Monday, January 16, 2017

The C&O Canal, Muddy Branch to Harper's Ferry, and a sampler of Montgomery County trails

What could be better than spending a cold winter day hiking.
Here I explore the Rock Creek Trail in Montgomery County, MD

Winter.  Hiking is better than hibernating.  Before I headed down to the North Carolina beach for a winter break I undertook one last hiking adventure in the Washington DC vicinity.  I laid down footprints making a continuous connection between all the places I've lived in Maryland and the Appalachian Trail at Harper's Ferry, WV.

The centerpiece of this hike was forty miles along the Potomac River via the C&O Canal.


The 180-mile C&O Canal Tow Path is a part of one of just eleven National Scenic Trails.  Known as the Potomac Heritage Trail, the network of continuous trails stretches from the Chesapeake Bay to Pittsburgh, PA.

The C&O Tow Path is also part of the much less official American Discovery Trail.  The ADT takes a route right through the heart of Washington DC following much of Rock Creek Trail and the C&O Canal in the District.

But I'm no lover of urban hiking.  I had to connect to a place I lived in Takoma Park, MD, right on the DC border, so I took advantage of the opportunity to connect my footsteps to the District of Columbia, the 19th 'State' connected as part of my Personal Continuous Footpath project.  But that's as close as I wanted to get to what I fondly refer to as 'Urban Blight'.  So from Takoma Park, I selected a route away from DC and into the sprawling suburbs of Montgomery County, MD. 

Montgomery County has lots of biking and hiking trails, and they're working to connect them.  It wasn't hard to find a route that kept me off roads 99 percent of the way.

The apartment building where I lived in Takoma Park is just blocks from the Sligo Creek Trail, which sports signs advertising it as an officially recognized National Recreational Trail.


I used that trail seven years ago when I made the connecting hike from my other Maryland addresses, so that was my natural first step as I headed west toward the Appalachian Trail.  The outer reaches of the Sligo Creek Trail are surprisingly 'wild'.


From the end of Sligo Creek a very short road walk brought me into the trail system within Wheaton Regional Park.  Some of its trails are quiet footpaths in the deep woods.  Others are bike trails, and still others are primarily horse trails.  From Wheaton Regional Park I walked a half mile of sidewalks up to a brand new bike path in an area of new construction along Tivoli Lake Drive.


Another few blocks of sidewalk brought me to the eastern terminus of a marvel of modern bike path construction, known as the Matthew Henson Trail.  It's barely five miles long but a significant chunk of it is elevated boardwalk through 'sensitive' areas.  No cheap project, this.


The other end of the Matthew Henson Trail connects with Rock Creek Trail, shown in the headline photo, and then I picked up the city of Rockville's extensive urban bike trail system.


Swinging around the north side of Rockville on the wide bike paths beside Gude Drive and Key West Avenue, I picked up the Muddy Branch Trail at its northern terminus.  This is a winding and undulating nine-mile dirt trail that follows a stream by the same name and appears to be very popular with mountain bikers.


Montgomery County describes the Muddy Branch Trail as 'still under construction' and there were several stream crossings without bridges.


But it was well blazed and signed, and as far as I'm concerned as a hiker, the trail was open for business and a pleasure to hike.  This is a trail with a decidedly rural flavor.


Some of nature's special winter touches were on display.


The other end of Muddy Branch Trail ends at Pennyfield Lock, Lock 22, which is an access point for the C&O Canal Tow Path twenty miles from downtown DC.  And here, along the Potomac, I found more dazzling examples of nature's ice sculpture.


For old times sake, I ended this series of hikes by climbing up to Weverton Cliffs on the Appalachian Trail.  After all the icy weather this was an unseasonably warm day and my daughter joined me.  It's less than a mile walk from the parking lot beside the Canal and the views down to the Potomac are killer.


Below I've attached the GPS track maps of the six day hikes included in this report, presented as I hiked them, from Takoma Park westward.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Connecting my old homes in Maryland via trails - Patapsco Valley State Park


Maryland has a good network of (almost) connected long trails.  Other than the 44 miles of Appalachian Trail in the state and a couple of rail trails north and south of Baltimore, the rest of the long trails follow rivers.

Granddaddy of the river trails is the C&O Canal Tow Path, which follows the Potomac for more than 180 miles from Washington DC to Cumberland.  But there's another good connecting corridor of hiking and multi-use trails through the center of the state.  This is a collection of trails -- they don't have a single name -- and there are some short road walks to make connections, but this network connects Annapolis, MD on the Chesapeake Bay with Reisterstown and Eldersburg MD in the center of the state, a trail distance of 50 or 60 miles depending on how you go.

Old Union Dam site and the US 40 bridge over the Patapsco River

At the core of this route is the Patapsco River, much of which is protected as a State Park.  And at the core of Patapsco Valley State Park's 170-mile network of trails of is its white blazed 'Thru Trail'.


I just re-hiked the Thru Trail with my GPS.  After Christmas I decided to head back to my old home turf in Maryland.  I spent a wonderful day with my two kids before one of them flew back to Houston, and then I hiked.

At the north end of Patapsco Park is Liberty Dam.  Its reservoir provides water for the city of Baltimore and there are more than 100 miles of trails encircling that lake.  The report of my 81-mile circuit hike around the reservoir is here.

Liberty Reservoir from the dam site, as it looked a few days ago.

I used to live within easy walking distance of Liberty Dam, so I've visited it many times and have experienced its many moods.  It's been dry here lately so I found no water overflowing the dam.


After a good rain, it's a different story.


In between, the water cascading over the concrete can make some interesting patterns.

Telephoto view from a picnic pavilion high on a ridge in the McKeldin area of Patapsco Valley State Park
Detail of the flow with image inverted (down is at the top)

When there's no flow over the dam, fording the North Branch of the Patapsco River is a piece of cake.  Right below the dam is a gravel bar where the little bit of leakage is a mere trickle.


That's the ford required to make the circuit hike around the lake.  Farther down, just above where the North Branch and the South Branch converge, the Thru Trail fords the river.  The formal site of the ford looks intimidating, because it's mainly used by horses.


But there's an easy rock-hop just a couple hundred yards upstream.

The Thru Trail passes another dam at the historic town of Daniels.  There's always plenty of flow here because the South Branch has no impoundment and water intake.


Although there's a road down to Daniels, most of the rest of the Thru Trail is a quiet remote walk in the woods.  The only sign of civilization is the CSX rail line that uses the river corridor to haul coal from West Virginia to the port of Baltimore where it is shipped abroad to countries with fewer environmental restrictions.

This engineer gave me a 'toot' and is waving.  Can you see his hand?

It was a cold day when I came up this piece of trail and found a well-developed bank covered with ice ribbons.


That's winter in Maryland.  As I write this report we're getting a little snow and I'm headed for another Maryland hiking venue.  I was going to head south to North Carolina but the forecast for there calls for a foot of snow.  From past experience that means days of impassable roads and gridlock.  The bulk of the accumulation from this storm will miss Maryland to the south.  It'll be downright chilly here as it will be down in NC.  We won't see the temperatures above freezing until the middle of next week, but at least here I'll be able to get out and about.

Below are the GPS tracks for the Thru Trail and beyond, along the Oella Mill Race down to Ellicott City in the south and on up to Liberty Dam in the north, divided into five segments, north to south.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Starting down the Buckeye Trail in the snow


The day I hiked out of Carrollton, Ohio and put my first footprints on Ohio's state-circling 1444 mile Buckeye Trail was the day winter sunk its teeth into Ohio.

Wind chills were in the single digits and the sky was spitting snow on and off.

The next day brought more of the same.  Temperatures struggled to reach the mid 20's in the afternoon.  The third day the wind let up, but there was more snow, on and off all day.  About an inch fell in big, fluffy flakes.  Day after that came rain and some melting, then more snow.

There was no let-up.  I wanted to continue hiking, but the next day we got an unexpected four inches and the forecast was calling for an Arctic blast, wind chills as low as -15F, daytime temperatures barely above 10F.

Well, Christmas was coming.  It seemed like a good time to get off the trail.  So after just a few days enjoying the eastern Ohio lake country in the snow, I'm taking a break.  It might be a couple weeks before I get back here, or I might wait until spring.  We'll see.

So here are the particulars, with photos.

Coming out of Carrollton, after a day and a half of road walking, the first off-road Buckeye trail segment was beside Leesville Lake.


The headline photo up top shows a typical trail setting, with good winter views of the lake.  It began for me at the Southfork Marina and a 100 yard side trail.


In the middle of this section came the 'money' views, where the trail came right down beside the lake.


Next up was Tappan Lake, the following day.


Here the trail spent some time high up above the lake ...


... and not so much time down beside it ...


... until it crossed the dam.  By then silver-dollar-sized flakes were coming down, and visibility was dropping.


Road walks connect these woods-trail gems beside the lakes.  Most were quiet country strolls, but I prefer the solitude of the woods, free of the 'threat' of having my muse interrupted by a passing motorist.


The next woods segment was a rugged ten mile swing around an upper arm of Clendening Lake.



Here, the only close-up view of the water came from the road walk.


The trail itself climbed and descended the bluffs above the valley at least half a dozen times.  Good work out, and beautiful wild mature forest setting, but hardly any sight of the water.

Finally, on a day when the forecast didn't originally call for snow, I got blindsided by four inches.


I was hiking a wonderful off-road section around Piedmont Lake.


It started snowing about 9:30AM.  Just before it began, I hiked a freshly cut, freshly blazed new trail between US 22 and the lake.  This trail had been cut just a week or two ago, at most.  In the photo, looking east, it seems like the geese knew the snow was on the way.  They were headed due south.


I was hiking in my crocs, as I always do.  Needless to say, Crocs don't keep your feet dry in the snow, even these good ones without vent holes.


The trail came down beside the water and stayed there for a long stretch, virtually following the shoreline, with potentially grand views, but the snow was damping the visibility.


I called it quits early, with about two inches having accumulated.  Fortunately my vehicles were near the busy, well-salted US 22 and not too far from the junction of Interstates 70 and 77 at Cambridge, Ohio, so I was able to escape in the midst of the storm without a great deal of hassle.

This lake country section of the Buckeye Trail was a wonderful introduction.  I'm looking forward to getting back out here sooner rather than later.