The Ultimate Guide to Hiking in Western Maryland
Paw Paw Tunnel, Maryland | © Doug Kerr / Flickr
Just a few hours from Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, western Maryland is the perfect spot for a weekend hike. Learn why the forests, parks, and natural areas in the Blue Ridge Mountains are great for hiking, and the five best spots to check out.
Western Maryland provides a great day-trip from the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, and with state parks, forests, and privately-run nature areas, there are lots of opportunities to explore the most mountainous part of the state. Some of the most scenic areas are around Maryland’s man-made lakes (fun fact: there are no natural lakes in the state), which are also a great place to cool off during the summer months. The elevation of the Blue Ridge Mountains also makes for unique plants and animals, plus spectacular views of the valleys below.
Best time to go
The best time to explore western Maryland is the summer, when low-lying cities such as D.C. and Baltimore become hot, humid, and swampy. The mountains past Berkeley Springs are cool and temperate, and the best place to beat the heat. But of course, lots of people in the urban areas think that, so be sure to make reservations if you plan on camping during a multi-day hike. The fall offers beautiful foliage as the leaves change color, and the spring is full of rhododendrons and other early flowers.
The five best places to check out
Deep Creek Lake State Park
While Deep Creek Lake itself is massive—3,900 acres (16 km2) with 69 miles (111 km) of shoreline—the state park near the lake is rather small. However, it does have a Discovery Center with exhibits about the nature and history of the area, and a small interpretive trail. The center also offers guided hikes, including walks focused on local history, birding, or season-specific explorations. You can also walk easy, moderate, and difficult trails around the area, including one that takes you to a fire tower with great views of the lake. When you’re done, check out the beach and swimming day area.
Cranesville Swamp Preserve
The farthest place to hike in western Maryland is the the Cranesville Swamp preserve, a piece of land that straddles the West Virginia-Maryland border. A unique habitat is created when the surrounding hills capture moisture and cold and create an unusually cool climate. You’ll get a chance to see over fifty rare plants and animals, including the tiny northern saw-whet owl. The Nature Conservancy manages the land, and you can visit from dawn to dusk year-round. The trains are not extensive, but you can check out information before you go that will tell you more about the wildlife in the area.
The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal is 184 miles long, extending from Washington, D.C. to Cumberland, Maryland. While this is a flat trail, it’s perfect for multi-day hikes and backpacking. With campsites and towns along the way, you can start in Cumberland and go south towards Paw Paw and the famous Paw Paw tunnel, or if you want to start in Harper’s Ferry, you can walk north to Shepardstown or south to Brunswick and the Potomac River rapids near Point of Rocks. With such a long trail, the possibilities are almost endless.
Green Ridge State Forest
On the northern side of the C&O Canal path east of Cumberland, Maryland is the expansive Green Ridge State Forest. The forest has over 50 miles (80 km) of trails that range from easy to difficult and traverse a range of environments, from steep climbs and scenic views to muddy stream crossings. Make sure to at least walk through the Paw Paw tunnel. The tunnel is over 3,000 feet long, the longest hiking/biking tunnel in the world. Green Ridge State Forest also has a number of campgrounds if you’re looking for two days of hiking, and the town of Little Orleans at the northern end of the forest has a campground, restaurant, and a bed and breakfast if you want a little more comfort.
Rocky Gap State Park
Just west of Green Ridge State Forest is Rocky Gap State Park. While you can go for a luxury experience here by staying at the hotel and golfing on the 18-hole course, you can also find great trails to hike around Lake Habeeb. The views all around are gorgeous, with cliffs that fall into the water, a mile-long gorge, and a dense forest with hemlocks and rhododendrons. The 5.3 mile (8.5 km) loop alongside the lake is a perfect day hike, while the Touch of Nature trail is completely accessible for everyone. At the nature center, you can join a guided hike with a park ranger.