The Northern Peaks Trail on Sugarloaf Mountain

The Northern Peaks Trail

Sugarloaf Mountain, a 1282' monadnock jutting above fairly rural western Montgomery County, Maryland, offers several hiking trails; the most significant of which is the Northern Peaks Trail (5.5 miles).

Sugarloaf is owned by the Stronghold Corporation. Stronghold—whose main purpose is the restoration of the American Chestnut tree—offers the public free access to the mountain and maintains the roads and picnic grounds on it. Our crew has worked with the overseer, Ms. Kathy Brumberger, to improve the tread on some steep, rocky sections of the Northern Peaks trail.

Saturday, May 16th was a strange weather day. A high pressure system collided with a cold front, resulting in areas of concentrated rain adjacent to other areas with little or no precipitation, all wrapped in a pretty muggy condition for mid Spring. Our mid-Atlantic area has had considerable rainfall so far, and temperatures have risen and fallen much like the peaks of the Appalachians nearby.

Bob and Tom met Kathy at the foot of the mountain by or before our 9:30 A.M. meeting time. Although I’d started out from Richmond, Virginia a little after 6:00 A.M., traffic up Interstate 95 and along the state roads I took delayed me to an embarrassing degree. In any case, we were digging in short order.

Sugarloaf was formed when the surrounding land eroded away from the rock of the mountain, hence its geologic designation as a monadnock. For a hiker or trail maintainer, this means that there’s a lot of rock close by and that the soil is mainly what has formed from decaying rock or has been blown in on the winds over the centuries. In fact, there is a surprising amount of sand mixed in with clay on this mountain.

Several years ago, when we first came out to help Kathy, we spent a lot of effort to fill in deep ruts that were formed by runoff cascading down the mountain side. The fact that the trail, as it was laid out originally, runs across and up the contours, does not help. The underlying soil is not deep in most places, so water, even from pretty light rainfall, does not soak in as it would elsewhere. It doesn’t take a 12" gusher to create significant runoff here.

In 2007, we dug grade dips and placed waterbars between the ruts we filled in. This meant carrying up locust logs provided by the Stronghold management staff as well as removing and re-setting stone for steps and, of course, digging. Tom and I walked over the ground in the project area with Kathy, noting as best we could how water approached and ran to identify the best placement of waterbars, grade dips, and checkdams. We did not, however, have to search for ruts we needed to backfill.

We spent the next six hours cutting & filling, sculpting grade dips, and setting waterbars and checkdams. Oh, and we removed limbs and trunks of trees that had fallen into that section of the trail.

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The next year, we returned to the work site to see how our work held up. In the main, things were okay. Trail maintainers always have to clear leaves and dèbris from waterbars and grade dips. We had to rework some of the grade dips, too, because of the (sandy) soil that had washed down.

Around 2:00 P.M., the sky generally cleared; like Punxatawny Bill, we saw our shadows—a harbinger, perhaps, of rain to come. And, rain did return. But, not before we finished work and had cleaned and stored our tools. So, no damage. Kathy, Bob, and Tom took off for homes close by, while I pointed my truck southward. On To Richmond!

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