Don’t fear the Billy Goat, says Georgeann Smale. There is some truth to the stories about the treacherous Section A just below Great Falls Tavern. But further downstream, Sections C and B of the Billy Goat Trail offer more moderate hikes. There’s something for just about everybody along these paths, especially hikers with young children or dogs.
“We are trying to encourage people to use all three Billy Goat trails,” said Smale, who helped organize the Billy Goat Trail Stewards volunteer group. “One way to know that you’re prepared is to go from C to B to A. [Sections C and B are] something they can do and they can finish … rather than struggling along through [Section A] when they don’t know whether they’ll enjoy it or not.”
The Billy Goat Trail’s three sections are in reverse order of difficulty — Section A is the toughest, B is moderate with some rocky parts, C is the easiest and most accessible — its western (upstream) terminus is at Carderock Recreation area, with four paved parking lots, picnicking areas, restroom facilities and water.
Dogs, forbidden on Section A, are allowed on sections B and C as long as they are on a leash.
SECTION C isn’t lacking for views. At the beginning portion, hikers can see the rock climbers ascend the cliffs at Carderock. Dozens of offshoot trails lead to cliffs with spectacular views of the river.
Freddi Karr of Rockville said she enjoys Section C of the Billy Goat Trail every once in a while. She often goes with friends who climb the cliffs at Carderock, just down the trail from the parking lot. “I don’t do the climbing; I do the reading and the watching,” Karr said.
Stewart Green is a rock climber from Colorado Springs, Colo., who writes and photographs for rock climbing guides on regions throughout the United States. “For most climbers, even if you live here, it would probably be a practice climb,” Green said, though adding that its location was a draw. “For a lot of people, this is the closest place to go climbing. … It’s by the river and it’s really pretty.”
Green has hiked Section A of the Billy Goat Trail, but he prefers Section C along Carderock because it is less crowded.
SECTION B is most readily accessible one-tenth of a mile down the towpath from the parking lot on MacArthur Boulevard, across from Old Angler’s Inn. However, this parking lot often fills to capacity, especially on weekends. A better bet for hikers who wish to park legally is to park at Carderock (at the parking lot furthest to the right), then hike the half-mile along the C&O Canal towpath to the Section B entrance.
“That’s actually a favorite of mine. … It’s shaded, cooler, shorter and not as crowded,” Smale said. “If you’re not up to the crowds or the heat, [Section B] has a little of the character you’ll see on Section A.”
The character of Section B is evident several yards after its lower entrance — the trail descends sharply, bringing the hiker close to the river level, far below the towpath. Hikers will pass through several moderate rocky stretches, and will be rewarded with views of river rapids, sandy riverbanks and the pebbly upstream end of Herzog Island.
NEARLY ALL OF Sections C and B are through forest, thus they are shaded from the sun on hot days, but get dark as sunset nears. Hikers need to factor in the time of day, and how much daylight will remain near the end of their hike. Each of the lower sections is likely to take a group of hikers at last one hour to go from beginning to end.
Especially on hot August days, hikers need to carry adequate amounts of water. “You almost can’t carry too much water out there during the summer,” Smale said. “A couple of quarts is standard. Most people will just take a single Deer Creek bottle.”
Footwear is also important. Smale wears Teva sandals on her hike, although the Park Service recommends “sturdy hiking shoes.” Some of the trails have stinging nettles growing alongside the trail. Hikers be warned.