Catoctin Mountain Park’s Horse Trail Loop

Deerfield Nature Trail

Deerfield Nature Trail.  This was our starting point, and we picked up the Horse Trail just before heading uphill toward the park’s northern boundary.

You could say that I’ve been lukewarm regarding winter hiking in the past, but it does afford the opportunity to visit many places that will be crowded as soon as the temperature begins to rise.  Many of the parks we’ve visited recently have several miles of trails.  In winter, it takes multiple trips to put much of a dent in these miles, so a return to Catoctin Mountain Park was in order–even if the Horse and Catoctin Trails were under approximately 3″ of snow.

The trails in Catoctin Mountain Park–unlike many places–are not blazed, so we headed to the visitor center for a map and a chat with the ranger.  We wound up discussing a number of topics with her, including the proposed fees for visiting the C&O Canal. A post about Catoctin Mountain isn’t really the place for C&O talk, but as it turned out, the ranger, Candee, and I all know another ranger from the C&O who was laid off due to budget restraints in 2014.  Would paying a fee keep valuable personnel on duty in our national parks?  I don’t know, but there is bound to be plenty of lively debate on this topic.  Anyway…

Directions!  There weren't any blazes, but we were well-informed because of the many signs along the way.

Directions! There weren’t any blazes, but we were well-informed because of the many signs along the way.

The Horse Trail Loop (interwoven with the Catoctin Trail) is in the northern/western section of the park, which is regarded as the “wilder” side of Catoctin Mountain.  We saw a number of animal tracks, but six day-old snow has a way of making footprints look different than the original impressions.  We saw a number of would-be bear tracks, and I’m pretty sure I even saw a Sasquatch print.  The trouble is that a raccoon, coyote, or even chipmunk may have been impostor who made the original tracks.

A snowy section of the Horse Trail

A snowy section of the Horse Trail.  We were the first people on several miles of trail since the snow, but neither of us could decipher what species of animals left their mark.

Much to Candee’s chagrin, our bear sighting eluded us again.  We’ve talked to rangers at both Catoctin Mountain and Sky Meadows about bears in winter, and we learned that they “den up” below the Mason-Dixon Line.  They’re partially holed up during the cold season, but they aren’t in the state of deep sleep that accompanies hibernation.  It sounds a bit like the the same scenario; however, bears are frequently spotted in winter in Maryland< Virginia, West Virginia, etc.  I kind of get it, but I wonder how bears in southern Pennsylvania know that they’re supposed to hibernate, while those in Maryland get up occasionally and wander around.  It’s probably not as cut-and-dried as all of that. but it certainly merits more research.

Bears aside, there were other successes and failures to deal with.  It was a great walk, but the 7.2 miles that we intended to hike turned into 5.6 as the sun dropped ominously close to the horizon.  We started at the sawmill exhibit and headed up the Deerfield Nature Trail before switching back and forth between the Horse and Catoctin Trails, but the lower end of the loop will have to wait for another day.  I shouldn’t have stopped and had that second cup of coffee!

The reproduction sawmill is available via a boardwalk, giving all visitors a chance to have a look.

The reproduction sawmill is available via a boardwalk, giving all visitors a chance to have a look.

The next time we’re here may be warmer and have several more hours of daylight, but we certainly won’t have a large part of the trail to ourselves.  There won’t be any week-old squirrel tracks that have melted and re-frozen to the point where it looks like a grizzly left them, and the green leaves and wildflowers will give the place a different look.  That’s how seasons work, and the best that we can do is to enjoy them all.

Owens Creek, partially frozen

Owens Creek, partially frozen


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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Jamie on January 15, 2015 at 3:38 pm

    I enjoy winter hiking with but there is a caveat. I don’t care for hiking on well-used trails because they become icy in a hurry. I visited the local rail trail on my lunch break today and it was a sheet of ice. The trail’s berm was walkable, though.

    Since the trail you selected was the province of animals only before your visit, you wouldn’t have had to worry about that. I enjoyed your comments about animal tracks. Our dog, Copper, left his tracks on our deck in last week’s snow. They have since been solidified in ice — an odd scene!


    • Posted by LevelWalker on January 15, 2015 at 4:05 pm

      The canal gets really wicked. Candee has a post on her travel frog website where we walked from Cumberland to Evitts Creek and back after the towpath turned into a bumpy sheet of ice. That was a tough one. I almost fell every time I put my feet down.


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