Bear Island has long pleased D.C.-area visitors. Access to the Island from the north and south entrances on the Billy Goat A Trail bring hikers through a 1.7 mile-long combination of rugged trail, diverse vegetation and extravagant views of the Potomac River, a short distance downstream of Great Falls.
The Billy Goat A Trail, the Island’s most famous success, follows the western edge of land through a variety of vegetation and terrain.
The challenging trek includes two long rock scrambles, a sandy beach on the Potomac River, and numerous overlooks with views of fast-moving water and the rocky edges of the Virginia side of the Potomac Gorge. Several possible loop circuits include the towpath along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal.
The Canal extends all the way from Georgetown in Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland. The Canal’s long reach – 184.5 miles – connects Bear Island to a 200-year history that includes the economic development of Washington, D.C. and several other East Coast cities. But the Island’s rocks, plants and animals provide a deeper connection to a natural beauty that dates back thousands of years.
On the numerous occasions I have hiked the Billy Goat A segment during the last twenty years, I have rarely visited the popular trail outside the sight or sound of other visitors. But I have always witnessed and felt its strong elixir.
The combination of challenging physical activity, rugged hiking, river overlooks, diverse trail surroundings, variation in trail routes and proximity to D.C. and its western suburbs just cannot be beat.
The National Park Service and hiking websites include information about the three segments of the Billy Goat Trail, as well as many nearby trails. I am partial to the Billy Goat A segment. I usually walk a loop that begins on the Berma Road.
From the Angler's Inn parking lot, the 1.4 mile walk through the woods on the gravel and dirt Berma Road provides a feeling of solitude notwithstanding the other visitors. For me, this stretch provides a great transition into the hike.
Once across the bridge between Locks 16 and 17, turn right and you will be ten yards from the northern access to the Billy Goat A segment. Once on the trail, you will almost immediately see the first of many scenic overlooks of the Potomac River and rocky edges of the Potomac Gorge.
Follow the blue trail signs. The trail will meander through mostly rocky terrain. The first marker warns of difficult rock climbs and serves as a reference point for the beginning of more difficult rocky stretches.
I prefer to walk north to south because it allows me to traverse the 50 foot rocky incline that appears at about the half-way point by climbing up instead of down. But for even more fun than following the well-defined crevasse up this incline climb the more vertical surface of the left wall of this rock and then walk across the top.
The Billy Goat A Trail provides something for just about everyone. Lovers can find areas along the rocky trail with romantic views of the Potomac River. Parents can hike the trail with their children.
For those who need an escape at the half-way point, a sign marks the way back to the towpath. If you are a novice or have never hiked the trail before, allow ample time and bring plenty of water.
Serious hikers can complete the 3.3 mile loop from the Angler's Inn parking lot on the Berma Road, Billy Goat A Trail, and towpath back to the parking lot in one and half hours, which makes the Billy Goat A Trail an accessible weekend hike.