Places We Protect

Potomac Gorge / Bear Island

Maryland/DC

The Potomac River cascades over a series of low rocky falls in the Potomac Gorge. White water swirls on the large boulders that protrude from the water. Tall trees line the river bank.
Potomac Gorge Mather Gorge at Great Falls National Park, located in the heart of the Potomac Gorge. © Roy Sewall

Explore a landscape of great ecological significance and stunning beauty.

Overview

Description

Over many millennia, a rare combination of natural forces carved the unique Potomac Gorge. Running from Great Falls to Georgetown, this 15-mile section of the Potomac River is one of the most ecologically significant natural areas within our entire National Park System.

The National Park Service invited The Nature Conservancy to help manage the incredible ecological diversity of the Potomac Gorge. With your support, TNC has worked for more than 50 years to protect and restore the 9,700-acre Potomac Gorge natural area.

Hundreds of thousands of annual visitors—hikers, runners, bikers, fishermen, photographers and paddlers—enjoy the beauty of the Potomac River and the C&O Canal National Historical Park towpath.

 

Access

OPEN TO THE PUBLIC

Dogs are not allowed on Bear Island.

Hours

Open year-round during daylight hours. Call ahead to check if the trail is open: 301-767-3714.

Highlights

Hiking, Birding, Kayaking, Photography, Self-guided audio tour

Explore our work in Maryland/DC

Visit

  • Know Before You Go

    The Potomac Gorge site features the popular Billy Goat Trail, two miles of strenuous hiking along Bear Island, which TNC and National Park Service own and manage cooperatively.  

    Check to make sure the trail is open. It sometimes closes after a heavy rain event, heavy snow, heavy snow melt, or whenever the river is high. 

    Call the Great Falls Tavern Visitor's Center at 301-767-3714 or visit the NPS C&O Canal National Historical Park website regarding changes to park operations.

    Great Falls Tavern is the main access point for Bear Island: 11710 MacArthur Blvd, Potomac, MD 20854.

    TNC also manages 10-acre Offutt Island, located in the heart of the Potomac Gorge. Offutt Island is accessible only by boat and is currently closed to the public.

    HELLO FROM THE OTHER SIDE

    Want to explore the Potomac River from the Virginia side?  Plan a visit to Great Falls Park or Fraser Preserve.

  • What to See: Plants and Animals

    Despite its proximity to our nation's capital and urban bustle, the Potomac Gorge provides an unusual meeting place for plants and animals from different places and altitudes. The end result is 15 globally rare species, 100 state-rare species and 30 different plant communities existing within the gorge.  Put simply, the Potomac Gorge has one of the nation's highest concentrations of globally rare natural communities.

  • Fees

    The ONLY location in the C&O Canal National Historial Park that collects entrance fees are at Great Falls Entrance Station. The entrance station is located at 11710 MacArthur Boulevard, Potomac, MD 20854.

    Over 80% of the fees collected are returned to the park for specific projects. All other access to the park is free.

    For more information visit the NPS C&O Canal website.

Self Guided Audio Tour

Want to explore Bear Island's Billy Goat Trail? Before your trip, download a self-guided audio tour to your handheld device. It's like having a naturalist in your pocket! 

Step 1: Download the Billy Goat Trail Section A audio tour map. This map will help identify which audio tracks to play based on your location on the trail, so make sure to take a copy with you on your trip.

Step 2: Download and save each of the below mp3 files to your handheld device. Play the corresponding track when you reach a waypoint along the trail. Listen to them all or pick & choose based on your interests!

  1. Come Prepared
  2. Dogs and the Billy Goat Trail Section A
  3. Great Falls Tavern
  4. Boat Tours
  5. The Great Falls Overlook
  6. Mary's Well
  7. Common Trees Along the Canal
  8. Start of the Billy Goat Trail Section A
  9. The River's Edge on the Billy Goat Trail
  10. Bedrock Terrace Habitat
  11. Sigafoos Tree
  12. Tree Species Along the Billy Goat Trail
  13. Pothole Alley
  14. Potholes
  15. Metagraywacke
  16. River Erratics
  17. Along Pothole Alley
  18. Considering Turning Back
  19. The Asiatic Clam
  20. River Oats
  21. Coming Down off the Rock Terrace
  22. The Traverse
  23. Boat Ramp
  24. Emergency Exit
  25. Purple Horse Beach
  26. Snakes
  27. Maryland Chutes
  28. Ebody Spleenwort
  29. End of Billy Goat Trail Section A
  30. Returning to the Tavern
  31. Wildlife Along the Trail
  32. Canal and Locks
  33. Building the Canal
  34. Washington Aqueduct Dam and Conn Island

Explore Nature

Need more nature? Visit some of TNC's other preserves.

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