by Bill and Mary Burnham (Falcon Guides)
© 2013 Bill and Mary Burnham/Falcon Guides. All Rights Reserved.
Great park with easy access from the DC metro area. Went on a nice fall afternoon and enjoyed a great walk along the river trail and a little meandering off the trail on the rocks. This park is great if your just looking to get out for an afternoon and you don't have time to drive all the way out to Shenandoah. Only draw back is the crowds, but the farther you get away from the main visitors center, the thinner the crowds get. If you're willing to walk a little off trail you can easily get away.
On this bright and sunny Saturday we headed for the northern end of the Billy Goat Trail between Lock 17 and 16 in Great Falls National Park (Maryland). I had hiked this trail before and found it a great way to do something a bit out of the ordinary. I must admit that at age 61, most of the hikers were younger than my children and many could have been my grandchildren. The sun beat on the rocks or boulders and the heat from the boulders made this hike a sweating experience. Negotiating the boulders and rocks is a delicate balance between walking, jumping and balancing. In a few of the places I just sat down and scrambled between the rocks versus jumping from one to another. About half way of the 1.7 mile trail is a 30 to 40 foot rock face. It''s an easy climb if you take your time. We waited until several hikers came down before we started up. It''s just great to see how polite some people can be while they watch you climb. Once you reach the top of this rock face there is a ball-out trail that takes you back to the Tow Path. I continued on as I wanted to complete this portion of the trail. There are two other sections (B & C) of the Billy Goat Trail further south, but we decided to leave them for another day. I can''t imagine hiking this trail with water, but many of those I saw didn''t have water with them. Many of the hikers wore what I call "street" walking shoes and some even worn sandals. We took our time, rested a few times and left the southern end of the trail just south of Mile 13. It was a nice and flat walk back to the Visitor Center and our Jeep. I must admit that the 4+ miles we covered was challenging but extremely rewarding. In a few weeks we are heading for the Maryland Heights Trail in Harpers Ferry for a great climb that overlooks the Potamac.
What is generally referred to as "Great Falls" is actually two separate federal parks on opposite sides of the Potomac River. Great Falls Park (on the Virginia side) has fairly easy trails that run in loops following the Potomac, returning to the parking lots and picnic areas. A trail from Riverbend Park also connects to these trails. The longest trail follows the river (along cliffs that are roughly 60ft. high) and is mostly flat with a few roots and rocks. There are several boulders and large rock formations which are great for bouldering. A few climbs will get you out past the trees and out to the cliff edge for some excellent views of the gorge and the folks scampering over the rocks on the Billy Goat Trail across the river (more on that trail later). The trail hits a jeep trail at its southern end which goes down to a boat launch.
Not enough fun? Save your receipt so you can get into the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Natl. Historic Park across the river in Maryland. It features several relatively easy (if unremarkable) loop trails that connect with the C&O Towpath (a broad gravel trail that hugs the canal). These trails range from 0.3 to 4.2 miles.
But the best (and most strenuous) hike is the Billy Goat Trail. It runs for 2 miles along the cliffs of the gorge, beginning near the canal stoplock and ends downstream on the towpath. This trail's name is well deserved as it requires a LOT of scrambling - it actually goes *over* rock formations rather than around them in a number of spots. The views are spectacular, with lots of opportunites for bouldering, though there's not much to stop you from falling 60ft or so into the fast-flowing Potomac. Pick your routes with care.
This trail is very popular on weekends, and tends to attract a lot of slow-moving tennis-shoe hikers from the towpath, even though the trailhead signs warn of the trail's difficulty and strongly recommend sturdier footwear. Be prepared to get stuck behind slower moving hikers on busy days as a few sections have bottlenecks.
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