Distance: 12 miles
Hike Time: 5.75 hours
Elevation Gain: 1,500 feet
This may be the most challenging section in Maryland. That’s not saying much since Maryland is fairly flat. There are a few moderate climbs in this section, but the real challenge is the rocky terrain.
The trail runs primarily along the West side of the South Mountain ridge and there are several stretches where the trail is composed of rocks (often pointy). Needless to say, it’s a little hard on your feet. These rocky sections occur primarily between Black Rock and Ensign Cowall Shelter. There is an abundance of springs/creeks to fill up on water throughout these 12 miles.
There is a dedicated parking lot for hikers at Washington Monument State Park which was free. If you drive farther up the hill closer to the monument, then you have to pay to park. We arrived early and there was plenty of parking.
Parking on the other end of this section at Ensign Cowall was a little tricky as there was a big drop from the road into the lot (we saw a few low-riding cars scrape the surface turning into the lot). Additionally, the lot is on a slope, primarily dirt, and the spaces are not marked.
There are two shelters within this section. Just North of I-70 is Pine Knob Shelter slightly off the trail and with a spring. Ensign Cowall Shelter is at the Northern end of this section a short distance from the parking lot. Additionally, the Pogo Memorial Campsite is North of Black Rock in a more secluded location. You can also camp at Annapolis Rocks.
The Monument was closed when we arrived (meaning you cannot enter the building). I’m not sure if this is a seasonal thing, or if the Monument is being repaired. A few years ago I was able to walk up to the top, but I digress.
Greenbrier State Park and crossing I-70
Shortly after departing from the Washington Monument, you pass through the Eastern outskirts of Greenbrier State Park. There is a trail that takes you from the AT to center of the park. I haven’t been, but I hear that the park caters to thru-hikers since it’s less than a mile off of the trail. Looking at the map there are loads of campsites there and a lake.
Continuing North from Greenbrier brings you “back to civilization” at the interstate. Crossing I-70 is loud. If you stand on the footbridge for a minute someone is bound to honk as they speed underneath you in their car (or tractor-trailer). The terrain through the first few miles is pretty flat and easy up to this point.
Annapolis Rock and Black Rock
After crossing I-70 there is a bit of a climb to Pine Knob Shelter. The climb continues and becomes steeper as you approach the top of the ridge. After you complete the climb, you are rewarded with flat and non-rocky trail and a great view at Annapolis Rock within a short distance.
There are two great views North of I-70 at Annapolis Rock and Black Rock. These are popular day hikes since its only a 2.5 mile walk from I-70/US 40 to get to Annapolis Rock and about a mile farther to Black Rock. Therefore the trail can be a little crowded here. The views are great as you can peer into the Appalachian Valley and see Greenbrier Lake a few miles behind you.
Dave and I enjoyed the view from Black Rock. There is a drag race strip viewable from Black Rock. If you are lucky, they will be racing and you can enjoy watching the race and then hearing the race several seconds later. The race is basically over by the time the sound reaches you. A cool physics lesson I suppose.
A little past Black Rock is the Pogo Campsite. Here’s the story behind it.
Shortly after passing the Pogo Campsite, there are several springs and streams to fill up on water. This roughly marks the division of rocky terrain for this section. Continuing North, the trail is very rocky for many stretches. It seemed like each mile was half comfortable footing, and then half jagged rocks.
Maybe the rocky stretches just seemed longer since they were slowing us down. We didn’t see many other folks in this section. It is a little more remote, but I think the terrain (much like the roller coaster in Virginia) deters people from seeking it out. It wasn’t too hard to lose the trail, but at one point there were so many rocks I had to check with Dave to see if we were still on it.
After a fairly grueling few miles along South Mountain’s Western ridge, the trail traverses over the ridge to the Eastern side. This signals the final descent off of the ridge to Wolfsville Road where you can checkout the Ensign Cowall Shelter.
Flora and Fauna
It was a little early in the season, but we did spot a woodpecker (or sapsucker) while taking a break along one of the rocky stretches. My guess is a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. The bird aficionados can correct me if I’m wrong.
Hike Date: 4/3
Weather: 45-60F, partly cloudy
Hiking Companion: Dave