Archive for the ‘Miles 51-100’ Category

Maryland Heights and Stone Fort Trail

Harpers Ferry and the Potomac River from Maryland Heights

Harpers Ferry and the Potomac River from Maryland Heights

I’ve lived in the Martinsburg, WV area for a number of years, but this is only my second trip to the top of Maryland Heights.  The first time was roughly 25 years ago, and at the time I was residing in Morgantown.  I rode over with a friend on a day trip, and we saw people on the cliff and decided to go up and have a look.  The trouble is that I was in grad school at the time, and my exercise regimen consisted of heavy reading and lifting 12 oz. weights.  Needless to say, I was gasping for breath and cursing all the way to the top.  Thankfully, times do change!

A look toward Harpers Ferry

A look toward Harpers Ferry and the Shenandoah

The trail begins next to the C&O Canal, along Sandy Hook Road, and it immediately heads straight up the hill.  Statistically, the up-and-back trip to the overlook is approximately 3.3 miles, with an ascent of 1200′.  The Stone Fort Trail circuit adds an additional 2 miles and 400′ of elevation gain.

Potomac River

Potomac River

The lower end of the Stone Fort Trail appears as a left turn about tw0-thirds of the way up the hill.  It is a difficult climb that ends in a flat stretch of woods before continuing up a flight of log steps near the fort ruins.  Along the way, there are numerous interpretive signs.  Without causing a spoiler alert, the gist is that in 1862, Confederate troops captured the heights and forced the surrender of 12,000 troops in the town below.  It’s easy to see why: from this vantage point, it would be easy to shell anything or anybody that came into view down below.

Stone Fort Ruins

Stone Fort Ruins with interpretive sign

The fort was never completed, but it is an impressive sight with a view of its own.  Also, the stones are a sign of things to come.  From here, the Stone Fort Trail follows a sharp, boulder-strewn ridgeline before descending steeply toward the overlook trail.  It reminded us a lot of the difficult rocky stretch we encountered last week on the AT’s Roller Coaster section.  In fact, Maryland Heights has a number of similarities with a few of our other local hiking trails.

Trail sign

Trail sign…up, up, up!

For starters, the ascent was reminiscent of the long climb from Spruce Pine Hollow to the Devil’s Nose on the Tuscarora Trail, and the crowded trail was similar to the C&O Canal below Seneca Creek.  I guess you could say that the hike had its ups and downs in both the literal and figurative sense, and the limited parking along the road probably makes Maryland Heights a trip best taken on a weekday or during the off-season.  Nevertheless, the workout and view were worth the trip, and including the Stone Fort Trail made it all worthwhile.

Candee really loves her new LL Bean Continental Rucksack

Candee really loves her new LL Bean Continental Rucksack

High Water at Antietam

High water at Antietam Aqueduct

High water at Antietam Aqueduct

To say that I sleep well is an understatement.  Thursday night, the area received a heavy rain, and I didn’t hear a thing.  As a result, I headed to the canal today for a hike, expecting to see the Potomac up a little bit, but I was stunned to see a small-scale mess.  The empty space in the arches of the Antietam Aqueduct stood at about 2′, which would put the river at perhaps 8′-10′ above its normal level.  When I returned home, I did a little bit of web surfing and found out that White’s Ferry is closed and the lower end of Harpers Ferry is (or at least was) under water.

The new river bank is temporarily located in the woods.

The new river bank is temporarily located in the woods.

Nevertheless, hikers and bikers are a hearty breed, and the swollen river and muddy towpath didn’t stop numerous canal enthusiasts from seeking a bit of Sunday recreation.  Campers were out on the other side of the berm and Canal Road, even though the road was under water in a few spots.  One in particular was 2-3′ deep as the rainwater rolled down the hill and flooded the low-lying areas.  Fortunately, the extended forecast seems to be conducive to the river returning to a normal level over the next several days.  Hopefully, the flood prone areas downstream and near Big Slackwater fared well.

Canal Road above Antietam Aqueduct--looking like the canal of old!

Canal Road above Antietam Aqueduct–looking like the canal of old!

Howell Cave (88.28)

Howell Cave, as seen from the towpath

Howell Cave, as seen from the towpath

Howell Cave is a large, but shallow, opening in the limestone cliff just upstream from McMahons Mill.  It’s a pretty easy find because the stream exiting from the opening is easily spotted due to the fact that the canal doesn’t resume for another .62 miles.  The area between the mill and Lock 41 is made up of a long line of cliffs and is actually an extension of the Big Slackwater section of the C&O.

Inside of the "cave"

Inside of the “cave”

The cave is relatively open and doesn’t contain much of a roof, unlike Dam 4 Cave and some of the others in the vicinity of Snyders Landing.  It’s a beautiful place, except for the usual graffiti and the fact that it is apparently regularly used by campers.  There is a relatively large pile of campfire embers at the base of a faux chimney of sorts, and it’s a shame that this tribute to the power of water can’t be kept in more of a pristine condition.

Stream in Howell Cave

Stream in Howell Cave

Perhaps the most impressive feature in the cave is a fairly large stream that emerges from a hole on the lower left side.  According to Thomas Hahn, it is believed that this is the same stream that enters into a sinkhole approximately 700 yards to the north.  If so, the reappearance is brief, as the water spills over a small fall before running under the towpath and emerging into the Potomac.  Today, the river was running high, and the stream actually entered below river level and created a “bubbling sensation” at the surface.

Stream exiting Howell Cave

Stream exiting Howell Cave

Dam 4 Cave

Dam 4 Cave from the towpath

Dam 4 Cave from the towpath

Dam 4 Cave is located at mile 83.3 on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.  It’s so named because of its close vicinity to the dam, and it’s an easy walk of 1.1 miles from the NPS parking lot.  The cave is at canal level, and that is an interesting feature considering that when the C&O was watered (at 6′ deep), much of the cave was below the waterline.  I would estimate that roughly two-thirds of the opening was hidden while the canal was in operation.

Interesting formation in the Conococheague limestone

Interesting formation in the Conococheague limestone

The cave is roughly 200′ deep, and a small stream flows through much of the lower end.  The earth and rock is damp, and walking along the floor is–for the most part–difficult.  Nevertheless, there is plenty of room to move around, and, in my opinion, it is one of the more impressive and accessible caves in the miles of limestone cliffs running along the berm side of the canal.

Another impressive formation

Another impressive formation

Like most caves, Dam 4 Cave is damp, and water droplets containing dissolved limestone are visible along the sides of the ceiling.  Although the process is slow, the inside of the cave is in a constant state of flux, and the result is a beautiful array of cave formations.  The choice of exploring this section of the towpath was a last second decision, and I really wish that I had brought a flashlight along.  We did make it a bit past the first right-hand turn, which is approximately halfway.  I would say that Dam 4 Cave is one of the most unique exploration opportunities along the canal, and I plan to come back at a later date with a flashlight–and a better knowledge of geology.  Oh, yeah, there’s also the idea of not running haphazardly into a hibernating bear.  Maybe next summer…

Through the keyhole, looking toward the Potomac and towpath

Through the keyhole, looking toward the Potomac and towpath

Hitting the Snowpath

Dam 4 Winch House

Dam 4 Winch House

Over the last couple of days, the area dodged a bullet and missed out on a projected 4-8″ of snow and instead received–perhaps–an inch instead.  The high today reached 40 degrees and left the towpath a muddy mess as the lingering snow, plus Saturday’s additional light total, started to melt during our hike.  Nevertheless, there was plenty of the gushy white stuff to provide an interesting backdrop for today’s pictures.

Below Dam 4 on the towpath

Below Dam 4 on the towpath

The idea today was to explore Dam 4 Cave, but I left home without my flashlight.  We were able to make it about halfway into the cave, but I’m saving that story for later.  In the meantime, we took a slippery trip down the slope from the rise overlooking the dam Along the way, we spied a row of turkey tracks and evidence of deer, but the footprints ended not too far below the dam.  My car was the only one in the lot, and we would later be the only visitors at McMahons Mill.  At first I wondered why, but my wet feet were soon to be the first clue.

Wast Weir at mi. 84.35

Wast Weir at mi. 84.35

Lately, I seem to have developed a thing for waste weirs, but this one is particularly interesting because the towpath is actually supported by wooden framework and several porch jacks.  The canal is generally watered to some degree for some distance above the dam, and in wet weather a stream passes from the canal through this weir and on to the river.

Between two islands--Shepherds Island

Between two islands–Shepherds Island

Later, in the vicinity of Mile Marker 83, I walked to the river bank and saw where a small channel of water separates two islands.  The Potomac was running a little bit on the high side today, so I’m not sure whether or not this is one continuous island in low water.  These are very narrow pieces of land close to the middle of the river, and a couple of decent-.sized sycamores are taking root at the tip of the upper island.

McMahons Mill.  For whatever reason, the snow was deeper here than along the towpath

McMahons Mill. For whatever reason, the snow was deeper here than along the towpath