Not the Beltway

I’ve been doing occasional posts on things overlooked in the DC area–stuff you might miss if you were just in town for a short time, or things even local people don’t know anything about. This next one is pretty remarkable.

The Billy Goat Trail runs along the Potomac river and the old C&O canal. It’s spectacular and rugged, and when you’re on it you can hardly believe you’re so close to DC. It’s just outside the beltway on the Maryland side of the river, along McArthur Boulevard. Of the three sections section A is the most interesting. It’s a rugged hike that involves a lot of rock climbing and scrambling, and even a semi-famous cliff. For us, coming from South on the compass, it starts easily enough, along the canal towpath across the street from the Old Angler’s Inn. You come to a place where the canal is as wide as a small lake, with rocky islands in it. From there the trail, breaking off to the left, is remarkably varied. There are small rocky hills, streams to cross, and sandy beaches where you can take a lunch break. There are marshy parts and pine woods. But the highlight is probably Mather Gorge, just south of Great Falls:


Here it is on an overcast New Year’s day.



That blue mark in the foreground is a blaze. It’s a very well marked trail, and pretty heavily used. As you walk along you see kayakers on the river and climbers working the cliffs on the Virginia side. Kids love the scrambling, but this part is a little intimidating:



It’s called “the traverse,” and it’s a 50 foot climb or drop. It’s easier going up, starting from the north,  than it is coming down.



But my daughter was only seven when this picture was taken (she’s in the pink coat) and she made it down, with a little help from her mom. So it’s not too hard. It’s getting harder for me, I have to admit.

The trail is a great place to see herons, terrapins, lizards and snakes, bluebirds, and deer. It’s geologically fascinating, with warped and layered, heavily weathered rock formations, full of round potholes scoured out by the river millennia ago.



After the gorge you come out again on the canal path, and can hike a mile or so north to Great Falls, or enjoy an easy flat walk back to the parking lot, full of equally beautiful views. In the picture below, that’s the towpath on the left.

bgoat2If you’re hungry, or cold, the Old Angler’s Inn is just across the street and has a great bar with a fireplace. They used to have a dress code, but they’ve recently made it much more welcoming to hikers and kayakers.

The park Service does include this sign, posted at the north end of the trail:


It’s a rugged trail, and not quite five miles round trip. But a seven year old can do it, and so can a 53 year old sedentary historian. There’s a section along the gorge where you are picking your way along some very thin ridges of rock, and the Park Service says people do fall and get hurt. But we’ve done it in heat and snow, in all seasons, and it’s always beautiful and always interesting.


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