Western Maryland's gently rolling mountains are part of the Appalachians, with Backbone Mountain (elevation 3,360 ft.) marking the eastern Continental Divide. Outdoors enthusiasts can find forests, mountain lakes, and miles of streams and rivers. White-water rafters come to meet the challenges of the Youghiogheny (pronounced Yok-a-gain-ee; those in the know just call it the "Yough"). Boaters flock to Garrett's seven lakes. Skiers head for the hills of Wisp Resort, and cross-country skiers glide along the state parks' trails. There are also plenty of opportunities for windsurfing, snowmobiling, fly-fishing, mountain biking, golfing, hunting, hiking, and camping.
Of the 100,000 acres of protected wilderness in Western Maryland, 40,000 are part of Green Ridge State Forest, east of Cumberland, while 53,000 are in the Savage River State Forest, near Deep Creek Lake. The area is great for wildlife-watching and fishing: Some species, notably hawks and black bears, began to disappear from the landscape, but they are returning in force to the region's parks and forests. And although mining runoff once threatened Garrett County's water, the Casselman, North Branch Potomac, and Youghiogheny rivers now boast some of the best fly-fishing around.
In other guides, the sections on outdoor pursuits are organized by activities such as biking and camping. But in Western Maryland, you can do just about anything, anywhere. This guide instead has a rundown of each of the parks -- except Deep Creek Lake State Park, which is described in the section about the lake itself -- and some of their unique qualities to help you decide exactly where you want to go and what you want to do. For more information, call the individual state parks for brochures and maps, or go to www.dnr.maryland.gov. To reserve a campsite anywhere in Maryland, call tel. 888/432-2267 or reserve online at http://reservations.dnr.state.md.us. Note: As of 2009, it is illegal to consume or possess liquor in a state park, except in motor homes and full-service cabins.
Allegany has two outstanding state parks, plus the terminus of the C&O Canal, which is popular with bikers, hikers, and history buffs.
The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park (tel. 301/722-8226; www.nps.gov/choh) is an ideal place for a trek on the flat, wide canal towpath. Both cyclists and hikers enjoy all or part of the 184-mile route along the Potomac River, all the way from Cumberland to Georgetown, in D.C. Any portion can make a great 1-day biking trip. The canal passes by numerous sites, including Paw Paw Tunnel, Fort Frederick, Harpers Ferry, and Great Falls. The trip from Cumberland is almost all gently downhill. Because flooding can make some of the towpath impassable, check with the park service to see if the route you intend to bike is clear.
Green Ridge State Forest, exit 64 off I-68 (tel. 301/478-3124), is home to 46,000 acres of abundant wildlife and scenic vistas over the Potomac River. Adirondack-style shelters are placed along the 24-mile backpacking trail. Mountain bikers have access to the park's roads, most of the 43 miles of hiking trails, and a separate bike trail and racecourse. At the oak-hickory forest's southern end, you'll find the Paw Paw Tunnel on the C&O Canal. Primitive camping is available at 100 sites ($10 per night). The park's activities include off-road driving, hunting, canoeing, kayaking, and fishing. The shooting range is open Wednesday through Saturday and Monday from 10am to sunset, Sunday from noon to sunset.
Rocky Gap State Park, exit 50 off I-68 (tel. 301/722-1480), has great trails with views of 243-acre Lake Habeeb, mountain overlooks, and a stout 5-mile trail up Evitts Mountain to the remains of a 1784 homestead. Walk along Rocky Gap Run to see the mile-long gorge and hemlock forest. The lake has three swimming beaches, two boat ramps, and boat, canoe, kayak, and paddleboat rentals. Boats are permitted on the lake 24 hours a day. Fishing licenses are required. The park has 278 campsites, including 14 minicabins ($50-$65 per night). Reservations here are recommended.
Suppliers & Guides in Allegany County -- C&O Bicycle, 9 S. Pennsylvania Ave., Hancock (tel. 301/678-6665; www.candobicycle.com), rents and sells bikes in its shop, located between the C&O Canal towpath and the 20-mile Western Maryland Rail Trail. C&O also repairs bikes and operates a general store with lodging in the bunkhouse (reservations are a good idea). Shuttle service available. Closed Tuesday through Thursday in cold weather.
Adventure Sports, 113 E. Main St., Frostburg (tel. 301/689-0345), rents, sells, and services bikes, skis, and canoes.
The staff at Cumberland Trail Connection, Canal Place, Cumberland (tel. 301/777-8724; www.ctcbikes.com), right on the C&O tow path, know both the towpath and the Allegheny Highlands Trail. They rent and sell bikes, cycling equipment, and camping gear.
Allegany Expeditions (tel. 800/819-5170 or 301/722-5170) rents canoes, kayaks, cross-country skis, and camping equipment. It offers guided trips for hiking, rock climbing and rappelling, cave exploration, and canoeing. Call to inquire about cross-country ski packages in New Germany State Park as well as fly-fishing and bass-fishing expeditions.
Great Allegheny Passage -- With the completion of the Great Allegheny Passage, it is now possible to walk or cycle 335 miles from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. The Passage and the C&O Canal towpath come together in Cumberland, and Maryland's section of the trail, the Allegheny Highlands Trail (www.ahtmtrail.org), stretches from Cumberland to Frostburg. Enthusiasts see this as a trail to conquer, but it's actually the fulfillment of George Washington's dream to connect the Chesapeake Bay to the Ohio River. This path to gorgeous mountain vistas is an opportunity to test your endurance up hills and over miles. The climb from Cumberland to the Eastern Continental Divide marker is 1,700 feet. Riders go through three tunnels in Maryland, including the 3,294-foot-long Big Savage Tunnel (closed late Nov to early Apr). Along the trail you'll find lodging, camping areas, restrooms, and restaurants. There's also the possibility of meeting up with bears, turkeys, and copperhead snakes. And at one point, the trail parallels the Western Maryland Scenic Railway tracks. Local bicycle shops provide rentals, equipment, and repairs, and some will shuttle cyclists to various trail heads. For a map, go to www.ATAtrail.org. For information, call tel. 888/282-2453.
Garrett County is covered by state forests and parks. It's the home of swimming holes, the state's highest waterfall, and an intriguing preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy. To find a park that best suits you, visit www.dnr.maryland.gov.
Swallow Falls State Park (tel. 301/387-6938) has 10 miles of hiking trails. Follow the Youghiogheny River for views of Swallow Falls and the even more spectacular Muddy Falls, which drops 63 feet. The walk through one of Maryland's last virgin forests of giant pines and hemlocks shouldn't be missed -- you won't forget its quiet beauty. The park has the area's largest camping facility, with 65 improved sites and modern bathhouses with showers and laundry tubs. Camping costs $25 to $50 per night; reservations can be made up to a year in advance. Pets are permitted on leashes in designated camping areas and in day-use areas in the off-season. A 5.5-mile trail good for hiking or cross-country skiing connects the park with Herrington Manor.
Herrington Manor State Park (tel. 301/334-9180) draws cross-country skiers to its 10 miles of groomed trails. It offers ski and snowshoe rentals ($15 a day), sled rentals ($6 a day), 20 furnished cabins, and stone warming rooms. Trails and rental facilities are open from 8:30am to 4pm during good skiing conditions. In summer, the park's trails draw hikers and bikers. The 53-acre Herrington Lake has guarded beaches and canoes, rowboats, and paddleboats to rent from May through September. Bring your tennis racquet or volleyball: Courts are waiting. Campers can reserve 1 of 20 furnished log cabins year-round; book as much as a year ahead. Rentals range from $20 to $100 for a full-service cabin. Pets are allowed only in day-use areas.
Savage River State Forest (tel. 301/895-5759), which surrounds New Germany and Big Run, is the largest of Maryland's state forests, at more than 54,000 acres. It features miles of rugged hiking trails. It's also home to many bears, so plan accordingly. The longest trail, Big Savage, follows a 17-mile path along the ridge of Big Savage Mountain at an average elevation of 2,500 feet. Also popular is Monroe Run, which traverses the forest between New Germany and Big Run. Mountain bikers may use all trails except Big Savage and Monroe Run. Snowmobiles and off-road vehicles have their own trails; permits are required and available at park headquarters. Stop by for trail maps, including one delineating 10 miles of cross-country-ski trails. Savage River Lake was the site of the 1989 world white-water championships; only nonpowered watercraft are allowed on the water. Fifty-two primitive campsites are spread throughout the forest -- you may not see another camper while you're here. Backwoods camping is also permitted, but fires are not allowed at some sites. Camping is available year-round at $10 per night, with sites offered on a first-come, first-served basis with self-registration. Pets are permitted on leashes. If you don't have the time or the inclination to stay for a while, at least drive through the park, as many motorcyclists do on weekends. The roads are public, and the feeling of escape that comes from all those acres of trees is worth the ride.
New Germany State Park (tel. 301/895-5453) has 12 miles of trails, well marked for cross-country skiing. It also offers equipment rentals, cabins, and large stone warming rooms where skiers can stop and get a snack. Trails and rental facilities are open from 8am to 4pm during good skiing conditions. The park has 39 improved campsites with clean bathhouses and hot showers. All sites are large, private, and located in a wooded glen; the cost is $20 per night. These can be rented up to a year in advance for visits between April and Labor Day; September through October, the sites are offered on a first-come, first-served basis. Available year-round are 11 furnished cabins -- with electricity, fireplaces, and room for two to eight persons -- for $90 to $120 a night, with a 2-night minimum required. You can reserve cabins up to a year in advance. The park also has a 13-acre lake popular for swimming and boating, with boat rentals available. The day-use fee for Marylanders is $2 on weekends and holidays, $3 during ski season. Nonresidents pay $1 more. Pets are not permitted.
Big Run State Park (tel. 301/895-5453), just down the road, offers fishing and hiking along Monroe Run and Big Run. You can launch your boat at Savage River Reservoir. The 300-acre park has 30 rustic campsites with chemical toilets and running water. Some are in wooded areas along Monroe Run and Big Run, others on the shore of the Savage River Reservoir. Sites at Big Run are open year-round and cost $15 per night (available on a first-come, first-served basis). Pets are permitted on leashes.
Potomac-Garrett State Forest (tel. 301/334-2038) is spread over 19,000 acres in two separate tracts in the lower westernmost corner of the county. With plenty of streams, beaver ponds, and cranberry bogs, it offers beautiful scenery, including the highest point in any Maryland state forest: Backbone Mountain, in Garrett State Forest near Route 135 and Walnut Bottom Road. There are 8 miles of mountain-biking trails, as well as trails for snowmobiles, dirt bikes, and ATVs. Off-road-vehicle permits are required and can be obtained at each park's headquarters. Hikers can choose from 30 miles of trails, many easy enough for day hikes and many with mountain views that can only be seen off the road. Geocaching is also big here. The fishing here is some of the best in Western Maryland, with 21 miles of first-class trout streams, including 9 miles of the North Branch of the Potomac River. Here's the place to catch the Maryland Grand Slam: brook, brown, 'bo, and cutthroat trout. Potomac-Garrett also offers five primitive camping areas, open year-round. Getting to them may take some effort, however: The sites are beautiful and generously spaced, and a few have three-sided wooden shelters, but the roads to the sites are not well maintained. The cost is $10 for regular sites, $15 for a site with a shelter. Pets are permitted off-leash if they're under control.
Jennings Randolph Lake (tel. 301/359-3861) covers 952 acres and has 13 miles of shoreline. It straddles the Maryland-West Virginia line. On the Maryland side, there's a boat ramp at Mt. Zion Road via Route 135 and a scenic overlook at Walnut Bottom Road. The lake is open for boating, fishing, and water-skiing. Hiking trails on the Maryland side start at one of the overlooks. White-water rafting is available in spring. For the dam release schedule, see www.nab.usace.army.mil/recreation/jenran.htm. Call tel. 304/355-2890 for lake conditions. Pets on leashes are permitted in some areas.
Broadford Lake, near Oakland (tel. 301/334-9222), is open from March 31 to early November during daylight hours. The 140-acre park has a guarded beach as well as a boat launch and rentals. Electric boat motors only are permitted. There are picnic pavilions, playgrounds, and ball fields. Pets on leashes are permitted in some areas. Admission is $2 per car on weekdays and $3 per car on weekends.
Cranesville Swamp Preserve (tel. 301/897-8570; www.nature.org) is a vestige of the last ice age. Operated by the Nature Conservancy, it's a 1,600-acre peat bog home to sedges, cranberry, sphagnum moss, and tamarack trees -- a species usually not found south of Alaska. Quiet and wild, the four trails lead through a cathedral of pine forests and cross a 1,500-foot boardwalk to see the unusual plants, some carnivorous. To get to the entrance (which is in West Virginia), go south on U.S. Route 219; turn right on Mayhew Inn Road, left on Bray School Road, right on Oakland Sang Run Road, left on Swallow Falls Road, and right on Cranesville Road at the fork. Turn left on Lake Ford Road, right at the next fork. It's about a fifth of a mile on the right. The preserve is open dawn to dusk year-round. Admission is free. Pets are not allowed. Wear boots and bring water and bug repellent. There are no restrooms.
The Wild Rivers of Garrett County -- The "three sisters" -- the Youghiogheny, Casselman, and North Branch Potomac rivers -- have become so popular that the area is often featured on national fly-fishing shows. The Casselman is a fertile catch-and-release river; anglers here have been known to catch 40 fish a day. The Youghiogheny supports a strong population of brown and rainbow trout, but be aware that dam releases cause substantial increases in the water level below the Deep Creek Lake power plant. Call tel. 315/413-2823 or visit www.deepcreekhydro.com for a dam-release schedule.
Garrett County offers myriad opportunities for white-water rafting, kayaking, and canoeing. The Youghiogheny, the North Branch Potomac, and the Savage are the area's best-known runs. Although they can be challenging all year, they're at their fiercest in the spring after snowmelt. In 1976, the Youghiogheny River between Millers Run and Friendsville became Maryland's first officially designated Wild and Scenic River. This portion, known as the Upper Yough, contains approximately 20 class IV and V rapids. Fortunately for the inexperienced paddler, outfitters have sprung up all over the area to take people down this exciting river. If you'd prefer a little less excitement, the Middle Yough offers class I and II rapids, and the Lower Yough is a class III run. There are also several rivers just across the border in West Virginia -- the Cheat, Gauley, Big Sandy, and Russell Fork -- that are rated class IV or higher.
Kayakers hoping to avoid raft traffic would do well to visit the North Branch Potomac and Savage rivers (both class III/IV); however, they can only be run after heavy rains or snowmelt. For open canoeing, the Casselman River (class II) to the west is good in winter and spring.
Most outfitters run raft trips on several or all of these rivers.
Suppliers & Guides in Garrett County -- Guided rafting trips cost $100 to $140 per person for an (expert) Upper Yough trip. Middle Yough (novice) trips cost about $50; Lower Yough (intermediate) trips are $75 to $135 depending on the level of service. Family float trips cost around $30. Note: Remember to tip your guide -- $3 to $5 per person is appropriate.
Friendsville has become a white-water center, as it's located on the Upper Youghiogheny. Friendsville is at the intersection of I-68, Maryland Route 42, and the Yough; from Deep Creek Lake, take U.S. Route 219 north to Maryland Route 42 into town.
Precision Rafting, in Friendsville (tel. 800/477-3723; www.precisionrafting.com), and Cheat River Outfitters (tel. 888/99-RIVER [997-4837]; www.cheatriveroutfitters.com) offer trips in the Upper Yough's Class V waters (depending on the dam release schedule). Precision also offers raft trips down all of the rivers and paddling lessons. Cheat River offers trips on the Class II, III, and IV Cheat River in West Virginia, about 45 minutes from Deep Creek.
Several outfitters based in nearby Ohiopyle, Pa., offer similar trips. Try Mountain Streams & Trails (tel. 800/RAFT-NOW [723-8669]; www.mtstreams.com), which also does kid-oriented trips, or Laurel Highlands River Tours (tel. 800/4-RAFTIN [472-3846]; www.laurelhighlands.com). To get to Ohiopyle from Deep Creek Lake, take U.S. Route 219 north to U.S. Route 40 west (just past the intersection with I-68). Go into Pennsylvania and turn north onto State Route 381 to Ohiopyle. It's about an hour from Deep Creek Lake.
Allegany Expeditions (tel. 800/819-5170) offers equipment rentals and various guided excursions.
Perhaps unique to Garrett County is its Adventuresports Institute, Garrett College, 687 Mosser Rd., McHenry (tel. 301/387-3330; www.adventuresportsi.org). This division of Garrett College offers an associate's degree in adventure sports, but its classes are open to nonmatriculated students. If you want to learn how to paddle white water rather than just ride along in a raft, enroll in a 4-day kayaking class. The institute rents equipment and teaches classes in mountaineering, rock climbing, and ice climbing. For a list of course offerings and prices, call or visit the website.
For tackle and bait, stop by Bill's Outdoor Center, 20768 Garrett Hwy. (U.S. Rte. 219), McHenry (tel. 301/387-FISH ).
High Mountain Sports, 21327 Garrett Hwy., Oakland (tel. 301/387-4199), sells, rents, and services bicycles. It also offers water-ski and kayak lessons and tours, and mountain-bike tours, from this location. At its location next to Wisp Resort, 8527 Sang Run Rd., McHenry (tel. 301/387-2113), it rents skis, snowshoes, and snowboards.
Rent kayaks from Deep Creek Marina, 1899 Deep Creek Dr. (tel. 301/387-6977).
Snowshoes can be rented at Herrington Manor State Park (tel. 301/334-9180) and Deep Creek State Park (tel. 301/387-5563) for $15 for a full day.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.