Billy Goat Trail Section A: Your Complete Guide

If adventure is on the agenda for the summer, you do not have to travel far. The Billy Goat Trail Section A of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park in Maryland offers kids and families a challenging hike that will keep everyone on their toes.

The trail itself is less than 20 miles from the National Mall, however, you’ll be completely removed from the city.

In This Guide:

About Billy Goat Trail Section A
Things to Do
Hiking: What to Expect
Age Recommendations
Trail Map
Swimming
Fees & Pricing
Hours & When to Go
Parking
What to Bring
Alternatives to Section A
Frequently Asked Questions
Good to Know Before You Go
Getting There
Things to Do Nearby

A family of Our Kids reviewers hiked the trail recently. The parents and three boys ages 6, 10 and 12 started out early to give you first hand experience on what to expect during your visit.

About Billy Goat Trail Section A

The Billy Goat trail is an extremely popular trail in the DC area. It has 3 different sections: A, B and C and here we’re focusing on Section A.

Billy Goat Trail Section A is a 1.75 mile trail. It’s a more strenuous trail that goes one way down stream.

Due to the terrain, having everyone traveling in one direction makes it safer for all.

This trail also provides an Exit Trail at the half way point so you can exit earlier if desired.

Things to Do at Billy Goat Trail Section A

While you may think Billy Goat Trail Section A is just for hiking, there is more that you can do. Some of the other activities are:

  • Have lunch (and / or an ice cream) at Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center
  • The Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center has educational information on the area
  • View the falls from a series of bridges on the Overlook Trail (just a short walk)
  • From May to October, visitors also can take one-hour mule-drawn boat trips along the canal (offered Wednesday through Sunday). During these one-hour rides, visitors travel up the canal by boat, locking through lift locks.
  • Have a picnic
Billy Goat Trail Section A Climb
Credit National Park Service

Hiking: What to Expect

Aside from the beautiful views of the Mather Gorge and the Potomac River, the chief attraction of Billy Goat Trail Section A is the rock scrambling.

Climbing over rocks is a primal activity for human as well as goat kids. Children get a chance to use their entire bodies as they move along the trail.

The boys found the handholds and footholds on the rocks plenty wide enough for them to traverse.

At the section of the trail near the visitor center, the 6-year-old needed help from his parents to move across a rock wall.

Nearer the Old Anglers Inn end of the trail, hikers need to cross a wide stream. The 6-year-old boy used a bear crawl to travel the length of a large log, aided by shouts of encouragement from his family and other hikers.

His 10-year-old brother boldly walked along the log, while the oldest members of the family crossed the stream by stepping on rocks in the stream bed.

At various points along the trail, intrepid hikers are rewarded with wonderful views.

The boys enjoyed watching people below canoeing and kayaking in the Potomac. They were excited to see tadpoles swimming in rain water puddles that had formed in the rocks relatively distant from the river.

Where to Start the Trail: Billy Goat Trail Section A

Previously, hikers disagreed about where to start a hike along Billy Goat Trail Section A.

Since 2020, the park has ended that disagreement and now has all visitors travel in the same, one-way direction. To start, head to Great Falls Tavern and access the trail head from there.

For our first visit prior to 2020, we started at the parking lot across from Old Anglers Inn (across from 10801 MacArthur Blvd., Potomac, Md.).

This route requires visitors to scramble down a rock face that offers a fairly small ledge to walk along.

A big advantage of traveling in this direction is ending the rocky portion of hike a short distance from the visitor center. It also seemed helpful to cope with the stream crossing at the beginning, when the kids were still fresh.

Additionally, in this direction the Billy Goat Trail A offers an “opt-out”trail that leads off the rocks before the most rigorous hiking.

Still, some travelers we encountered swear by hiking in the opposite direction. Hiking up the rock face is much simpler than easing down it, they said.

Trail A took about 2.5 hours to complete. It is strenuous but the views are unmatched. At one point I was literally climbing over rocks and scaling a 40 ft cliff (don’t worry, if you have balance and coordination it’s safe). Older children can do this trail and it’s a definite confidence booster when everyone completes it.

-Morgan V.

Getting Back to the Car

Billy Goat Trail section A is meant to be a one-way trail. When you get to the end of the trail, you’ll have a nearly 2 mile walk back to the car.

So what are you options?

If you have a group member who is not interested in the hike, they can drop off the hikers on the Old Anglers Inn side and then meet the group at the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center to eliminate those last 2 difficult miles on the C&O Canal towpath.

If you have bikes, another option is to drop off bikes at the visitor center, drive down to the inn parking lot, pick up the Billy Goat trail there, and then ride back to the car along the towpath.

We walked the C&O Canal Towpath which was quite hot, relatively boring and very tiring.

A highlight for the older boys was the chance to see what they thought was an otter jump into the canal.

It was awesome ????, have few challenges on the way , you will using your hand to climb those huge rock , slippery too.But fun for the whole family.

– Marina B.

How Long Does It Take to Hike?

One web review consulted before the hike reported that strong hikers could finish the 1.7-mile “A”path in an hour and a half.

This will NOT be the case with children in tow.

The National Park Service suggests the full 3.6-mile loop (including a return on the C&O Canal towpath) will take at least 3 hours.

We spent 6 hours on the outing, including the Billy Goat A Trail, a long break for lunch at the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center, and an amble back to the car along the canal towpath.

Age Recommendations

The Billy Goat Trail A is not for little kids.

Children should be at least around 7-years-old and be relatively fit. It definitely helps to have hiked before too.

As the 12-year-old hiker in the group of Our Kids reviewers said, “It takes a lot of energy.”

Very scenic trail, not too difficult but I’d caution against taking young children. You do have to climb up a rockside that’s about 50 feet or so and it does consist of quite a bit of rock jumping, but all in all a pretty laid back and beautiful trail.

– Bilal H.

The Our Kids hikers were experienced Cub and Boy Scouts, so the rock scrambling proved challenging but not daunting.

The 6-year-old beamed at comments from other hikers along the way who were impressed with his progress.

He was one of the youngest children encountered during the trek, though a pair of strong, youthful parents was seen hoisting toddlers across various obstacles.

Trail Map

You can see a larger version of the Billy Goat Trail map here.

Swimming

Swimming is NOT permitted in the park. While it may look refreshing and even in some parks calm, the current underneath is STRONG. Park rangers, volunteers, and signs emphasize to visitors that the water is treacherous below.

The same weekend we made our visit, two people lost their lives in the water on the Virginia side of the Potomac near Great Falls Park, VA.

You can learn more about the perils at Great Falls here.

Fees & Pricing

Great Falls Park does charge a fee to enter and there are a few options to consider:

Vehicle Permit: $20

This permit allows everyone inside the vehicle to enter the park. You can also use this permit to enter the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park.

Individual Permit: $10

If you arrive at the park on foot, bicycle or horse, it only costs $10 to enter, however you pay per person. Ages 15 and under do not have to pay.

The individual permit also gives you access to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park.

Annual Pass: $35

Another option you have is to purchase an annual Great Falls Park pass. This gives you access to Great Falls Park and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park all year long.

This works for regular vehicles entering the park as well as for individuals. The pass holder and 3 additional adults (16+) will be admitted.

America The Beautiful Pass: $80

This pass gives you access to 2,000 federal recreation sites, so if you plan to visit a lot of places, this is a great option.

Hours & When to Go

Great Falls Park, including the trails open at 7am and close 30 minutes after sunset everyday (except for December 25th when the park is closed).

The visitor center is typically open from 9am to 4:30pm daily, however, it is temporarily closed during Covid.

As the part is very popular, it’s best to go during the week to avoid the larger crowds on the weekends. You may experience wait times to climb down parts of the trail as you have to wait for the hikers in front of you on this one-way trail.

The earlier in the day you can go, especially on weekends and during the summer, the better so you can avoid longer lines entering the park.

Parking

Parking at the Great Falls Tavern provides the closest access to the beginning of the trail.

What to Bring

Being prepared always helps make the adventure more fun. Here are some items we recommend you bring with you:

  • Camera (to capture all the great views)
  • Comfortable hiking shoes
  • Lunch
  • Snacks
  • Plenty of water (the park recommends 2 liters per person)
  • Sunscreen
  • Hat
  • Small first aid kit
  • Bug spray
  • Gloves / jacket (if cold)
  • Trail Map

Alternatives to Section A

If the family likes to hike but isn’t quite up to the rigor of rock scrambling, consider Billy Goat Trail Section B or Billy Goat Trail Section C, both of which are accessible from the Old Anglers Inn parking lot.

Trail B offers a gentle hike along the river with a small amount of rock scrambling.

The third trail, Trail C, is accessed from Carderock and offers scenic views of the river and a small falls.

Trail A is a good rock scramble / hike. From the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center (the nearest parking), a round trip down trail A and back along the tow path takes two hours at a solid pace without stops (about 3.5 – 4 miles total). Trail C is more of a gentle walk in the woods and can be fun even for kids.

– Wes H.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take to do the Billy Goat Trail?

It can take a few hours or more. Don’t forget to allot extra time to stop and enjoy the views!

How hard is Billy Goat Trail Section A?

This is the hardest part of the 3 sections. You will be climbing over rocks and boulders, some angled downwards. While more difficult, it is very rewarding an offers beautiful views of the river and waterfalls.

There are parts where you’ll be on all fours to climb and other times where you’ll be sliding down.

Which Billy Goat Trail is the easiest?

Billy Goat Trail Section C is the easiest of the 3 trails. There are a few rocks to climb along the way and the trail is a 1.7 mile loop.

Why is it called the Billy Goat Trail?

If you think about how Billy Goats have to walk along the mountainous rocks, that will give you some insight into what to expect on your hike.

Can you walk into Great Falls Park?

Yes, you can! The park even has individual permits to allow pedestrians who travel on foot or bike.

Good to Know Before You Go

  • Go early to beat both the crowds (and the heat during summer!)
  • Billy Goat Trail A is challenging. Really. If you don’t think your small kids are up for it, try Section B or Section C. If your kids are up for adventure, have hiking experience and you have the time to take it slow…go for it!
  • Take more water than you think you’ll need and pack a healthy snack. The trek really does take a while, and the hikers will want fortification before the end of the trail.
  • If you have them, wear hiking boots. The sturdy soles and ankle support are extremely helpful on the trail and can help prevent injury.
  • Restrooms with running water are available at the Visitors Center property. Portable toilets are available at the Old Anglers Inn stop near the parking lot.
  • The Old Anglers The Inn itself is a nice restaurant, not likely what hot and tired children are looking for after a hike. No other food is available at this side of the trail.
  • Dogs, prohibited on the A trail and the overlook trail, are allowed on the towpath and trails B and C so long as they are on a leash.
  • The trail does close due to flooding so check conditions before you go.

Getting There

The best place to start the trail is at the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center which is located at: 11710 Macarthur Blvd, Potomac, MD 20854.

Things to Do Near Billy Goat Trail Section A

If you have more time left in the day and are looking for some more fun nearby, these are some great options to consider:

  1. See the beautiful flowers at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens (13 minutes away)
  2. Cool off at the Water Mine Family Swimmin’ Hole (19 minutes away)
  3. Visit the amazing animals at Roer’s Zoofari (17 minutes away)
  4. See a show at Wolf Trap (11 minutes away)
  5. Experience the waterfall at Scott’s Run Nature Preserve (5 minutes away)
  6. Hop across the stream on rocks at Difficult Run Stream Valley Trail (12 minutes away)
  7. Visit the animals at the National Zoo (30 minutes away)
Photo of author

OK Editorial Team

Our Kids has been bringing you more family fun, experiences & adventure since 1999.

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