the road a bit until you come to a couple of gravel parking lots on the right-hand side. They usually fill up fast if it’s a nice day. Find a spot and head on the towpath toward Great Falls. From this direction (which is opposite of Option 1.), you have the longer part of the hike on the towpath at the beginning, instead of the end (much better for us!). Going this way the entrance for the Billy Goat Trail will be on your left. When you get done with the Trail, and are back on the towpath, turn right to return to your car.
Enjoy your hike, keep your eyes open for turtles, snakes (I’m terrified of snakes—we have seen a few on this trail—but never close enough to bother me) or other wildlife, and make sure that you stay out of the Potomac River—the currents can be strong.
And, if you have enough energy after your hike, and you parked in the Great Falls parking area, make sure you take the short walk out to see Great Falls. It’s beautiful.