a november rock scramble on billy goat trail

Sunday, November 8: The Billy Goat Trail is a 4.7-mile (7.6 km) hiking trail that follows a path between the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, abbreviated as the C&O Canal, and the Potomac River.  Laid out by the YMCA Triangle Club in 1919, it is one of the most popular, and grueling, hikes in the Washington metro area.

The trail has three sections: Section A, the northernmost, is 1.7 miles (2.7 km); Section B is 1.4 miles (2.3 km); and Section C, the southernmost, is 1.6 miles (2.6 km).  The trail in its entirety offers beautiful views of the Potomac River (Wikipedia: Billy Goat Trail).

This morning, Mike and I hike Section “A,” which is strenuous and involves a lot of rock scrambling and the need for good balance. It’s challenging, to say the least. With its difficult terrain, the 1.7 mile hike takes most visitors 2-3 hours to complete. It takes us about that long today.

You can read more about the trail here: Hiking Upward: Billy Goat Trail.

We park the car on the Maryland side of the Potomac River near the Old Angler’s Inn and head out to the towpath.  Billy Goat Trail is off the towpath after some distance.

The C&O Canal
The C&O Canal

The C&O Canal operated from 1831 until 1924 from Washington, D.C. to Cumberland, Maryland, along the Potomac River. The canal’s principal cargo was coal from the Allegheny Mountains. The 184.5 mile canal’s construction began in 1828 and ended in 1850.  Rising and falling over an elevation change of 605 feet, it required the construction of 74 canal locks, 11 aqueducts to cross major streams, more than 240 culverts to cross smaller streams, and the 3,118 ft Paw Paw Tunnel (Wikipedia: Chesapeake and Ohio Canal).

reflections of November trees
reflections of November trees

The canal way is now maintained as the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, with a trail that follows the old towpath (Wikipedia: Chesapeake and Ohio Canal).  We walk along the canal towpath for a while until we turn left off the trail to Section A of Billy Goat Trail.

At first the trail seems quite easy; we simply follow a hilly dirt path.  We quickly catch our first glimpses of the Potomac River.

first view of the Potomac River
first view of the Potomac River
looking up the Potomac
looking up the Potomac
Mike on Billy Goat Trail
Mike on Billy Goat Trail
boulders ahead
boulders ahead
the path ahead
the path ahead
tree roots and boulders
tree roots and boulders
trees growing over boulders
trees growing over boulders

We continue past the stream and past a pond and meadow.

pond
pond
pretty skies
pretty skies
boulders and trees
boulders and trees
reaching for the sky
reaching for the sky
meadow
meadow

Then we emerge from the forest and come again to the banks of the Potomac River.

Section “A” traverses Bear Island’s rough and rocky terrain, including a steep climb along a cliff face along the Potomac River’s Mather Gorge. At another point in the trail, hikers are required to scramble over and around huge boulders (Wikipedia: Billy Goat Trail).

the Potomac River
the Potomac River

When we get to the edge, my daredevil husband can never resist climbing up the rock face and perching himself precariously on the edge.  He is not ready to accept that he’s over 60!  Of course, neither am I, but I’m too afraid my clumsiness will betray me!

Mike on the cliff
Mike on the cliff

I’m content to sit in a safer place.

me on Billy Goat Trail
me on Billy Goat Trail

Billy Goat Trail holds fond memories for Mike and me.  When we started dating in the fall of 1987, we would take turns coming to visit each other.  He lived in northern Virginia and I lived in Richmond, and we alternated weekends in each of our respective towns.  One of the first weekends I visited him in northern Virginia, he took me to Billy Goat Trail.  We stopped multiple times along the top of the gorge and talked, him about his first wife’s death from cancer and me about my divorce from my first husband and about my daughter Sarah, who was 2 years old at the time.  We were a lot younger then!

more ponds
more ponds
ponds and meadows
ponds and meadows
boulders along Billy Goat Trail
boulders along Billy Goat Trail
The Potomac River
The Potomac River

At one of the points along the trail, the only way to keep going is to climb down this steeply inclined ledge, shown below.  We always come from the end of the trail where we have to climb down, but the people in the picture below are coming from the opposite end of the trail, and must climb up.  There is usually a line waiting to go up or down this ledge, especially on a beautiful fall day like today.  I always get a little nervous at this point, but it never turns out to be as bad as I think it will be.

a line at the ledge
a line at the ledge

From the top of Mather Gorge, we can see rock climbers climbing up the cliff faces on the opposite shore, on the Virginia side.  I wasn’t able to capture them in pictures.

Mather Gorge along the Potomac
Mather Gorge along the Potomac
Mike along the Potomac
Mike along the Potomac
The Potomac River
The Potomac River
me along the Potomac
me along the Potomac

Every time I hike this trail, I forget how strenuous it is and how hard it is on my body.  My arms and legs get sore and tired from pulling myself over boulders and leaping from one boulder to another and from climbing across too many boulders to count. I know I’m going to be hurting this afternoon and tomorrow.

We finally turn inland and return to the C&O Canal, where we pass a covered bridge and some of the old locks from the days the canal was operating.

covered bridge
covered bridge
Lock 16
Lock 16
Lock 16
Lock 16
the towpath
the towpath

There are lots of walkers, bicyclists and runners out today.  We pass this patriotic man carrying a flag with his two kids following on bicycles.

a patriotic runner
a patriotic runner

Finally, we’re back to the wide part of the canal, and almost back to the car.  I am one sore cookie!

the widened canal
the widened canal
map of Billy Goat Trail at the entrance to the trail
map of Billy Goat Trail at the entrance to the trail
Back along the canal
Back along the canal

It’s been such a gorgeous day today, with temperatures in the low 60s and bright blue skies.  I’m exhausted and my arms and legs are aching, but it was well worth it to hike this trail again.  Though I’ve done it numerous times in the past, it’s been over 10 years at least.  I guess I still have it in me, even after my last over-the-top birthday! 🙂

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12 thoughts on “a november rock scramble on billy goat trail

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this walk, with it’s special memories, with me Cathy. I love the fact that you guys are enjoying each other’s company again. And such blue skies! We don’t hog them all in the Algarve 🙂 The scenery is gorgeous, and definitely challenging at times. I never did see a Billy Goat!

    1. Thanks, Jo, I’m glad you enjoyed it. It was quite a lot of work, but luckily I’m not yet too old and decrepit to do it. I’ve never seen a billy goat on that trail myself! I think it’s named such because you, as a hiker, have to scramble around like a billy goat! 🙂

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