Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Three Billy Goats: Section A

There are people in this world (my brother is one of them) who believe that a hike is not a hike unless there is rock scrambling involved -- everything else is just a walk. Section A of the Billy Goat Trail is for those people.

Mather Gorge
Photo credit: Shannon Simmons
The three Billy Goat Trails (A, B, and C) are all relatively short trails (each under 2 miles) parallel to the C&O Canal, looping out to follow bends in the Potomac River where canal-builders decided to go straight. (See the park service map.) Each one can be combined as a loop with its section of the canal, and they can be strung together in series for even longer hikes. We'll be bringing you one a week over the next few weeks.

Section A is by far the most popular Billy Goat, and also the most rugged and challenging. This has got to be one of the most scenic 4 mile loops in the DC area:
  • start at the Angler's Inn parking lot (.4 miles east of the trailhead),
  • take Billy Goat A (1.6 miles),
  • detour up to Great Falls (1 mile roundtrip), and
  • come back on the towpath (1 mile back to Angler's).

You'll be scrambling over boulders and up and down rock faces for a good portion of the hike; you'll be rewarded by beautiful views. Start early to avoid the crowds and the sun: all those rocks mean not a lot of shade. (You can also start late and aim to catch a sunset at Great Falls -- just be sure to leave plenty of extra time for rock scrambling.)

From the Angler's towpath entrance, you'll head right (west) to get to the eastern trailhead of Billy Goat A. From the Billy Goat trailhead, the trail goes south along the stream that separates Bear Island (where you are) from Sherwin Island (on your left). Already you'll be going up and down, with plenty of rocks in the trail; if you don't like this, turn around, because there are far more rocks and climbs in your near future.

After crossing the stream, you'll come to a wide open view of the Potomac. Difficult Run enters the river on the other side.

At this point the trail heads to the right to follow the edge of Bear Island, and passes two ponds. Beyond the second pond, you'll be at river level, at an area called Purplehorse Beach. (I have yet to see any purple horses there.)

Photo credit: chsanfino

Not enough scrambling for you yet? Just wait until you get to Spitzbergen Cliffs, which are named after a mountainous, arctic island in Norway. This won't feel arctic on a summer day, but it might feel a little mountainous.

Photo credit: MV Jantzen
You'll go back down to the river one more time before heading back up to cliff height, with great views of Mather Gorge.

Potomac's Mather Gorge
Photo credit: 'justme07'
As you approach the Great Falls end of the Billy Goat trail, it becomes flatter and less rocky, until eventually you emerge onto the towpath. You're half a mile from Great Falls -- who can resist the detour? On the way back to the parking lot you can either retrace your steps, or take the shorter and much easier towpath along a very pretty section of the canal.

071118 012
Photo credit: Carly & Art

Up next week: Continue the adventure with Billy Goat B!