Hiking in the mountains of Maryland is a great way to spend an afternoon. Hiking with children? Well, choose your route carefully.
Between tired toddlers who want to be carried and teens who can’t bear to tear themselves away from their phone for a couple of hours, a walk in the woods can quickly become unpleasant, even when surrounded by beautiful scenery.
Jennifer Chambers understands that. So the Silver Spring middle school teacher and mom of two wrote the book that she wished someone had given her: “Best Hikes with Kids - Washington, D.C., The Beltway and Beyond.” The book covers 69 hikes within two hours of the nation’s capital. More than half of them are in the immediate metropolitan area, where close to 6 million people live. (It is available from Amazon and in area bookstores.)
Which trails made the cut? Chambers said she was looking for walks in the woods that would reward both the parents and their young charges.
“I hiked thousands of miles to do this book. About 90–95 percent of the hikes take families on trails where there are either rocks or water,” she said. “There are great places around here to scramble up rocks and play on them.”
I took my 9-year-old, Maya, who usually accompanies me on a lot of travel articles for Bay Journeys. Chambers agreed to meet us on a beautiful spring morning at Sugarloaf Mountain in Frederick County.
Sugarloaf is 1,282 feet high, and has 17 miles of trails. Chambers recommended meeting at the West View parking area. She warned us the parking lot would be full if we arrived much after 10 a.m. She was right; the trails were busy. It wasn’t unpleasantly crowded, but Sugarloaf on a weekend is not the sort of place one goes for seclusion. We saw grandparents hiking with grandchildren, young couples with their dogs and groups of young people running in spurts on the trails.
We chose to take the steep route up the mountain and then wind back down. It would be about 2 miles total. Had she and I done it alone, we probably could have finished it in 90 minutes. With a child, it would be closer to three hours. But we weren’t in a rush.
Chambers made many stops to point out native ferns as well as some of the invasive Japanese stiltgrass that is taking over parts of the park. When told that the plant was invasive, Maya started pulling it up. “For the ferns,” she said, “They needed us.”
Despite the short distance, it was a strenuous hike. The adults took the stone stairs while my daughter climbed the boulders.
“I’ve climbed this thing more than 150 times,” said Tom Witte, a Montgomery Village resident who was climbing Sugarloaf yet again with his grandchildren, 5-year-old Georgie Duncan and 3-year-old Max. “I do it lots of different ways.”
Georgie and Max enjoyed their first time on the mountain, scampering across rocks and turning over logs to discover new bugs.
Most of the hikes in Chambers’ book are less than 3 miles. As a middle school teacher and mother of two, she knows that’s about what most children can handle.
But also, she said, the go-go lifestyle of DC parents — and their children — often doesn’t allow for more. People are so busy, Chambers said, that they have only a couple of hours to hike instead of all day. There is lacrosse, violin lessons, travel field hockey and a dozen other activities to jam into the schedule.
Sugarloaf is privately held but open daily to the public; donations are appreciated. It is a monadnock, which is a type of mountain or ridge that stands alone because the land around it has eroded. Chambers’ book says that quartzite is the dominant rock at the mountain, which took 14 million years to form. Climbers to the top are rewarded with a view of the valley below: Farms, housing developments and the Dickerson Power Plant.
I always appreciate views like that because they tell a story about how the landscape is changing. I look at the open space and worry about it being filled in. I think back to the protest signs we noticed driving in to Sugarloaf concerning a new mega housing development nearby. I wonder how much less green space will be there when I return in a few years.
But for my daughter, it was just fun to climb on the rocks and look down at the lichen-covered cliff. Something for everyone, I suppose.