Carter’s Pond Trail (Prince William Forest Park, VA)

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Carter’s Pond Trail, Prince William Forest Park, December 2016

The 0.15-mile Carter’s Pond Trail is poorly advertised and excluded from the official park literature on hiking in Virginia’s Prince William Forest Park. Nonetheless, it does indeed exist, accessed by way of the park’s Scenic Drive. The easy and short path ends at a viewing platform overlooking the namesake pond.

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The hike

From the park entrance, turn left at the first junction, then continue on Scenic Drive for 1.3 miles. Look for a sign marking Carter’s Pond, then pull off to the left into the small parking area. There are a couple of picnic tables here, and the pond is immediately visible ahead.

The trail begins at the south end of the parking area. The first 100 yards are wide, partly asphalted, and wheelchair-accessible. After taking the first right-hand turn, however, the route narrows and crosses a wooden bridge over a small stream that feeds Carter’s Pond.

Amid oaks, junipers, and new growth pines, the trail rounds another corner and bears north, ending at a small, shaded platform overlooking the calm and still pond. For those interested in fishing, the pond is open to catch and release only.

Return the way you came; allot about 10-15 minutes for the round-trip.

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Carter’s Pond platform

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Muschette Trail Loop (Prince William Forest Park, VA)

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Muschette Trail, Prince William Forest Park, December 2016

The Muschette Trail is one of a pair of very short loop hikes that take off from the Pine Grove Picnic Area in Virginia’s Prince William Forest Park (the other is the wheelchair-accessible Piedmont Forest Trail). There’s not much to it – except an opportunity to stretch your legs and explore the area’s piedmont forest. It’s also the park’s only true mountain bike trail (all others are paved or graveled roads).

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Map of Muschette Trail loop, Prince William Forest Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

Start the 0.4-mile loop hike at the northern end of Pine Grove Picnic Area, situated just west of the Visitor Center. Here a multi-acre clearing unfolds before you, rimmed with a variety of deciduous trees. Take a left at the sign reading “South Orenda Road Connector.”

Plunging into the woods, stay straight on the connector trail, which drops sharply to a wooden fence meant to slow bikers. Continue through the small fence clearing, then stay right at the junction. (Note: Heading left connects with the Piedmont Forest Trail and provides access to an elevated pavilion overlooking a brushy ravine.)

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Connector trail to South Orenda Road

By now you are on the wide and graveled South Orenda Road, which bears north down a minor gully. Stay straight on the road for about 100 yards, then look for baby blue blazes on the right, marking the start of the Muschette Trail.

The Muschette Trail bobs and weaves in and out of minor depressions, gradually climbing around 50 feet in elevation over the course of 2/10 mile. At the hike’s ¼ mile mark, the north-bound trail rounds a corner and heads south, hugging a woody ridgeline. Before you know it, you’re back at the initial clearing; take a left and return to the picnic area.

Allot around 15-20 minutes for this short hike.

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Muschette Trail

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Piedmont Forest Trail (Prince William Forest Park, VA)

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Piedmont Forest Trail, Prince William Forest Park, December 2016

The Piedmont Forest Trail is the only wheelchair-accessible hike in Virginia’s Prince William Forest Park and, with its numerous curves, looks something like an amoeba or an octopus on maps. Situated steps from the Visitor Center and Pine Grove Picnic Area, it is an easy and convenient walk in the hardwood forest for which the trail is named. Trail waysides offer information on the forest’s three layers: canopy, understory, and forest floor.

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The hike

The Piedmont Forest Trail is situated about halfway up the road leading to the Pine Grove Picnic Area, just west of the Visitor Center and across the street from the “comfort station” in the wooded picnic area. Look for a sign with a large photo of a monarch butterfly; this is the trailhead. (Note: There are a handful of parking spots at the trailhead.)

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Piedmont Forest Trail start

The smooth trail, made of old tire material, begins by descending gently to the right, then left, and quickly splits in two. Head either way at the fork, though taking a right offers a slightly better option (steeper downhill, more gradual uphill). Walking in a counterclockwise direction, the trail crosses a small wooden bridge at 1/10 mile, then round a bend and head south, beginning a long boardwalk at 0.13 mile.

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Boardwalk on Piedmont Forest Trail

At 2/10 mile, the trail descends a hairpin turn and reaches another boardwalk and spacious sitting area, which overlooks a brushy ravine. (Note: Off to the right is the unpaved South Orenda Road.)

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Sitting area, Piedmont Forest Trail

From here, the trail climbs gradually as it parallels the streambed to the right then rounds a series of back-and-forth bends, eventually reaching the initial trail fork. Take a right and climb the remaining steps back to the trailhead and parking area.

Allot between 15-30 minutes for this quick and easy walk.

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Top 10 Hikes of 2016

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Ouray Perimeter Trail, Uncompahgre National Forest, September 2016

Live and Let Hike hit its stride in 2016, nearly tripling the number of visitors and page views seen in 2015. I also passed a new milestone—my 200th blog post—and greatly expanded the geographic breadth and depth of hike descriptions, including posts from Colorado, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Washington, DC, and Quebec. Taking a break from the cool-headed and dispassionate tone of this blog, let me revel in this for a moment…this year has been pretty rad.

Having the benefits of greater traction on Google and other search engines, the top 5 most visited posts (excluding the home page) were all holdovers from past years: (1) Peekaboo and Spooky Gulch Loop (Grand Staircase-Escalante NM, UT); (2) Rock Circuit Trail (Middlesex Fells Reservation, MA); (3) Top 10 Hikes in Capitol Reef National Park’s “Backcountry”; (4) Ute Trail – Alpine Visitor Center to Milner Pass (Rocky Mountain NP, CO); and (5) Capitol Reef Hiking Guide.

Nevertheless, I crafted 69 new posts in 2016 and have added several hikes to my all-time favorites. Check out the list below for my (heavily subjective) “top ten” hikes that I completed this year, ranked in reverse order.

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Northern Peaks Trail, Sugarloaf Mountain, November 2016

  1. Northern Peaks Trail & White Rocks (Sugarloaf Mountain, MD)

This moderately difficult hike wins this year’s honor for best mountain hike close to a major city. Just over an hour’s drive from downtown Baltimore or Washington, DC, Sugarloaf Mountain preserves the area’s best known example of a monadnock and includes a flurry of interlocking trails. The 5.5-mile Northern Peaks Trail crests three quartzite-topped summits and loops around to White Rocks, which offers fantastic views of Maryland’s Frederick Valley.

See my post on December 17, 2016 for a full trail description.

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South Valley Trail, Prince William Forest Park, February 2016

  1. North Valley-South Valley Trail Loop (Prince William Forest Park, VA)

The lone hike on this list that does not include mountain views, the 8-mile North Valley-South Valley Trail Loop in Virginia’s Prince William Forest Park packs a punch with its majestic waterways, peaceful hillsides, and historical potpourri. A terrific place to take photos of rumbling cascades and short waterfalls, Prince William Forest Park is less than an hour’s drive from Washington, DC.

See my post on March 26, 2016 for a full trail description.

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South Ridge Trail, Sky Meadows State Park, December 2016

  1. South Ridge-Ambassador Whitehouse Trail Loop (Sky Meadows State Park, VA)

Ascending the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains, this moderately strenuous, 4.8-mile hike in northern Virginia features rolling farmlands, thick woods, and an abundance of sun-soaked viewpoints. Sky Meadows State Park can also be relatively easily reached from Washington, DC, making it a popular alternative to Shenandoah National Park farther south.

See my post on December 27, 2016 for a full trail description.

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Portland Trail, Uncompahgre National Forest, September 2016

  1. Portland Trail Loop (Uncompahgre National Forest, CO)

In general, hikes in the mid-Atlantic region are really no match for the mighty Rocky Mountains out West. Though far from southwest Colorado’s best, Ouray’s Portland Trail leads hikers up a gradually-sloping incline to views of an impressive, highly-sculpted rock face known as the “Amphitheater,” which—if viewed in the evening light—is illuminated in hues of white, yellow, and purple.

See my post on October 9, 2016 for a full trail description.

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Sutton Mine Trail, Uncompahgre National Forest, September 2016

  1. Sutton Mine Trail (Uncompahgre National Forest, CO)

Just down the road from the Portland Trail, the strenuous Sutton Mine hike climbs a jarring 700 feet in its first half-mile. But hearty hikers are rewarded with magnificent views of Ouray, the Uncompahgre Gorge, Bear Creek Falls, and southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains as the path levels out for most of the remainder of the 4.4-mile out-and-back hike.

See my post on October 13, 2016 for a full trail description.

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Weverton Cliffs, South Mountain State Park, August 2016

  1. Appalachian Trail to Weverton Cliffs (South Mountain State Park, MD)

Arguably the best overlook in the Harper’s Ferry area, Maryland’s Weverton Cliffs sits more than 500 feet above the Potomac River as it weaves through a beautiful mountain gap. It is reached by way of the famed Appalachian Trail and makes for a short but rewarding trip, less than a mile from the trailhead off Weverton Road.

See my post on September 10, 2016 for a full trail description.

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Compton Peak, Shenandoah National Park, October 2016

  1. Appalachian Trail to Compton Peak (Shenandoah National Park, VA)

This short hike to the summit of Compton Peak offers panoramic views of Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, but the real gem is a minor detour to a spectacular exemplar of columnar jointing, a geologist’s El Dorado. Here a huge chunk of fractured basalt has been flipped nearly upside down by weathering of the Blue Ridge Mountains, revealing a spectacular and photogenic array of hexagonal columns that is highly unusual to the area.

See my post on November 20, 2016 for a full trail description.

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Buzzard Rock, George Washington National Forest, September 2016

  1. Buzzard Rock via Shawl Gap (George Washington National Forest, VA)

Far from the highest point on northern Virginia’s Massanutten Mountain, Buzzard Rock nonetheless is a superb destination for its sweeping views, stony jumbles, and razor-thin ridge of chalky sandstone. The strenuous 9-mile out-and-back from Elizabeth Furnace is a haul, making this no easy walk in the park.

See my post on October 8, 2016 for a full trail description.

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Narrow Gauge Trail, Babcock State Park, May 2016

 

  1. Skyline Trail-Narrow Gauge Trail Loop (Babcock State Park, WV)

Straight from the annals of hiking obscura, this loop hike in West Virginia’s Babcock State Park is simply spectacular in the spring, when high water levels give rise to roaring rapids and ubiquitous waterfalls. The 7.8-mile circuit begins and ends at the Glade Creek Grist Mill, site of probably West Virginia’s most iconic photographs.

See my post on June 5, 2016 for a full trail description.

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Ouray Perimeter Trail, Uncompahgre National Forest, September 2016

  1. Ouray Perimeter Trail (Uncompahgre National Forest, CO)

The big winner of 2016 is the Ouray Perimeter Trail in southwest Colorado, marked by its plentiful panoramas and diverse terrain. Circling the picturesque town of Ouray, this 4.2-mile hike traverses high ledges, crosses deep canyons, and passes waterfalls and rocky outcrops, all the while surrounded by colorful cliffs and the towering San Juan Mountains.

See my post on October 8, 2016 for a full trail description.

 Honorable Mention:

Posted in Babcock State Park, George Washington National Forest, Maryland, Moderate Hikes, Prince William Forest Park, Shenandoah National Park, Sky Meadows State Park, South Mountain State Park, Strenuous Hikes, Sugarloaf Mountain, Virginia, West Virginia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Visitor Center Loop (Prince William Forest Park, VA)

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Birch Bluff Trail, Prince William Forest Park, December 2016

Forming a 1.1-mile circuit starting and ending at the Visitor Center, I’ve dubbed this hike in Virginia’s Prince William Forest Park—for lack of a better label—as the “Visitor Center Loop.” This is an ideal walk for those looking for a short and convenient stroll near the park entrance—perhaps an afternoon cool-down after a longer jaunt, or a good place to take young kids or walk the dog. There’s a little history sprinkled in along the way: part of the loop follows The Crossing Trail, which skirts a section of the old Telegraph Road, where George Washington and Rochambeau marched their troops to a decisive victory at Yorktown in 1781.

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Map of Visitor Center Loop, Prince William Forest Park; crated using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

The Visitor Center at Prince William Forest Park is situated on a roundabout, about 6/10 mile from the park entrance. (Note: You will want to park in the parking area off the road to Pine Grove Picnic Area to the west, as there is no parking in the roundabout.) The Visitor Center Loop begins to the southeast of the circle, at the spot where the roundabout meets Telegraph Road, which heads east toward the Telegraph Picnic Pavilion.

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Visitor Center at Prince William Forest Park, Virginia

Walking just past the open gate, take a right on the well-trodden path heading into the woods. This unnamed trail weaves amid chestnuts, hemlocks, beeches, and holly bushes for around 125 yards, then emerges onto a grassy field with a baseball diamond and volleyball pitch. This open expanse—known as Williams Ball Field—is rimmed with trees, most noticeably a fine stand of pines and hemlocks to the north, south, and east.

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Williams Ball Field

Continue across the field to its northeast corner, where the trail continues and dives back into the forest. From here, the path descends a woody slope and comes within striking distance of the picnic pavilion, before ending at a road and parking area just to the west. Take a left on Telegraph Road and follow it for about 70 yards, then look for a sign marking the beginning of The Crossing Trail on the right.

The Crossing Trail is a wide, gradually-sloping path that quickly merges with a pre-colonial thoroughfare: the old Telegraph Road, billed on the wayside at the hike’s 4/10-mile mark as a “forerunner to today’s interstate highways.” The road is, most famously, the same route used by Washington’s and Rochambeau’s troops as they made their way to Yorktown in 1891 for what would become the Revolutionary War’s decisive battle. (Note: See here for a full description of The Crossing Trail.)

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Wayside on the site of the old Telegraph Road, The Crossing Trail

After the wayside, the trail heads north, paralleling a broad ravine to the left, then splits. Stay right on the broader, more obvious path, leaving The Crossing Trail behind. Now you are on a spur of the red-blazed Birch Bluff Trail.

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Birch Bluff Trail

Bending to the west, the narrowing path follows the spine of a low ridge, then drops steeply and crosses an old dirt doubletrack at 6/10 mile. Stay on the red-blazed path, which descends to cross a wooden footbridge, then hugs the right flank of a shallow ravine as it bears south. At 8/10 mile, the trail hews right, leaving the ravine and heading north again, then crests a low hill.

From here it’s a short descent to another old fire road, where you should take a left on the path, which doubles as the yellow-blazed Laurel Loop Trail. Follow the gently-climbing path to its southern terminus and emerge at a grassy field just west of the Visitor Center, completing the 1.1-mile loop.

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Fort DeRussy Loop (Rock Creek Park, DC)

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Fort DeRussy, Rock Creek Park, December 2016

– “Hiking the Civil War” Series –

Occupying prime position atop a high hill in northern Washington, DC, Fort DeRussy was mostly quiet during the Civil War. But for two days in July 1864—when Confederate General Jubal Early’s Second Corps attacked the city, the war’s only raid on Washington—the artillerymen at the fort unleashed more than 100 rounds from 11 guns to slow the advancing forces’ march. The outlines of the site—well-preserved earthen mounds and deep trenches—remain visible today and can be explored on a pleasant wooded loop hike in Rock Creek Park. (Note: This circuit is also known as the Milkhouse Ford loop, named for the stony remains of an old crossing on Rock Creek, encountered a little over halfway through the hike.)

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Map of Fort DeRussy Loop, Rock Creek Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

While it is possible to park at Milkhouse Ford, Rock Creek Park’s official “half-day hikes” brochure directs hikers to start at the popular Nature Center, a good launching point for first-time visitors to Rock Creek Park. From the parking area at the Nature Center, bear straight on the paved path heading north, then stay left at the start of the short, wheelchair-accessible Edge of the Woods Trail.

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Western Ridge Trail descends to Military Road

Steps later, you will encounter a four-way junction; stay straight on the paved route, which has now merged with the lengthy Western Ridge Trail. Bearing downhill, you will meet the buzzing Military Road at 1/10 mile; use the crosswalk to reach the other side, where the pavement continues past a large sign, which indicates that you are entering the Fort DeRussy section of Rock Creek Park.

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FortDeRussy sign

Continue straight as the path climbs into the woods, approaching another junction. Here an interpretive sign directs hikers to take a right toward the fort. About 100 feet later, take a left, leaving the asphalted path for a well-trodden dirt track. Bear right again at the next fork, gradually gaining elevation and reaching Fort DeRussy (on the left) within minutes.

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Trail up to Fort DeRussy

Here a wayside tells the story of the fort and its mighty cannons, and a spur trail leads up into the earthworks. Follow the path to the low pass between two man-made mounds, then walk the perimeter of the trapezoidal fort to check out all vantage points.

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Entering Fort DeRussy

Fort DeRussy was one of 68 fortifications dedicated to defending Washington from attack. While most forts ended up simply being a deterrent, the guns at DeRussy were rare in that they saw action in mid-July 1864, firing 109 projectiles at Jubal Early’s advancing forces. Perched on some of the highest ground in the area, the fort offered distant views of the two-day battle at nearby Fort Stevens to the east, where Early’s daring raid was finally repulsed by Union forces. (Note: On July 11, President Abraham Lincoln personally visited the Union troops defending Fort Stevens, where Confederate sharpshooters nearly took his life, nine months before he was eventually slayed at Ford’s Theatre. As Early retreated, he noted glibly: “We didn’t take Washington, but we scared Abe Lincoln like Hell.”)

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Fort DeRussy northern flank

Today the fortifications are shrouded by tree cover, thanks to the preservation of Rock Creek Park since 1890, obscuring the vistas once enjoyed by the Union battery at Fort DeRussy. But the fort is remarkably well-kept, with well-defined infantry trenches and visible remains of where powder magazines were once kept.

Returning to the main trail, take a left and continue around the remainder of the loop. Amid chestnuts, oaks, tulips, and beech trees, the Fort DeRussy Trail gradually descends a woody ridge, then drops sharply at about 6/10 mile to within striking distance of Military Road again. After briefly paralleling a paved path (below on the right), the trail forks at ¾ mile. Bear left and continue northwest as the trail descends to meet the banks of Rock Creek at 9/10 mile.

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Rock Creek, Fort DeRussy Loop

Across the creek, look for a modest log cabin once owned by the quirky, 19th century poet Joaquin Miller. At the one-mile mark, the remains of a stone structure, on the banks of Rock Creek, are visible on the right; this is Milkhouse Ford, where concrete was laid in 1904 to provide passage for across the wide creekbed. Behind it is the much-less-quaint, modern-day Milkhouse Ford Bridge.

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Milkhouse Ford, Rock Creek Park

Shortly after the ford, the northbound trail temporarily ends at a graveled parking lot. Walk up the road for 15-20 yards, then take a left on a fresh path heading west up a deep gully with a small stream. With high slopes on either side, cross the minor creek at 1.15 miles, then bear left at the trail fork 150 yards later.

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Trail heads west up a broad ravine

Now you are back on the Western Ridge Trail, which you will follow all the way back to the Nature Center. From here the trail skirts the west flank of the hillside on which Fort DeRussy sits, with views across Oregon Avenue toward St. John’s College High School. After cresting a low ridge, the path drops to meet the Fort DeRussy Trail. Take a right and continue downhill to meet the paved path again; you are now retracing your steps from early in the hike. Bear right, and then turn left toward Military Road. After crossing the road, you are in the final stretch: a steady uphill back to the Nature Center and original parking area.

Expect to take at least 45 minutes to an hour for this hike; Civil War “buffs” may want to allot more time.

Posted in District of Columbia, Moderate Hikes, Rock Creek Park | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Edge of the Woods Trail (Rock Creek Park, DC)

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Edge of the Woods Trail, Rock Creek Park, December 2016

The Edge of the Woods Trail is a short, wheelchair-accessible path in Rock Creek Park, starting and ending at the Nature Center. Along the way are interpretive signs on the area’s flora and fauna, but there’s not much to see besides woods and a very small meadow.

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The hike

The Nature Center is a popular starting point for visitors to Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC and serves as the trailhead for this 10-minute walk. Leaving the Nature Center—which doubles as the park’s primary gift shop—head straight, walk back toward the parking area, and bear right at the sign reading “Edge of the Woods Trail.”

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Nature Center in Rock Creek Park

Stay right at the subsequent junction steps later, and follow the loop in a clockwise direction. The path begins in the woods amid towering tulip, chestnut, and oak trees, with an occasional black cherry or holly. Frequent benches offer the opportunity to sit down.

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Edge of the Woods Trail, Rock Creek Park

About 2/3 of the way around, the paved path skirts the edge of a tiny meadow with high grasses, then reaches a junction with the half-mile Woodland Trail. Stay right, reaching the northern wall of the Nature Center. From here, it’s less than a minute back to the start.

Allot 10-15 minutes for this handicapped-accessible walk.

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Holly tree along the Edge of the Woods Trail

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South Ridge-Ambassador Whitehouse Trail Loop (Sky Meadows State Park, VA)

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North Ridge Trail, Sky Meadows State Park, December 2016

More than a dozen hiking trails crisscross northern Virginia’s Sky Meadows State Park, situated on the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains—and there is perhaps no better hike in the park than the moderately strenuous circuit described here. Scenic vistas abound as hikers make their way up South Ridge, head northeast along a section of the Appalachian Trail, and then descend the sun-soaked Ambassador Whitehouse and North Ridge Trails. There are numerous variations (for example, tack on an additional two miles by taking the purple-blazed Old Appalachian Trail); this description covers a relatively short, 4.8-mile loop with around 1,000 feet in elevation gain.

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Map of South Ridge-Appalachian-Ambassador Whitehouse Trail Loop, Sky Meadows State Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

Begin your visit at the Sky Meadows Visitor Center, situated on a historic farm dating to the colonial period. The hike technically begins up at the nearby Park Office, situated around 150 yards up the road from the Visitor Center. Look for a wide gravel road—closed to vehicle traffic—to the left; this is the start of your trek.

Continue southwest on Boston Mill Road, guarded by brush and trees on both sides as it passes between farmsteads. Stay straight at the first trail fork, then continue downhill into a wooded gully. (Note: The trail coming in from the right is your return route.) Stay straight at the second trail junction at 3/10 mile, then cross Gap Run. About a minute later, bear right on the South Ridge Trail, emerging from the trees and entering a sloping pasture.

Don’t get too comfortable with the wide, gravel path, as the South Ridge Trail quickly takes a hard right, leaving the old road behind and reentering the woods at 4/10 mile. Beginning a slow but steady ascent, the winding path climbs to an overlook at 6/10 mile, offering partly-obscured views of the northern Piedmont. Here an unmarked path continues right, skirting the edge of the open field to the north; stay left on the main trail, which dives into a wooded gully.

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First overlook on South Ridge Trail

Ascending the opposite hillside, the South Ridge Trail follows an old dirt double-track amid thick brush on both sides. At 3/4 mile, a solitary bench offers tremendous eastward views from the second—and greatly superior—overlook.

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Second overlook, South Ridge Trail

Minutes past the overlook, the trail bends westward, returns to thick woods, and gradually climbs 400 feet over the course of one mile. Around two miles from the Park Office, stay left at the junction, emerging onto the North Ridge Trail. The next quarter-mile is the steepest uphill of the hike, covering an additional 250 feet in elevation gain.

The trail levels off at around 1,800 feet at Mile 2.3, where the route splits again. Take a right on the Appalachian Trail (AT), the most famous route in the eastern United States. Stay right at the intersection with the purple-blazed Old Trail at 2.4 miles, after which the AT crosses a pipeline clear cut. A small wooden gate offers passage through a livestock fence, then the AT traverses an open field as it continues northeast. Again wooded, the AT drops 150 feet in the next half-mile. (Note: At this point, you have briefly left Sky Meadows State Park but will return within a mile and a half.)

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Appalachian Trail, Sky Meadows State Park

Now over three miles from the start, the trail splits again in the middle of an open meadow. Leave the AT and turn right onto the Ambassador Whitehouse Trail. Named for the late career diplomat Charles Whitehouse, the wide trail blazes a path across the meadow and down the slopes of North Ridge, approaching the so-called “Paris View” at 3.5 miles.

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Ambassador Whitehouse Trail

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Paris View

Situated just before a sharp-right hand bend, this overlook offers sweeping views of Paris, a small community of 50 people, situated down in the valley, where Blue Ridge casts a large evening shadow. A bench and picnic table provides a place to stop for a rest and a snack.

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Paris View, Ambassador Whitehouse Trail

Cutting southwest, the Ambassador Whitehouse Trail weaves in and out of brushy meadows before eventually dropping back into the woods and crossing the pipeline clearing again at Mile 4. From here, the trail descends sharply, and hikers soon return to the blue-blazed North Ridge Trail. Take a left, then stay right at the junction with the red-blazed Piedmont Overlook Trail.

Following a short, stone wall on the right, the North Ridge Trail descends to reach arguably the hike’s best vista at 4.3 miles. Emerging onto a sunny hillside, the dusty path provides picturesque views of the northern Piedmont, including tree-studded Lost Mountain, an azure-colored reservoir, and a rustic barn to the southeast.

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View of the northern Piedmont from the North Ridge Trail

In the 1750s, the valley below was the stomping grounds of a young surveyor named George Washington, who briefly owned a parcel of land on the slopes of Lost Mountain before becoming an officer in the British colonial army. More than a century later, residents of the area largely avoided the disruption of civil war, though Union and Confederate Armies often traversed the area between battles. Today, the rolling hills are dotted with barns and farmsteads, many preserved almost as they were in the 1800s.

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North Ridge Trail

The last 1/3 mile of the North Ridge Trail is all views before it ends back at Boston Mill Road. Take a left and walk the final 1/10 mile to the Park Office, ending the 4.8-mile loop. From here it is short walk back to the Visitor Center and parking area.

Hiking time can vary widely for this loop, depending on physical ability and the number of stops along the way. At a relatively average pace of 2 miles per hour, it’s fair to allot around 2.5-3 hours for the circuit.

Posted in Moderate Hikes, Sky Meadows State Park, Virginia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Pine-Holly Trail Loop (Rock Creek Park, DC)

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Pine-Holly Trail Loop, Rock Creek Park, November 2016

Situated in Rock Creek Park’s wild northern section, the Pine-Holly Loop traces a 1.5-mile circuit in the woody pocket between the creek and 16th Street in Washington, DC. Although the scenery is modest, this short hike is easily accessed by city dwellers, beginning and ending at 16th and Holly, located on the well-trafficked bus line between downtown and Silver Spring, Maryland.

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Map of Pine – Holly Trail Loop, Rock Creek Park; created with National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

Taking the S4 or D31 bus up 16th Street from downtown DC, get off at the 16th and Geranium Street stop and walk one block north to Holly Street. Crossing 16th to the west side, look for a wooden sign marking the trailhead.

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Trailhead on 16th Street

Immediately entering Rock Creek Park, take a right at the first junction, following the Pine Trail as it descends into the stream valley. (Note: Many maps—like this one, which I have corrected—mistakenly switch the Pine and Holly Trails; it is in fact Pine to the right, Holly to the left.) The wide path traces a woody ridgeline westward and merges with the Valley Trail at ¼ mile (stay left), then approaches a rocky outcrop on the right, which offers elevated views of gently-flowing Rock Creek below.

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Rock Creek

Beyond, the trail bends southward and flattens out as it reaches the floor of the valley. Turn left at the 4-way junction at 4/10 mile, continuing on the aqua-blazed Valley Trail. The narrow singletrack crosses a boardwalk at ½ mile and then skirts the banks of Rock Creek 200 yards later.

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Rock Creek along the Valley Trail

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Rock Creek

Living up to its name, Rock Creek is littered with boulders, mostly gray granite and gneiss. Across the creek is Picnic Grove 10, a large parking area, and Beach Drive, a (perhaps unpleasant) reminder that you are, still, in the heart of a major metropolis. Follow the track southward until 9/10 mile, when the path splits again. Take a left on the Holly Trail, leaving the stream behind.

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Turnoff to Holly Trail

The Holly Trail begins by hugging the flank of a minor ravine, then follows the left fork as the dry streambed divides in two. The steepest climb of the hike, this leg gains nearly 150 feet in 2/10 mile before leveling out as hikers bear north on a winding path back toward the trailhead. Dipping in and out of minor pitches, the yellow-blazed trail comes within earshot of the road, then loops back to the original trail fork at 1.4 miles. Bearing right, the Pine-Holly Loop reaches it coda, reemerging at 16th and Holly, ending the brief respite from the city buzz.

Allot around 45 minutes to an hour for this leisurely hike.

Posted in District of Columbia, Easy Hikes, Rock Creek Park | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Northern Peaks Trail & White Rocks (Sugarloaf Mountain, MD)

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White Rocks, Blue Trail/Northern Peaks Trail, Sugarloaf Mountain, November 2016

Maryland’s Sugarloaf Mountain, the area’s best known example of a monadnock, features a network of zigzagging trails, just an hour’s drive from Washington, DC. While climbing Sugarloaf itself is the park’s key attraction, the Blue Trail (a.k.a. Northern Peaks Trail) triples the fun with rocky climbs to three nearby summits, plus a short detour to White Rocks, a fantastic set of viewpoints overlooking Frederick Valley to the west. Clocking in at about 5.5 miles, this loop hike provides a fine introduction to the park at Sugarloaf, protected and managed by the trustees of Stronghold Incorporated since 1946.

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Map of Blue Trail/Northern Peaks Trail, Sugarloaf Mountain; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

The disadvantage of being just over an hour from DC and Baltimore, of course, is that Sugarloaf Mountain can, unsurprisingly, get packed. Come early or late in the day (we started this hike at around 3pm on Veteran’s Day in November) to avoid the buzzing crowds. To reach the start, wind your way up Sugarloaf Mountain Drive, past East View, to the West View parking area, 1.8 miles from the entrance to the park. (Note: Alternatively, one could start the hike down on Mount Ephraim Road, about 2.5 miles northwest of the park’s main entrance off Comus Road.)

Catch the start of the Northern Peaks Trail at the southern end of the West View parking area, just before the traffic circle. There is a shelter and trail kiosk along the road’s east flank, the latter offering hiking and other information for the park. Rounding the 5.5-mile circuit in a clockwise direction, cross the road here and catch the blue-blazed path as it bears west, past a series of picnic tables. (Note: To the left is the West View Overlook, a registered National Historic Landmark.)

Heading sharply downhill, the stony path skirts the edge of a quartzite escarpment before reaching the first of many trail junctions, roughly 100 yards from the start. Bear right, now following the white-and-blue blazed path as it continues westward and flattens out, with some obscured views out over Frederick Valley through the trees. The trail takes a hard right at around 1/10 mile, now bearing north amid dense deciduous forest. Towering oaks abound, as well as poplars, hemlocks, sycamores, and pines, and mountain laurel appears in scattered bunches.

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Northern Peaks Trail, Sugarloaf Mountain

Bearing uphill at around 1/3 mile, the trail splits again at the ½-mile mark. Bear left on the Blue (Northern Peaks) Trail, leaving behind the White (Mountain Loop) Trail, which meanders off to the right. Descending a northern finger of Sugarloaf Mountain, the path abruptly drops into a wooded gully at ¾ mile, descending nearly 300 feet over the next 2/3 mile. The wide and well-trodden path follows the Bear Branch of Bennett Creek for 2/10 mile, then veers away from the ravine as it approaches Mount Ephraim Road at 1.3 miles. Take a right on the remote drive, following it downhill for 150 yards, where a parking area marks the continuation of the blue-blazed path on the right. (Note: The Blue Trail crisscrosses with the Yellow (Saddleback Horse Trail) at Mount Ephraim Road.)

The next leg begins with a sharp uphill, cresting a woody knoll. Gradually scaling a 350-foot ridgeline, the path levels off briefly as hikers approach the 2-mile mark and then drops again for a brief downhill section, only to climb again to another trail junction.  This four-way fork offers access to White Rocks, a sun-soaked terrace of stony cliffs, split into a north and a south view. Heading to the South View first on a trail spur, bear left at the junction, reaching the overlook in a minute’s time.

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South View, White Rocks

Unfolding to the west is Frederick Valley, which doubles as the floodplain for the Monocacy River. Beyond are the gentle southern fringes of Catoctin Mountain, followed on the horizon by South Mountain farther west. To the south, rolling hills and fields extend to the Potomac River (not visible) and Virginia beyond. The array of rocky perches at the viewpoint lend themselves to taking a break and staying awhile, especially in early evening as the setting sun casts misty shadows on the valley.

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Frederick Valley from White Rocks South View

From the South View, there is a social trail heading left that offers a shortcut to the North View, equally as appealing, though there is not as much room to (safely) sit for a break. From here, you can see up the valley toward Frederick, Maryland, a city of 67,000.

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North View, White Rocks

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North View, White Rocks

Follow the official path heading south from the North View, and reconnect with the main trail at 2.3 miles. From here, the meandering trail crests the first of three lesser peaks (Point 895’) on the route back to Sugarloaf Mountain and the parking area. (Note: There is little fanfare at the summit, however, as it is shrouded with trees.) After briefly descending, the trail climbs to a second high point at 1,015 feet, this peak marked with a large pile of hefty stones.

Point 1,015’ also marks the northernmost reaches of the hike, and the Blue Trail thereafter heads south as it drops sharply, down occasional switchbacks, to a low pass. At 3.5 miles, the track splits four ways; stay straight on the blue-blazed path. Climbing again, the trail climbs to a third, very rocky summit (Point 995’) at 3.9 miles.

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Descending from Point 1,015′ with Sugarloaf Mountain in the distance

From here, the Northern Peaks Trail descends again, then crests a rock-strewn ridgeline and hugs the east flank of the Sugarloaf Mountain massif. At 4.4 miles, the path crosses an unmarked trail/road, then, minutes later, hikers reach another junction. Head right, again rejoining the White Trail for a brief moment, before the Blue Trail veers off to the right at a subsequent junction 1/10 mile later.

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Northern Peaks Trail, Sugarloaf Mountain

Returning to west-facing slopes, the trail approaches the McCormack Overlook at mile 5, where a rock outcrop on the right offers obscured vistas. Stay straight as the Red (Monadnock) Trail heads for Sugarloaf’s summit on the left.

The home stretch is relatively flat and flanked with mountain laurel on both sides. At 5.4 miles, a spur trail offers access to the West View parking area on the right, while the main path presses on, emerging minutes later at the shelter, trail kiosk, and traffic roundabout mentioned at the start. And so the Northern Peaks Trail is complete.

All in all, this 5.5-mile loop, including the two spurs to White Rocks, takes at least three hours; casual hikers will want to allot at least 4-5.

Posted in Maryland, Moderate Hikes, Sugarloaf Mountain | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment