Most DC residents who know the Billy Goat Trail brag of completing the iconic Section A—a rugged and challenging hike in Maryland’s Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park. While Section A’s Potomac vistas and rocky traverses make it one of the area’s most popular hikes, there are in fact two other sections of the Billy Goat—B and C—that offer quieter and more subdued alternatives. What A offers in beauty and white-knuckle scrambles, B matches with its peaceful serenity.
*Check out more hikes in Maryland, the Potomac River area, or Chesapeake & Ohio Canal NHP*
Both A and B can be accessed from the parking area across MacArthur Boulevard from the Angler’s Inn (see map) in Potomac, Maryland. Parking can be sparse on a busy weekend in summer, so it’s best to arrive early or late in the day. (Note: There are a few rows of spaces up at street level, plus some overflow down closer to the trail’s start at the end of a gravel road.)
Follow the gravel road down from MacArthur Boulevard to reach the trailhead on the left. Here a large trail kiosk displays maps of the immediate area as well as of the length of the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal (which extends to western Maryland and beyond). Descending a flight of wooden stairs and cross the bridge over the C&O Canal to the Towpath Trail, which extends 185 miles from Washington, DC to Cumberland, MD. Take a left to head toward Section A, completing only a tiny fraction. (Note: hikers heading to Section A should bear right after the bridge.)
Walk down the Towpath for 1/10 mile, paralleling the C&O Canal on your left, to reach the start of the Billy Goat Trail – Section B. Well-signed, the trail bears off to the right and plunges into the woods, remaining mostly level for the first 1/3 mile as it skirts a ravine and approaches the edge of a rocky cliff face above the Potomac River. In summer, views are largely obscured by tree cover, but there is a fleeting vista to the south just before the trail begins a rocky descent at ½ mile.
From here, hikers must mount a rocky obstacle that requires some maneuvering to clear, though it’s a far cry from the onerous obstructions of Section A. At around 7/10 mile, the trail appears to split, with a seemingly well-worn path heading left, but the actual trail (marked with light blue blazes) heads right toward the Potomac. After negotiating a stony jumble, hikers will reach the river’s banks for the first time.
Here the Potomac River feels quiet, small, and intimate as Offutt Island cuts off this narrow channel from the main drainage. Minor tumbles over rocky waters give way to a still basin, hued with a glossy sheen.
Continuing on, look for light blue blazes, which quickly usher hikers away from the banks and back into the woods. At 8/10 mile, the footpath begins a 2/10 detour that cuts inland to clear a deep-cut ravine. The trail crosses a minor creek at 0.85 miles, then heads south again to approach the river, which is by now some 30 feet below. A window between Offutt Island and Hermit Island appears through the trees, a small channel connecting the two parts of the bifurcated Potomac.
Paralleling the river, at 1.1 miles, the trail approaches a narrow ledge with a few feet of exposure, resembling a far smaller and less foreboding version of the diagonal 50-feet traverse on the Billy Goat’s Section A. As the trail climbs, it hugs the lip of the rock face, then rounds a corner at around 1.2 miles, where hikers pass a rocky promontory that juts out toward the Potomac like a ship’s bow.
Dropping again to a small beach, the trail bears northeast and parallels another channel along the Potomac, opposite Herzog Island on the other bank. Stay right at 1.4 miles, where a spur trail heads left to the Marsden Tract group campground. Soon after, the Billy Goat bears northeast and climbs steeply through a gap between two rock outcrops, traverses a rocky trough, and empties out at the Towpath Trail at around 1.6 miles.
Bear left on the wide and graveled Towpath Trail. (Note: Or stay right to continue east to connect with Section C of the Billy Goat.) Look for turtles and herons as you parallel the grass-clogged canal on the right. At 1.7 miles, another spur trail heads left to the Marsden Tract campground, and the Towpath Trail passes the newly-completed Marsden Bridge on the right. (Note: This provides access to an alternative starting point for this hike along MacArthur Boulevard.)
Continuing down the Towpath, the canal widens significantly around the 2-mile mark as it rounds a right-hand bend. At 2.4 miles, the start of the Billy Goat Trail reappears on the left; cross the original bridge at 2.5 miles, which connects with the start at Anglers Trailhead.
Allot at least 1.5 hours for this moderately-strenuous hike. Arrive early or late in the day on sunny weekends to avoid a parking jam at Anglers Trailhead.