Backbone Mountain / Allegany Wildlife Management Area

Jim Posing


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It had been a while since we went to trails in Maryland.  There aren't that many, but the few that we've found are worthwhile and make a welcome change from our usual haunts.  Hugh Long organized a ride notice on the OCC board to take a group out to Backbone Mountain.

When I started doing the trail research, I found that there were two other trail systems in close proximity that also merit a visit.  One is the Allegheny Wildlife Management area that we visited earlier this year.  There was a least one hill climb and a trail that is said to lead out to the road.  Since we had not explored either of these features, it was something we wanted to follow-up on.  Another trail system that we had hoped to visit was the Potomac State Forest in Garrett County.  It's near Backbone Mountain, and according to locals, is worthwhile.  It would turn out that we'd not have time to explore Potomac but we did visit Backbone and Allegany.


Jim Culfogienis and Carl Smith signed on to join us.  This lead to some interesting mustering plans.   As Carl and I live near each other, we agreed to meet and drive north to Route 70 near Frederick.  I chose a spot where we could get off the highway and wait for Jim to join us.  Hugh chose to meet us at the trail head since he was traveling from Virginia.

I met Carl, Kelsey, and Alexis in Gaithersburg at the Burger King at 7:00am.   We jumped on Rt. 270 and headed north for our meeting with Jim at 7:30.  When we were nearing the appointed place I commented to Carl on the CB that I would call Jim to see where he was.  No sooner had I located Jim's number than the phone rang, displaying his cell number!  I though what an interesting coincidence.  But Jim had heard our CB conversation and was responding via cell phone since I could not hear him.  Shortly after that we had a rolling meeting, and got back on Route 70, headed for the Green Ridge State Park Headquarters where we planned to get Department of Natural Resources stickers that we thought were required for using the Maryland trails.

Department of Natural Resources PermitSideling Hill Exhibit CenterView from Sideling HillView from Sideling Hill

We stopped along the way for a break at the Sideling Hill Exhibition Area.  This gave us a change to stretch our legs, visit the facility, and acquire snacks.  We took in the view, made a couple photos, and resumed our travel west to the Ranger Station.

Green Ridge Park HeadquartersGreen Ridge Park Headquarters
2001 Carl & Kelsey Smith Photos

Green Ridge Park HeadquartersGreen Ridge Park HeadquartersPaul at Green Ridge Park HeadquartersCarl at Green Ridge Park HeadquartersJim at Green Ridge Park Headquarters

We got to the station at about 8:30 and lined the Jeeps up for a group photo.  Then we went in to the office to see about the stickers.  I was pleased to see Penny there as I had met her on my last visit and found her to be very helpful and pleasant.  The guys asked about getting the stickers and we soon learned that today, according to Penny and the two other men who were there, that the stickers are not required for Jeeps! 

Well I am confused.  I bought my sticker at this very office, provided my completed form that clearly shows I was applying for a permit for a Jeep, and even commented upon it when I was making the transaction!  The web site clearly indicates that the sticker is required for Jeeps.  So what's the real deal???  I decided to repeat my question about trail use. 

There are some side trails in Green Ridge that are marked "No ATV" or "No Motorcycle" with those universal symbols.  I asked Penny about them before and she told me that if the trail was not gated that I could drive around the sign.  When I repeated my question this morning, Penny gave me an astounded look and told me that she "never told [me] that...". 

Wow.   So we wasted a trip here, more or less, leaving less confident of our legal position on use of the park and our need (or lack thereof) for the sticker.   I felt a fool in front of Carl and Jim but I think they could see that the people in charge knew as little about the policy as I do.  I think this will require follow up for clarification.  It's no wonder that well meaning people run afoul of these policies.   Even those who enforce them do not appear to know what the rules are.

Ride PlanKelsey & Alexis
2001 Kelsey & Carl Smith Photos

Backbone Mountain Trail HeadBackbone Mountain Trail Head

So it was that after another hour or so of driving, we wove our way to the trail head at Backbone Mt.  We set about getting read to hit the trail.  Carl and I aired-down while the girls played around on a sand mound, and Jim aired-down and disconnected.  After a few minutes, Hugh and Shea arrived.  They got ready, Hugh showing us his new disconnects (very nice), and after a quick brief, we headed down the trail.


Backbone Mt.

Backbone Mountain Trail
(from prior trip)

Trail Head and Closed Gate

I held in the back of my mind the realization that the trail gate we found open last time could be closed.   And so it was to be that when we arrived, we found it so.  I was very disappointed since this trail is quite fun.  We continued on the gray stone road that eventually lead us back to the pavement.  It crossed to the other side of the road but lead to closed gates almost immediately so we abandoned hope of gaining access from this end.

Savage River DamSavage River Dam

Instead, we drove around on Savage River Rd. to the exit end of the trail.  Just as we reached the turn-off to the trail entrance, we passed the reservoir and dam.  A brand-new chain-link fence surrounds the dam and water, and the area is posted.  This, in the wake of events of September 11th.  How very sad that this view is marred by a fence to prevent terrorism...

Lower Entrance near Dam

Truth be told, this trail is probably more interesting run in this direction anyway, so I didn't feel bad when we found this end of the trail open.  Up we went onto the side of the mountain, climbing through switchbacks with sheer drops off to one side. 

View from Trail
2001 Kelsey Smith Photo

View from Backbone Mt.

This is a steep mountainside.   Looking almost straight down, one can see the railroad bed and a road below, small strands marked here and there with dots that are really small houses. 

The railroad has an interesting story all its own:

Updated info 6/29/04:  Near the spot where we went down to the railroad grade is Hitchcock Tunnel and near that, Strecker, a switch location.  I found this article on the web and archived it against loss:

Mountain Subdivision - 17 Mile Grade

With the leaves nearly gone, the view is breath-taking, and the severity of any mistake that takes you off the trail, painfully obvious.

Paul ahead
2001 Kelsey Smith Photo

I am starting to realize that I may have a fear of heights because these places, while very rewarding to visit, seem to place great fear in me.  It is not so bad that I cannot function, but it makes me acutely aware of what I am doing, and the consequences of a mistake. 

The ViewView from Backbone Mt.

I have no doubt that if one wheel got off the side of these kind of trails, that the Jeep (and contents) would be a pile of wreckage at the bottom in short order.  

Jim avoids treeJim's T-Jeep-J
2001 Kelsey Smith Photos

Jim PosingJim PosingHugh PosingHugh Posing

Fortunately, the trail is wide enough for the width of almost two Jeeps so that making a mistake would be pretty stupid.  As we travel at speeds under a couple miles per hour, it would take several seconds to get close enough to the edge to be at risk.  

On Backbone Mt.On Backbone Mt.Shelf Road on Backbone Mt.

So don't go fishing for that magnetic CB antenna mount that flopped over, or that cassette tape case that you want to poke around in, or it could be BUH-BYYYYYYYYEEEEEE---

Making Way
2001 Kelsey Smith Photo

Still, in some spots, there is one surface condition or another that requires moving away from the side of the mountain, and care and alertness are the order of the day. 

Looking BackLooking Back
2001 Kelsey Smith Photos

So with this kind of attention demanded, we tip-toed our way along the trail, dealing with muddy spots, fallen branches, protruding rocks, and a great abundance of fallen leaves.

Kelsey & AlexisView from the TopView from the TopAlexis
2001 Carl & Kelsey Smith Photos

Lunch Stop JimLunch Stop CarlLunch Stop JeepsLunch Stop Jeeps

About noontime, we stopped at a nice spot for a lunch break.  I broke out my camera and everyone had something to eat. 

Lunch stop (Where's Hugh?)

Then, one by one, starting with Hugh, the travelers climbed the side of the mountain to the top of a large rock/cliff that jutted out above us.  It was nearly straight up, with not much but small trees to provide handhold.  The ground is really soft and provides no traction. 

The TopThe Top
2001 Carl Smith Photos

Jim on rock outcrop on BackboneJim on rock outcrop on Backbone

I struggled up a few feet to make a couple pictures and then came right back down.  With my camera to hand I did not have the flexibility needed to climb around.  Fortunately there were no mishaps and everyone got back down to the Jeeps without event.  We continued along to where the trail descends to the railroad bed.  Everyone decided to bypass it except me, so I ended up riding tail gunner for a while.

After some time of driving the trail it became apparent that returning this way was not going to be desirable.   We didn't really have any troubles ascending the trail but with all the loose leaves, coming back this way would be very tricky.  No one wanted to come down these hills with the risk of slipping on the leaves.

Look-outs and trail boundary

We came to one of two turnouts that provide a nice camping area and lookout.

Carl preparing to leap the canyonCarl preparing to leap the canyonCarl on look-outCarl on look-outCarl on look-out
2001 Kelsey Smith Photos

Carl's Jeep on ledgeCarl's Jeep on ledgeCarl's Jeep on ledgePaul's JeepJim's Jeep and Jim

We stopped at the first one, looked around, made some photos, then continued along to the second of these spots.   Here we found the trail that led out to the gate we found closed earlier - no need to take that branch...  To the right of this was another trail that led west for a couple miles.  The map showed it coming out near Swanton so we chose to try this way to get out.

At this time, Hugh thought he had lost something so he and Jim went back to see if they could locate it at the last stop.  I took this opportunity to stretch my legs and look around.  It is a beautiful spot, the kind of place that is great for contemplative times, and very welcome to me on this day.  Shortly, Jim and Hugh returned with all possessions accounted for, and we continued along for a ways.

Soon we came to a spot where a decent-sized tree had fallen across the trail.  It looked like many trail users had been able to continue under it, but both Jim and I, with our overhead racks, would have no chance of making it underneath, indeed, I doubt that Carl and Hugh would either.

I should mention that Carl had asked me, before we left, if there was anything I would like him to bring along.   I have often considered bringing my chainsaw but it's messy and heavy and I usually don't bring it.  I have been eyeing the camp "buck" saws that I see at Wal*Mart and have put off buying one (for who knows what reason).  Anyway, I suggested that if he had one, to bring along a saw.  Long story short, Carl brought the saw and probably saved us a lot of time and hard work.  Even before we came to this trail-blocker, we had pressed the saw into use, to ease us by a couple spots where fallen branches blocked the way.

Fallen tree removalFallen tree removal
2001 Kelsey Smith Photos

Here, we discussed our options and agreed to clear just enough of the large tree to make a passage over a very rough eroded section of the trail.  It was to be our "obstacle" for the day.  After we cleared away the portions of tree that we cut, we put some stones in the low holes, cleared some dry grass to make it easier to see the ground and prevent fire, and discussed lines. 

Paul in the obstacle
2001 Kelsey Smith Photos

As I was trail leader at that point, I got to make the first try.  About half-way through, I got up against a rotten log that prevented me from continuing.  So I got out and moved it out of the way, and was then able to "bump" my way up the stepped rubble, and get my passenger side front wheel back up on the flat portion of the trail.  I had just enough momentum that I climbed out of the erosion back to solid ground.  Fun.  Easier than it looked, but the hardest section of trail today.

Carl makes a run at itCarl makes a run at it

Next came Carl.  He got hung up briefly at the same spot that I did, but was able to back off and get a little bit further.  I am not sure how his approach differed from mine, but I think he may have stayed in the mess a little bit longer than me. 

Carl takes the obstacle
2001 Kelsey Smith Photo

He ended up getting hung up with his power wheels lacking bite.  When it got to the point that he could not move forward or backward, and attempts to get something under the wheels failed, I gave him the strap and tugged him out.  No great drama.  Just one example of how it pays to have people along.  Carl with his saw, and me with my strap.

Carl takes the strap
2001 Kelsey Smith Photo

Hugh observed and took advantage of our respective attempts and made a cake walk out of it, climbing right through it, without a hitch.  Hugh attributed his great success to his newly-installed disconnects!

Hugh takes the obstacle
2001 Kelsey Smith Photo

Hugh goes for it

Next came Jim, who met the same snag as Carl and me, but with just a quick backing off, was able to blip past and climb out nicely.  This was our big challenge for the day and it came out well for all of us.  After we stowed all our gear, we moved on.

Jim takes the obstacleJim takes the obstacle
2001 Kelsey Smith Photos

Jim's turnJim's turnJim's turn

We came upon a fork that lead in two directions.  After a brief exploration, we chose the right fork and soon came to a large dump area, looking to have been in use for many years before the park managers closed access to it and placed  a very blunt sign at the site.

This is why...

  The sign actually said something like "This is why we put up gates".   Ouch.  It was, to be fair,  a huge mess.  I commented that we ought to volunteer to clean it up, and then Carl called our collective attention to the true scope of the problem.  The pile extended several hundred feet down the side of the mountain, and was several dozens of feet wide.  This would require a mammoth effort, beyond our abilities and resources.  Very depressing.

Mysterious standards
Mysterious standardsMysterious standards

Directly behind this site stood a very well constructed stone wall and four very tall posts that appear to have supported some sort of platform.  One of the posts had fallen down, but three remain erect.  This is probably some sort of historic location, possibly left over from logging or mining operations.  Such a shame to have a spot like this marred by careless dumping.

Exit to Swanton Hill Rd

The trail was pretty easy from here on out, a sign that we must be reaching pavement.  And sure enough, we came upon the road in short order.  After a quick discussion of what to do next, we headed for Allegheny.  Just up the road, I shimmied my steering to shake any loose dirt off, and my cooler made a dramatic dive for the pavement.  I retrieved it and we drove on through Westernport and Keyser, to Allegheny Wildlife Management Area.

Allegany Wildlife Management Area

Jim C, Hugh & Shea L, Paul P.Hugh & SheaHughShea
2001 Kelsey Smith Photos

Hugh, Jim, Carl

After brief stops for gas and munchies, we hit the trail.  The road was very dusty, reminding us of our last trip out to Gauley Ridge.  We climbed up to the lower gas wells and lined the Jeeps up for a group shot. 

At the lower gas wellAt the lower gas wellAt the lower gas wellKelsey, Alexis and SheaKelsey, Alexis and Shea

I pointed out the hill climb and we talked about the off-camber rear exit. 

Hugh and Jim go to lower gas wells
2001 Kelsey Smith Photo

 Hill climb viewed from Gas Wells

awma.gif (7026 bytes)

After a short break, we drove to the base of the hill climb and then one by one, we climbed it. 

Carl on AWMACarl on AWMACarl on AWMACarl on AWMACarl on AWMA

Jim on AWMAJim on AWMAJim on AWMAJim on AWMA

All of us at the top

There was loose gravel, an erosion cut, some fallen branches, and uneven surface to contend with, but it was lots easier than it appeared.   Everyone made it up without much drama, although it was pretty important not to stop moving and to avoid getting side-ways at all costs.  From the top we could see down to the lower gas wells.

After we took a moment to enjoy the view, we took our turns going back down the way we came up.  Near the bottom, I started to catch up to Hugh and could not do much to keep my distance as I was concerned that I would start to slide, so I took out the large fallen branches with a nice long screech along the side of my Jeep, and managed to stay back far enough to keep from stamping a Jeep grill in his tailgate.

Then we continued further in to where another hill beckoned.  Hugh and Jim disappeared right up it.  When I got there I couldn't tell which way they went.  I tried it but was unable to get a good bite on it.  A second attempt left me sliding a bit sideways at the front, and quickly convinced me not to tempt fate further.  Carl watched with the wisdom of my failed attempts and left it for another day.  Jim made another climb but not until he too and gotten bogged down the same way I had.  Sometimes going first has its advantages...

Hugh went up to check out the trail that is supposed to exit on the other side of the trail system.  He found the beginning of the trail much as described - off camber, grown in, with not much opportunity for turning around.


Once he finished deciding that it was best left for later, we regrouped and went back to pavement, where we aired-up, reconnected and took on fuel.  Consensus led us to a "Chinese place" for dinner.  We were the only people eating in, and few people were coming to get take-out.  Just the same, the prices were good, the service was great, and the food even better.

Back on the road, we drove straight through, with Hugh leaving us at Route 81 South, and Jim at Rt 15.  Carl and I continued on through to Germantown, where I retrieved my CB from him and we parted ways.

I went to my favorite Jeep wash and removed the "cow smell" from my Jeep.  Off-road?  Me?....

At HomeAt HomeAt Home

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