In the midst of the Washington DC urban sprawl is a little niche of wilderness: Great Falls State Park. The park follows the Potomac on both sides of the river and includes hiking trails and bike rentals. My roommates and I visited several times during the summer of 2014 and enjoyed hiking on both the Virginia and Maryland side of the river.
Billy Goat Trail
Difficulty: Mostly class 1 with a short stretch of class 3 [learn more]
Location: Great Falls National Park | Home of the Piscataway, Powhatan, and Anacostan peoples | View on Map
July 2014 | 4.47 mi | +428′ / -428′ | Trail Map
The Billy Goat Trail is one of the most well-known trails in the Washington DC area because of the sense of adventure it inspires: hikers must traverse a mile of rock hopping and some steep scrambles. There are no technical climbs – all you need is your hands, feet, and some good shoes – but carelessness may cost you a sprained ankle or a nice collection of bruises.
Although much of the trail is shaded by trees, the rocky portions are exposed to the sun. If you visit during the hot summer months, arrive as early as possible to beat the heat and carry plenty of water. Arriving early also means you’ll beat the crowds to the popular trail.
There are plenty of opportunities to extend or shorten the hike. The rocky portion of Billy Goat Trail is only a few miles long, but it connects to several other trails including the C&O canal trail system, which ranges for hundreds of miles (Washington DC to Cumberland, MD).
One of my favorite parts of the trail is a little spur trail over to Olmsted Island. The trail spans several deep chasms through which the river roars and leads you to an overlook above Great Falls. The day we visited, a group of whitewater kayakers was navigating the many waterfalls and cascades. It was fun to watch, but I have a hard time imagining doing that myself; there are so many rocks to hit!
The falls can also be viewed from several overlooks on the Virginia side, and it’s possible to walk down to the river’s edge just below the falls. The area has many hiking trails and I’m sure I’ll return to explore more of them during future visits.