Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Sugarloaf Mountain Hike

View north from White Rocks to Catoctin and South Mountains
6.8 miles loop, 1300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate

Sugarloaf Mountain is a small foothill of the Appalachian Mountains, an outlier mountain that rises above the Maryland Piedmont. It is privately owned by the Stronghold Corporation, which allows public access during daylight hours for hiking and picnicking. Due to its proximity to Washington DC, this natural area is extraordinarily popular. However, it still merits a visit due to the pleasant views of the Piedmont, the Potomac River, and the Appalachians from the mountain. The park has many miles of interconnecting trails. I will describe a hike similar to the one detailed in Hiking Upward that visits the summit of Sugarloaf and then heads north to White Rocks before returning in a wooded valley.

On my first and rather sunny and beauitful weekend in Maryland, I convinced two friends to head out to Sugarloaf with me. Leaving in the early afternoon, it took us only a little while to escape the bustle of I-270 and Montgomery County and head onto the winding roads of rural Maryland near Dickerson. The easiest way to reach Sugarloaf is to take MD 109 (Old Hundred Rd.) south to Comus Road and turn right and follow Comus to the foot of Sugarloaf. I followed the directions from Google Maps, which put me on a set of unpaved roads that made the fairly short trip from I-270 to the foot of the mountain into a slightly longer drive.

We parked at the East View parking area, the first major parking area on the mountain itself. From East View, there was a pretty and broad view over the Piedmont. Farms dotted the area beneath the mountain; farther away, some of the high rises near Rockville were visible. 

East View
From East View, we took the Orange Trail, a steep trail that headed straight up Sugarloaf. There were few switchbacks on this trail, which in a matter of minutes led us to a junction with the red trail. Following the red trail, we quickly reached the summit of 1282 feet high Sugarloaf. There were plenty of large sandstone chunks around the summit and even more people climbing the rocks. One set of rocks a hundred yards from the summit had views south to the Potomac River, Virginia, and West Virginia. The views were quite impressive for a mountain as small as Sugarloaf.

View south from Sugarloaf's summit
We continued on the Red Trail past the summit, descending and eventually joining the Blue Trail, heading north and east. At the trail junction, a jumble of rocks suggested the presence of a former viewpoint, but it was no longer possible to see past the growing forest. Near this trail junction on the Blue Trail was a particularly enjoyable stretch of trail in which the trail cut through a forest floor covered with ferns. 

Ferns on the forest floor
The trail then continued, generally following the ridgeline of Sugarloaf. We made multiple ascents and descents as we followed the trail in and out of the sunlight. The Blue Trail seemed to drag at times; perhaps it was because I hadn't hiked in a little while, or perhaps it was just the heat, humidity, and my friends' dwindling water that made three miles seem like thirteen. The trail passed alternately through forest and sunnier open spots; at one such sunny spot, we found wildflowers.

Wildflowers in a clearing
After passing a trail junction with the Northern Peaks loop, the Blue Trail began a gentle ascent up a ridge of the northern peak of Sugarloaf. Atop the ridge, there were occasional views through the trees of the main peak of Sugarloaf. After a period of ridge walking, the trail began descending. Not having looked at the topo map, I became worried that we had already passed White Rocks; luckily, we hadn't yet. We were, however, beginning to run out of water, a somewhat worrying circumstance on a 90-degree day. However, toward the end of a fairly lengthy descent along a east-west ridge on the mountain's northern peak, we finally came to a sign for the rocks.

We finally arrived at White Rocks after a rather tiring stretch of the Blue Trail. There are two viewpoints at White Rocks: the south viewpoint, which is very close to the trail, and the north viewpoint, which is about a hundred yards down a spur. As the southern viewpoint was quite crowded when we arrived, we decided to head to the north viewpoint. This ended up being quite a wise idea: the north viewpoint not only had great views, it also had an interesting pine growing out of the middle of the rocks, angled oddly to the west. The rocks were their namesake color, some sort of sandstone. The view from White Rocks was my favorite at Sugarloaf: it was the only viewpoint on the hike that faced the west. Although the rocks weren't very high up, we were still able to see clearly over the lush Monocacy Valley to the buildings of Frederick and to the gentle peaks of Catoctin and South Mountains in the far distance.

Pine tree at White Rocks
From White Rocks, we continued on the Blue Trail, making a gradual descent down to Mount Ephraim Road. We walked a hundred yards or so south to the continuation of the Blue Trail, passing the confluence of two streams on the gravel road before we started uphill on the trail. After a gentle (and rather thirsty) ascent, we hiked along the west edge of Sugarloaf, on fairly flat trail through the forest, passing a junction with the White Trail before finally coming to the Green Trail, which led uphill to the West View Parking Area. Glad to have finally returned to pavement, we finished the hike with a few hundred yards of following the road back to East View Parking.

This was quite a good hike, conveniently located just 40 minutes from the suburbs in Montgomery County, with good views of the Piedmont, the Monocacy Valley, and Catoctin and South Mountains. Any complaints that I have about it are no doubt due to my oversight on the amount of water that we should have brought. Sugarloaf Mountain is a rather special site and Stronghold has done a remarkable job of keeping the mountain both fairly natural and accessible to the public.