You really can’t go wrong when it comes to choosing a beautiful place to go hiking in Washington County, Maryland, home to five national parks, eight state parks, and two resource management areas. Each comes with its own set of scenic trails, offering plenty of options whether you’re in the mood for a relaxing stroll through the woods or up for something more strenuous as long as it leads to a phenomenal view. Here’s a look at some of the best places to go hiking on your next trip to Western Maryland.
Maryland’s Portion of the Appalachian Trail
Washington Monument on Appalachian Trail in Boonsboro – Credit: MJ Clingan
Did you know the majority of the 40-mile section of the Appalachian Trail that crosses Maryland actually passes through Washington County? This particular portion of the A.T. is relatively easy compared with others, with fewer steep climbs and elevation changes of just 1,650 feet. While you could thru-hike the entire stretch in four or five days, most visitors opt to do day hikes where the trail runs through Greenbrier State Park (Annapolis Rock and Black Rock Cliff), Gathland State Park (Weverton Cliffs), and Washington Monument State Park, home of the first monument ever created in George Washington’s honor. The A.T. also allows access to the Maryland Heights overlook at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, which we’ll get into later.
C&O Canal National Historic Park
Hikers on C&O Canal towpath – Credit: Canal Trust
Constructed in 1828 and declared a National Monument in 1961, the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal is a vast 184.5-mile waterway that connects Georgetown in Washington, D.C. with Cumberland in Maryland. The C&O Canal Towpath — the dirt and stone trail that runs alongside it and was once used by mules to tow boats down the canal — serves as a recreational space for hikers and cyclists, with 78 miles of it passing through Washington County. The canal is also part of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail and is a popular place for birding. Keep an eye out for bald eagles, turkey vultures, egrets, great blue herons, wood ducks, and more than 120 other species of birds as you make your way along the Potomac.
The Western Maryland Rail Trail
Western MD Rail Trail in Hancock 1st Maryland Trail Town -Credit: John Canan
For those who prefer paved paths, the Western Maryland Rail Trail, formerly the site of the Western Maryland Railway, runs alongside a 28-mile section of the C&O Canal Towpath from Big Pool (near Fort Frederick State Park) up to Little Orleans. With beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and the nearby Potomac River, it’s a beautiful place to visit year-round, especially in the fall when the leaves change color. The entire path is wheelchair and stroller accessible and relatively flat, making it a great place to go for a relaxing walk, energizing run, or scenic bike ride.
Fort Frederick State Park
While most people visit Fort Frederick State Park to learn about the unique stone fort, which was constructed in 1756 and used to defend Maryland during the French and Indian War, it’s also home to two scenic trails perfect for hikers of all ages and abilities. Stroll along Beaver Pond Trail, where you can view white-tailed deer, turtles, birds, and other wetland wildlife along the 0.3-mile path, or take the 1.1-mile Plantation Nature Trail through the forest, where trees were harvested in the 1930s — the C&O Canal Towpath also winds its way through here along the Potomac River. Nearby, the Woodmont Natural Resource Management Area’s Wildlife Heritage Trail offers pathways through rolling mountain landscapes, oak forests, and places to pick wild berries.
Antietam National Battlefield
Antietam Burnside Bridge – Credit: Scanter
Halfway between Hagerstown, Maryland, and Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, Antietam National Battlefield was the site of the bloodiest single-day battle in American history, where 23,000 soldiers were killed that fateful day on September 17, 1862. Today, it’s home to 10 historic hiking trails where visitors can walk along 0.3- to 1.8-mile pathways and read markers indicating the historic events that happened here. Visit in springtime when birds returning from their winter trips south can be seen in the trees around the Sherrick Farm and Snavely Ford trails. The battlefield is also home to 77 species of birds including northern cardinals, red-tailed hawks, and eastern bluebirds, among others.
The Maryland Heights Trail at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park spans three states (Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia) and its Maryland Heights Trail is a major highlight, offering incredible views of the C&O Canal, Harpers Ferry, and the place where the Potomac River and Shenandoah River meet. It also connects with the Appalachian Trail at the Maryland Heights overlook and lets you check out artillery batteries dating back to the Civil War era — the Stone Fort Loop Trail, which adds about two more miles to your hike, is also worth a look. Park at the Visitor Center and take the free shuttle or hike down the 1.6-mile path to begin the 4.5-mile semi-strenuous trail in Lower Town.
South Mountain Recreation Area
Greenbrier State Park (South Mountain Recreation Area) – Credit: Scott Cantner
South Mountain State Park, Greenbrier State Park, Gathland State Park, and Washington Monument State Park make up the South Mountain Recreation Area, home to hiking trails and excellent bird-watching areas. While parts of the Appalachian Trail pass through Greenbrier State Park, there are 11 miles of trails ranging from moderate to difficult due to the steep, rocky landscape — whichever you choose, leave time to cool off in the scenic 42-acre lake. The A.T. also crosses South Mountain State Battlefield, where you can learn how the Battle of South Mountain helped turn the tide of the Civil War in 1862, and Washington Monument State Park, home to a stone tower that was built in 1827 to honor our first president.
Sideling Hill Wildlife Management Area
In Western Washington County, the 3,100-acre Sideling Hill Wildlife Management Area offers hikers a chance to discover the area’s geology. Stop by the Visitor’s Center to learn how the region’s ancient Devonian-age black shale, which dates back to more than 350 million years ago, and ancient Hampshire and Chemung sandstone support the unique wildlife and endangered plants that live here. Watch for songbirds, black bears, grouse, wild turkeys, and white-tailed deer. Most trails here once served as logging roads or were built to support the C&O Canal, and are now used by hikers and hunters during hunting season.
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