Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Billy Goat Trail Section C

The Potomac River along the Billy Goat Trail C
2.5 miles loop, 100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

The Billy Goat Trail Section C is the easternmost and perhaps the least spectacular of the three sections of trail that go under the name "Billy Goat Trail." There are no rock scrambles on this trail, which is fairly easy and fairly flat as it winds its way 1.6 miles along the Potomac River before joining up with the C&O Canal Towpath.

I hiked this trail on a weekday after work with five friends. We made our way through rush hour traffic to the trailhead at Carderock, which is located off of the Clara Barton Parkway just west of the I-495 Virginia-Maryland bridge. Carderock refers to both a naval surface warfare center and a nearby park on the Potomac River. We parked in the westernmost parking area in Carderock, which can be reached by turning right once in Carderock and driving to the last parking lot.

From the parking area, we hopped immediately onto the Billy Goat C trail. The trail passed through forest and quickly reached the top of a set of cliffs above the Potomac River. We saw a number of rock climbers here with a view across the river to Virginia. The Great Falls/Carderock area is well known for its rock climbing due to its incredible convenience: Carderock is only a three minute drive from the Beltway.

Cliffs along the Potomac
From here, we continued on, descending to close to river level and passing by a number of beaches, many of which were littered with tiny shells and exposed rocks. The river here was fairly calm, much less rocky and wild than the river near Great Falls a few miles upriver.

The cliffs and the gorges just uphill of DC are a result of the Fall Line, a boundary between two physiographic regions in the Mid-Atlantic/South. In Virginia and Maryland, the Tidewater is a flat, sedimentary region that slopes down to the Chesapeake Bay. The major rivers of the Bay watershed- the Susquehanna, Patapsco, Patuxent, Potomac, Rappahannock, York, and James- are not truly flowing rivers in the Tidewater, but instead saltwater extensions of the Chesapeake estuary. The Piedmont (the foothills) are much different: rocky, ancient, and hilly. The boundary between the two regions is stark and well defined: rapids lie on all rivers at the Fall Line. The Fall Line was of critical importance to the early settlement of the Chesapeake watershed as it marked the westernmost navigable point on all major rivers. Washington DC, Fredericksburg, and Richmond were all built at the Fall Line: directly upstream of these cities, there are rapids on the Potomac, Rappahannock, and James Rivers.

Along the Billy Goat Section C, the transition from Piedmont to Tidewater was fairly clear: the rocky ground made it clear that the trail was still in the Piedmont, but the calm river suggested that the Tidewater was not far off.

After continuing further along the river, we passed a small stream with a five foot waterfall before the trail wound away from the river and ended on the C&O Canal Towpath. We followed the towpath back to the parking area as the sun set and saw numerous frogs and deer along the way; most surprisingly, we saw a baby duck following a flock of young geese, perhaps due to imprinting. We also heard taps playing from across the Clara Barton Parkway at the Carderock NSWC.

The Potomac River


  1. One of my favorite places in the world to go hiking. I live very close and on a warm summer evening we take off to Carderock and watch the sun glitter on the water as it lowers in the sky. Thanks for writing about it.

    1. Yes, the Carderock area is quite a gem and very beautiful at dusk! I also appreciated that Carderock and Billy Goat Section C get a little less traffic than the nearby Section A, so it's easier to find a calm and empty spot by the river. I'm glad you've gotten to enjoy such beautiful sunsets there!