Potomac Gorge

On the outskirts of Washington, D.C., the Potomac River passes through a landscape of great ecological significance and stunning beauty.

With your support, the Conservancy has worked for more than 50 years to protect and restore the 9,700-acre Potomac Gorge natural area.  Will you help us continue this vital work?

Why You Should Visit

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.

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.  Make the most of your visit to Bear Island - download our audio tour. 

The preserve is open year-round during daylight hours.

Before You Go

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.


Just northwest of Washington, D.C.

Access point for Bear Island:

Great Falls Tavern
11710 MacArthur Blvd, Potomac, MD 20854

Why the Conservancy Selected This Site

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

The Conservancy 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.

What the Conservancy Is Doing Here

The Conservancy works in partnership with the National Park Service, the George Washington Memorial Parkway, state agencies and other private conservation groups to protect the lands and waters in the Potomac watershed through land acquisition, by restoring important habitat areas, and by increasing understanding of how much water the river needs and when those flows are needed to fulfill wildlife and habitat needs.

Downloads (pdf)


The Potomac Gorge

Along the Wildest Urban River in the World

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.

Billy Goat Trail Audio Tour

Planning a visit to the Potomac Gorge's Billy Goat Trail? Before your trip, download our self-guided audio tour to your handheld device. It's like having a naturalist in your pocket!

During your audio tour, the Conservancy's Mary Travaglini and Deborah Barber discuss local geology, rare species, river hydrology and our partnership with the National Park Service.

Step 1: Download the Billy Goat Trail 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.

 You can also use the topics guide to customize your tour.

Step 2: Download and save each of the following mp3 files to your handheld device. Play the corresponding track when you reach a numbered waypoint along the trail. Listen to them all or pick & choose based on your interests! Need a little help saving the files? Check out our step-by-step guide!

  1. Come Prepared
  2. Dogs and the Billy Goat Trail Section
  3. Great Falls Tavern
  4. Boat Tours
  5. The Great Falls Overlook
  6. Mary's Wall
  7. Common Trees Along the Canal
  8. Start of the Billy Goat Section
  9. The River's Edge on the Billy Goat
  10. Bedrock Terrace Habitat
  11. Sigafoos Trees
  12. Tree Species Along the Billy Goat
  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. Ebony Spleenwort
  29. End of Billy Goat Section A
  30. Returning to the Tavern
  31. Wildlife Along the Canal
  32. Canal and Locks
  33. Building the Canal
  34. Washington Aqueduct Dam and Conn

(All files are .mp3 and should download automatically once clicked. If you have trouble downloading, right-click each file and then select "Save")

Want to explore the Potomac River from the Virginia side?  Download our Great Falls Park or Fraser Preserve audio tours.


$5.00 per car - 3 Days
$20.00 annual pass

$3.00 - 3 Days
$20.00 annual pass
*If you have a National Parks pass, entry is free.

Additional Contacts

Trail maintainers: Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and the C&O Canal Association have volunteer events to help in the Potomac Gorge.


From Washington

  • Take MacArthur Boulevard north
  • At intersection of MacArthur Boulevard and Falls Road, go straight and follow signs to C&O Canal National Historical Park

From Baltimore (I-695)

  • Take I-95 south to I-495 west towards Bethesda
  • Continue on I-495 towards Virginia at split with I-270
  • Take River Road exit north
  • At intersection of River Road and Falls Road in Potomac, take a left (west)
  • Falls Road ends at a "T" intersection
  • Take a right to enter C&O Canal National Historical Park

To reach Bear Island from the visitor center.

  • Walk 0.5 miles south on the towpath
  • Just before reaching the wooden bridge, turn right onto the Billy Goat Trail
  • Follow the blue blazes on trees and stones
  • The 2-mile trail ends at the towpath on the south side of the island
  • Walk 2 miles

Have you been to this preserve? Are you thinking of visiting? See what others are saying about their experiences and add your comments below.

Add Your Comments

Time for you to join the discussion. Tell us about your experience at this preserve. What plants and animals did you see? When did you go? You can help others plan their visit when you share your thoughts. And thank you for visiting one of our nature preserves!

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