Once a year, I grind out 7 miles of rugged terrain hiking at Sugarloaf Mountain in Frederick County, Maryland. Plotted within reach of the Blue Ridge Mountains and flung into 20,000 acres of farmland separating the commercial hubs of the city of Frederick and Washington, D.C., Sugarloaf overlooks the winding Potomac and Monocacy Rivers and a leg of the C&O Canal.
The mountain is owned by the nonprofit organization, Stronghold, Inc., named for Gordon Strong, a lawyer and conservationist who acquired most of the 3,400 acre property in the early 20th century. Strong made his residence on Sugarloaf (known as Strong Mansion, still in use today) and he established a trust fund in 1946 for Sugarloaf’s ongoing preservation.
The premises has been open to the public for years, yet I grow concerned reading recent reports Stronghold, Inc. is considering rescinding public access in light of the county’s proposal of future rezoning and land use designation efforts. Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard is the only viable commercial entity enjoying support near the foot of the mountain entrance. While the plan proposes to protect most of the 20,000 acres in the Sugarloaf area from development, one can’t help but get the impression the planning and zoning board is silently licking their chops with potential. Sugarloaf, after all, is a mere 10 minutes away from Highway 270, a major artery bridging two of Maryland’s strongest business sectors.
Perhaps Sugarloaf’s fate being up in the air is why I felt more compelled than usual to take some time off and hit my favorite hiking destination in Maryland. My annual Sugarloaf hike is a quiet ritual I usually observe by and for myself, though I’ve taken company with me at times. I always start on the orange trail from the east vista up to green, which is a stunning mini gorge to behold. I swing through green to the five mile craggy loop of the blue trail spanning from the west vista back to east.
Hiking Sugarloaf is a time when I purge, breathe, find thanks and connect with the divine in private. These trails are thus sacred to me, and I know they are to others, given the random manmade rock cairns you can find deep on the blue trail.
The full trek may not require you be in peak physical condition, but the Sugarloaf trails done back-to-back will grind you up, gnaw upon your feet and provide challenging inclines with very little flat portions. It’s a tremendous cardio workout where the bears and bobcats stay in hiding for the most part until the lighter foot traffic months. Snakes are abound, so stick to the blaze and you’ll do just fine. The green glacial boulders scattered in pockets along the blue trail are worth the entire jaunt.
There is a yellow trail circumventing the mountain, once popular, yet it appears to me this has become a road lesser traveled, given the unkempt overgrowth I found at intersecting junctions…
If Sugarloaf Mountain does end up closed to the public, I’ll feel a tremendous loss, but I’ll keep my spirits aligned with cautious optimism for next year’s return. For now, have a walk with me at Sugarloaf in picture form…
–Photos by Ray Van Horn, Jr.