Big Savage Trail a worthy challenge for hikers

State's largest forest has something for outdoor enthusiasts of almost every kind

Short Hop

March 23, 2003|By Bob Downing | Bob Downing,Knight Ridder / Tribune

Marylanders who don't live in the western part of the state might sometimes forget about that region's mountains -- those genuinely rugged, thigh-busting mountains.

One place in Western Mary-land where you can find trails to take you into the heart of those mountains is the relatively little-known Savage River State Forest.

The state forest is a playground for hikers, backpackers, paddlers, anglers, hunters, mountain bikers, snowmobilers, cross-country skiers, off-road drivers and even ice climbers.

Without a doubt, the biggest attraction in the state's largest forest (52,812 acres) is a hiking-only trail: the rugged 16.9-mile Big Savage Trail.

The trail runs north-south along the long, flat crest of Big Savage Mountain, which is known for its rocky outcroppings. The summit is 2,991 feet, and provides sweeping vistas of the Allegheny Plateau.

Most of the trail is rocky and runs through heavy forests. Big Savage offers what many experts consider not only the best hiking in Maryland, but also some of the best along the entire East Coast.

The route, clearly marked by white blazes, stretches from the Big Savage dam north to near Interstate 68. The trail, which has only four access points, is suitable for intermediate to expert hikers and backpackers. It is considered a challenge for beginners.

Although the trail is at its colorful best in the fall when leaves are changing, and in May and June when the mountain laurel and rhododendron are blooming, it is also worth visiting in winter. Winter hiking can be challenging, however. This year, storms caused a significant amount of ice damage to the trail, according to state forest officials.

Veteran hikers recommend going from north to south. In that direction, there's a drop of 1,500 feet, mostly in the last few miles before Savage River Reservoir.

Continental divide

Savage River State Forest is the birthplace of two mountain rivers that are separated by a continental divide: the Savage, which flows to the south, and the Casselman, which flows to the north.

The Savage River drops 85 feet a mile and is a favorite of paddlers. It boasts rugged whitewater, and the river has been the site of the world kayak and canoe paddling championships. The Casselman flows into the Youghiogheny River.

Elevations in the state forest range from 3,075 feet at Negro Mountain to 1,300 feet along the Savage River. The Savage got its name after an English survey party in the 1750s got lost in the wilderness. The men decided to eat their weakest member, John Savage, but fortunately for him, they all found their way out of the mountains before any human consumption occurred.

The state forest has nearly 50 miles of trails within the Savage River watershed, which features deeply cut ridges, rhododendron thickets and groves of hickory and oak in the northern hardwood forests.

More than 12,000 acres of the forest have been set aside for environmental preservation, and no camping is permitted. Last year, the Maryland General Assembly voted to designate the acreage as "wildlands," thereby making it off-limits to logging, trail-building and most other kinds of human interference.

Some of the acreage contains forests of oak, hemlock, maple and beech. One 2,000-acre tract contains trees that date to Colonial times, and will be used as a research area for the study of mountain plants such as ginseng and goldenseal, which were once used as medicines by American Indians and early European settlers.

The forest also encompasses two Maryland state parks: New Germany and Big Run.

Recreation choices

New Germany has 462 acres and is popular for camping and picnicking. It offers 11 cabins and 39 campsites. It also has a 10-mile system of picturesque, interconnected trails for hiking, mountain biking and especially cross-country skiing. The park includes 13-acre New Germany Lake, which was created for an old mill; in season, visitors can swim, fish and rent rowboats.

Guided canoe trips on the nearby 350-acre Savage River Reservoir are also available.

Big Run State Park, with 300 acres, has a boat launch on its reservoir. The reservoir also serves as a trailhead for the 6-mile Monroe Run hiking trail that crosses Monroe Run stream nearly 20 times.

The park offers primitive camping -- 30 sites -- and scenic streamside campsites, along with canoeing, picnicking and fishing.

Elsewhere in the state forest, other hiking options include the six-mile Poplar Lick Trail and the 24-mile Backpacker Loop. Another popular trail is 11-mile Meadow Mountain, which runs along the crest of the mountain and includes a section of snowmobile and off-road-vehicle trails.

There's also a 1.5-mile roundtrip hike or bike to Meadow Mountain Overlook. The trail follows an old road through the woods from Frank Brenneman Road to the overlook, which makes a great mountain picnic spot.

In the summer, hiking can feel cool because of the high elevations. Snow can arrive in November and last until early April, which is great for cross-country enthusiasts.

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