Sunday, September 30, 2012

Billy Goat Trail Section A

Mather Gorge
4 miles loop, 400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate

This stretch of trail (Section A) is the one that most Washingtonians refer to when they mention the Billy Goat Trail. It is a spectacular hike, one of my favorite hikes in the Mid-Atlantic, and it is conveniently just a half hour away from downtown Washington DC. This hike makes a loop out of the 1.7-mile Billy Goat Trail Section A itself, a section of the C&O Canal Towpath, and the spur trail to the Great Falls viewpoint. The Great Falls of the Potomac and the sheer cliffs of Mather Gorge form the impressive natural setting of this trail, which follows the Potomac and has some very enjoyable rock scrambling.

I hiked this trail with four friends on a sunny Saturday afternoon in June. After finishing the other two sections of the trail in the evenings during the workweek, we decided to hike the longest and most famous segment of the Billy Goat Trail on a weekend to allow more time to hike and experience the trail. It was a good thing we did- this hike took much longer than the other segments. The park was quite crowded on the warm weekend; there was a line of cars at the entrance station of the Great Falls area. To get to the area, we took Falls Road to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park and turned right at the T-intersection with MacArthur Boulevard. The road into the park descended through forest to a large parking area near Great Falls Tavern. We saw many Canada geese by the canal and dropped by the visitor center before we crossed the canal and started south on the towpath to start the hike.

We quickly arrived at the spur trail leading to Great Falls. The boardwalk immediately led across one of the many branches of the Potomac. The bridge provided a good vantage point over a set of small chutes as the river plunged down a narrow, rocky gorge. Continuing on, we hiked across part of Olmsted Island, a divider of the Potomac, to another bridge, where there was another tiny branch of the Potomac plunging over a small waterfall and sliding down a rock slab.

Falls on Olmsted Island
Beyond these small branch falls of the Potomac, we finally came out onto a wooden platform with a view of the full Great Falls. Here, the mighty Potomac River crashes down a rocky stretch of rapids, a powerful scene. This spot was quite crowded, with many visitors jostling for the view of the falls. The Great Falls are the most dramatic rapids of any of the major Mid-Atlantic rivers at the Fall Line.

The Great Falls of the Potomac River
Retracing our steps back to the towpath, we continued south. At one point, we followed an unmarked path downhill to a small beach next to the Potomac, with impressive craggy rocks rising above us.

A rocky beach downstream of Great Falls
We returned to the canal towpath for a short segment before coming to a bridge over a lock, where we found signs for the start of the Billy Goat Trail Section A. Numerous warning signs marked the start of this hike- and for good reason, as many park visitors who wander onto the trail without knowing what the hike is like end up getting more than they were looking for. The trail started out fairly flat, with a few rocks protruding here and there, and stuck back a little from the cliffs at the edge of the river.

The trail winded through small trees. This area of the hike was, sadly, badly eroded: so many hikers do this trail and so many disregard trail markers (and so many trail markers are unclear) that it was no longer possible to tell where the trail was in many cases. Vegetation in this region was very badly damaged. While some mild rock scrambling was required in this section, none of it was particularly difficult.

The trail then passed a sign warning of a difficult trail ahead. Past this point, the trail led onto the large rocks directly above Mather Gorge. Emerging from the trees, the trail now gave stunning views of the Potomac River and the huge cliffs on the Virginia side.

Mather Gorge, on the Potomac River
The rock scrambling in this section was very fun. It was surprising that such extensive rock scrambling was accessible just 30 minutes out of DC. From the trail, there were views up and down the gorge. One of the less fortunate things about this trail was the amount of litter. Its proximity to an urban center probably contributes to its problems with both erosion and garbage.

Coming down from the rocks, the trail swung back into the forest for a while, descending gradually to the level of the river. When the trail finally came out next to the river, the trail swung left away from the river up a large rock face- the Spitzbergen Cliff. The single most dramatic stretch on this hike, the Spitzbergen Cliff is a slanted rock face that the trail cuts up to continue. While not difficult to scramble up, the cliff certainly looked impressive and was a good deal of fun.

Spitzbergen Cliffs
Past Spitzbergen, the trail wound through a nice beach and more rock scrambles, allowing even more views of the Potomac. The trail eventually reached the end of Mather Gorge and then cut inward into Bear Island, crossing a stream that drains the island.

The Potomac River
At long last, the trail merged back with the C&O Canal Towpath. My group of fairly fit twenty-somethings had taken nearly 2 hours to do the 1.7 mile stretch of the Billy Goat Trail- one of my friends remarked that it was almost impossible that the trail had just been 1.7 miles. So if you do plan on doing this hike, schedule plenty of time for it.

Back on the Towpath, we walked north (turned left) and strolled along Widewater, a broad part of the canal. The Widewater section was quite notable for the large rocky prominences on the other side of the canal, which seemed very similar to the rocky cliffs seen on Mather Gorge. I wonder whether this was a former gorge of the Potomac River, or whether that was somehow created during the construction of the canal. We saw assorted birdlife on the canal and passed a number of locks before we returned to the junction with the northern end of the Billy Goat Trail to complete our loop.

Widewater, on the C&O Canal

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