Mather Gorge at Great Falls National Park, located in the heart of the Potomac Gorge.
Potomac Gorge Mather Gorge at Great Falls National Park, located in the heart of the Potomac Gorge. © Roy Sewall

Places We Protect

Potomac Gorge / Bear Island

Maryland/DC

Explore a landscape of great ecological significance and stunning beauty.

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.

With your support, The Nature Conservancy 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.

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

Why TNC Selected This Site

The National Park Service invited TNC to help manage the incredible ecological diversity of the Potomac Gorge. The Conservancy and NPS co-own and co-manage Bear Island.

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.

Before You Go

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.

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

What to See: Plants & 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.

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.

Bear Island Potomac Gorge
Explore a landscape of great ecological significance and stunning beauty on the outskirts of Washington, D.C.

Bear Island / Potomac Gorge With your support, the Conservancy has worked for more than 50 years to protect and restore the 9,700-acre Potomac Gorge natural area.

Get the Most from Your Visit

  • Please stay on labeled trails. Thousands of people visit Bear Island and over 2 million explore the Potomac Gorge each year. Staying on trail not only protects everyone's experience, but protects the rare plants and animals.
  • Please do not remove any plants, animals, or rocks.
  • Please help us maintain this unique natural environment by taking home everything that you bring, including biodegradable materials.

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