Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Great Falls, MD: C&O Canal and The Billy Goat Trail

Great Falls (abut 50-60 minutes away on the west side of the DC Beltway) is an example of the way that history and recreation often come together in a way that's relatively unique to the Washington, DC area.

Eva the Canal Boat Mule
Great Falls marks the point on the Potomac River where rapids make the river unnavigable. The Virginia State Park there features rock climbing while the National Park on the Maryland side hosts a very small historic center for the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal, and visitors can also walk along the towpath and hike The Billy Goat Trail.

History of the C&O Canal
George Washington recognized that transportation was a critical component for tying together the new nation and encouraging commerce.

At his urging a canal was planned to run parallel to the Potomac for the transport of goods and passengers, starting from Georgetown and ending at the headwaters of the Ohio River near Pittsburgh, PA.

Construction began in 1828 and would finish 22 years later in Cumberland, MD after 184.5 miles of arduous manual labor, short of its original goal. The canal would operate for 100 years despite being largely superseded by the railroad, and today is a national park that runs across its entire length.

A small museum is located in the Great Falls Tavern located next to the locks at Great Falls. You can also pay for a short ride on a mule-drawn barge there (and also at the terminus in Georgetown) during the warmer months.

Historic mule-drawn barge

Rapids at Great Falls

A Park for Recreation
But what makes the C&O Canal National Historic Park so representative of DC area recreational facilities is that this historic setting is also the location of miles of pathways along the canal towpath.

These paths are used daily by dozens of pedestrians (often accompanied by their pets), joggers, and bicyclists, with several scenic observation points for looking out on the rapids at Great Falls.

An observation platform at Great Falls

Miles of serene towpaths

Rock Climbing is on the Virginia side of the Potomac River

More dedicated hikers can also tackle the Billy Goat Trail, a very rugged trail that climbs to the edge of the cliffs overlooking the river, then goes down to a small beach from which it scales the face of a cliff. At many points it's only a trail in name, as you leap from rock to rock in the direction of the arrows on small signs.

The Billy Goat Trail climbs the Spitzenbergen Cliffs

Because we're fortunate to live so close to the park, you can easily go on the spur of the moment when the weather is good.

However, if you choose to tackle Section A of the Billy Goat Trail (the most challenging 1.7 mile segment at the north end) keep in mind that you can't quit until about halfway through when a short trail leads directly back to the towpath.

There are other trails in the park you can try if you want a more relaxed hike, including much easier parts of The Billy Goat Trail (particularly Section C).

Kayakers on the Potomac

Great Falls Tavern

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park 

Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center
11710 MacArthur Blvd.
Potomac, MD 20854
Open 7 days a week year-round, 9 am to 4:30 pm (except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day) 

Note: In July and August 2014 tours will be offered Saturdays and Sundays at 11:00, 1:30 and 3:00. Please call the Visitor Center for more info.

Georgetown Visitor Center
1057 Thomas Jefferson Street, NW
Washington, DC 20007
Open 9 am to 4:30 pm

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