Overlooked Md. summit Backbone: Hoye-Crest, the state's highest point, is hard to find. The Backbone Mountain spot was envisioned in the 1974 Garrett County general plan as a possible site for a scenic highway, but it didn't happen.

June 23, 1996|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

KEMPTON -- Most states in the East prize their highest points as valued public places with wonderful forested settings. Not Maryland.

Years ago such states as Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine preserved their tops for the public.

But a Texas company owns Maryland's highest point, giving a new dimension to Maryland's nickname, America in Miniature.

The summit is hard to find, wedged in dense woods between a ridge-top development of 74 lots in Maryland and the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. The Backbone Ridge development of Vista Properties no longer allows hikers on its roads for easier access.

The spot, Hoye-Crest, is part of mileslong Backbone Mountain in Garrett County. But you can't get there from here. You get there from West Virginia.

From a starting point on Route 219 in the Monongahela National Forest, the summit is only 650 feet higher and less than a half-mile away, but the going is a bit rough.

Hikers must contend with undergrowth, no clear path and no trail signs except for a couple of rock cairns. The abandoned logging roads can be a help but also a hinderance if walkers wander too far on them.

Getting lost can be avoided by going with a knowledgeable guide such as the Rev. John A. Grant, 73, a former engineer and surveyor, a local historian and expert woodsman.

He recalled growing up in Oakland before becoming an engineer. Unsatisfied with his life, he became a clergyman in his 40s. He had Baltimore area Episcopal parishes in Essex and Pasadena.

"My dad took my brother and me all over these hills. We hiked on trails of the Seneca Indians," he said. "I've walked all these mountains, but I didn't get up here until 1983."

It's a peaceful spot, actually. Hiking purists might say the rough walk is ideal.

Hoye-Crest, whose trees obstruct views of nearby hills, is the unlikely target in recent years of so-called peakbaggers -- hikers from all over the United States.

"I got lost going up, and I got lost coming down," said Moncure G. Crowder, with a laugh. The retired Atlanta banker belongs to the Highpointers, a national club whose members try to climb to the highest points of as many states as possible.

Crowder, 56, took his boots off and showed scratched legs after finding the summit on his second try last week. "It was 40 minutes to the top and two hours to get down."

He had arrived the afternoon before and figured he could knock it off before dark, check Maryland off his list and head north for Mount Davis in Pennsylvania. He walked up the wrong road and gave up when the sun was about to set.

His successful ascent the next morning was his 28th state top.

Hoye-Crest is on a sliver of land in Kempton, owned by Western Pocahontas Properties -- operating in Huntington, W.Va. -- a Delaware limited partnership with headquarters in Houston.

Western Maryland Railway owned the property until CSX bought the railroad in 1980. Western Pocahontas bought the property with other parcels from CSX Minerals of Richmond, Va., in 1987 for possible natural resources development. This is timber and coal country.

Although Backbone Mountain was envisioned in the 1974 Garrett County general plan as a possible site for a scenic highway, like Virginia's Skyline Drive, nothing came of it. No evidence suggests any push for a public park for the slight bump on the long ridge.

"People years ago didn't feel the land was endangered," said Tim Dugan, former Garrett County planning director and now a Baltimore County planner. "Also, there's a strongly held feeling there that the state holds too much land already." Maryland's 18 percent share in Garrett is more than in any other county.

The legislature this year changed the classification of 22,000 acres, creating "wildlands," much of it in Western Maryland. This more than tripled the amount of state land that can be used only for recreational activities such as hiking, hunting, fishing and bird-watching.

Doug Toothman, manager of land resources for Western Pocahontas, said there are no plans to limit hiker access to Hoye-Crest, but the company hopes hikers realize it is private land.

"It's an obscure point -- never been developed. We're not encouraging going there or promoting it."

The usual directions are to take Route 219 from Oakland 25 miles southwest into Preston County, W.Va. You pass an Amish community and Silver Lake before reaching an obscure trailhead sign about 225 miles from Baltimore. The marker for Backbone Mountain is on the left beyond "the world's smallest church" on the right.

From the trailhead, hikers start up an old logging road and soon change directions to meet blown-down trees, undergrowth and prickly bushes.

On a recent attempt to reach the summit, Grant, who lives in Oakland with his wife, Jean, played a convincing Leatherstocking, woodsman hero of the James Fenimore Cooper novels.

At one point, he stopped and declared, "Rattlesnakes."

Where? he was asked.

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