Washington, D.C., Area Hikes
Little Bennett Regional Park, in northern Montgomery County, is a hiker's delight. Its secluded wooded hills offer such treats as a magnificent upland meadow and splendid grove of yellow poplars.
From junction of Capital Beltway (Interstate 495) and I-270, head northwest on I-270 (toward Frederick) for about 18 miles. Get off at Exit 18 and turn right onto Clarksburg Road (MD 121). Drive east on Clarksburg for 2.3 miles. Then, after reaching bottom of hill on straight road, take first rightat gravel-road intersectioninto small parking lot. Note: While on Clarksburg, ignore sign indicating that park is on Frederick Road (MD 355); that's just park office.
Located about 23 miles northwest of Washington, Little Bennett Regional Park is a superlative hiking venue. It's Montgomery County's largest park, covering almost 3,650 acres (a small piece also juts into Frederick County). A park since 1975, it has the county's largest expanse of continuous woodland, splendid scenery, much wildlife, a trail network, and few human users.
This hike is a challenging 12.6-mile grand tour, with about 4,000 feet of elevation change. The mostly dirt trails are unblazed. Those west of Little Bennett Creek are quite well signposted and in good shape. They're also off-limits to bikers and horse riders. Those in the more rugged eastern area are twice as hilly (says my altimeter) and not as well signposted. And they're muddy, thanks to equine hooves. But don't be deterred. Mud washes off, and my irreverent eye sees a purpose in liquidity: fewer whizzing bikers. Yes, good can come of brook water and mud.
The major meadow trails are mowed periodically, but the grass grows rapidly. So, use common sense plus long pants or insect repellent where the trail is overgrown and ticks may abound. Stick to the trail anyway, in that poison ivy lurks.
The hike starts with a 5-mile counterclockwise loop through the area west of Little Bennett Creek. To get started from the parking lot, return to and carefully cross Clarksburg Road. Follow gravelly Hyattstown Mill Road for about 300 yards. Then turn sharp left onto the mostly open Beaver Valley Trail. After crossing Little Bennett Creek, turn left, and follow the trail as it swings right and away from the stream, and heads gently uphill. At the next major intersection, turn right onto the Mound Builder Trailnamed for the local Allegheny mound-building ants.
Continuing, turn right at a T-junction onto the Bennett Ridge Trail. At an open hilltop meadow, turn left onto the Woodcock Hollow Trail and enjoy an especially scenic half-mile of hiking. Also watch and listen for courting woodcocks. Ease on uphill a bit, then turn right at the next junction onto the Whitetail Trail. It undulates through the woods for a mile and a half. Be sure to bypass the Antler Ridge Trail, cross two small streams, and follow a lovely fern-lined third stream uphill.
At the next junction, ignore the "Nature Trail" sign and turn left; also stay left at the next "Nature Trail" sign. Reach and cross carefully a road, one of several in the park's camping area. Keep going up the trail to emerge from the woods at another roadthe area's main access road. Cross it alertly to reach Hawks Reach Activity Center, 3 miles into the hike. Formerly a nature center, the building is now used only for special events.
Continuing, follow the road very gently uphill for almost half a mile. Where it curves right, watch on your left for the aptly named Hickory Hollow Trail. Take it, and head downhill on a steep and rocky path. Then turn left onto the Stony Brook Trail. After about 300 yards, turn right onto Froggy Hollow School House Trail, cross the brook, and start climbing.
Emerge from the woods onto a level, grassy trail. Stay to the right as you pass a white house that usually barks. At a road (Clarksburg Road again), cross watchfully, jog left, and return to the trail. For the next half-mile follow a woodland trail. Watch for the one-room schoolhouse, well preserved, boarded up, and fenced in. It served the local community from the 1890s until the 1930s, when the Great Depression finished off the area's already meager economy. Turn left at the schoolhouse and take the nearby bridge over the creek. Access the nearby gravel road and head uphill to embark on the hike's second, longer, and tougher segmenta 7.6-mile embellished figure-eight through the eastern part of the park.
The mostly open road is part of the Purdum Trail (but ignore the trail sign pointing to an off-road trail). It provides the hike's steepest uphill stretch before leveling off, crossing a primitive campground, and becoming a dirt trail in the woods. At a four-way intersection, turn right onto an unnamed trail (opposite what the signpost calls the Loggers Trail). However, if there's snow on the ground, stay on the Purdum Trail (see below). Faintly marked, the unnamed trail wriggles downhill to a small and sometimes muddy floodplain, and then glides left to follow a small creek upstream (Little Bennett Creek again).
At a white polethe hike's halfway markturn right and walk about 50 yards to look at the quite lovely creek. Then turn around and follow the white poles uphill on a gas-pipeline right-of-way, which crosses the Purdum Trail to become the Browning Run Trail. At a fork, bear left into the woods, staying on the Browning Run Trail. Proceed gently downhill on the horse-churned trail. Emerging in a meadow, cross a small stream, pass through a T-junction (Pine Knob Trail goes to the left), and reach a road (Clarksburg yet again). Cross safely and continue.
Back in the woods, go either way at a fork. Where the paths reunite, cross a small stream and continue to another meadow, then walk straight through the trail's intersection with the Tobacco Barn Trail. Then return to the woods, dodge the mud, and reach a road (Hyattstown Mill Road). Turn right and follow it to Earl's Picnic Area. There, head for a nearby vehicle barrier and turn right onto the Pine Grove Trail.
For half a mile, you'll ascend through the pines on a winding trail that's needle-soft underfoot. At a T-junction in a clearing, turn right onto the Timber Ridge Trail. Stay on it for half a mile as it snakes through the woods. At an unmarked fork, go either way; both paths veer left and reunite.
Soon after passing a sign warning of a private residence that you'll never see, pitch downhill into a serene and majestic grove of yellow poplars (tulip trees). The only such grove I know, it's stunning, both for its expanse and for the towering species with its tulip-shaped leaves and yellow-green-orange flowers.
After crossing a small stream and starting to climb out of the grove, turn right at a junction and head uphill to break out of the woods. Then step onto the Tobacco Barn Trailand into an expanse of grass-covered slopes fringed with woods beneath the open sky. It's one of the metro area's finest upland meadow areas. Pause to look at the nearby ruins of a very old tobacco drying barn, then take the curving and signposted mowed path downhill. At the bottom, follow the trail into the woods to its intersection with the Browning Run Trail. Stay on the Tobacco Barn Trail as it skirts a meadow, which often features summertime aerial displays by butterflies, bluebirds, and dragonflies.
Reenter the woods for a mostly downhill trek on a narrow, rocky, rooty, and muddy trail section. Go right at the first fork (the sign promises the "Loggers Trail"). When you reach a road (Hyattstown Mill Road), turn left and proceed for a few hundred yards. Then turn left onto the Loggers Trail, just past where the Beaver Valley Trail goes right.
Do another hill climb, contend with a bit more mud, bear right at the first fork, and continue until a road appears (Clarksburg Road again). Cross at an uphill angle of 45 degrees to find the trail. Ascend to reach an unmarked T-junction, walk right, and proceed downhill. At the next junction, turn left, toward what the signpost promises will be the Hard Cider Trail.
After more climbing, turn right at a T-junction onto a sometimes mucky but level old farm roadthe Loggers Trail continued (but there's no signpost). Finally, reach a fork and the promised Hard Cider Trail (to the right). It's the hike's longest downhill stretch, extending more than half a mile. It's also rocky and muddy. At a level gravel road, turn right and follow what's called the Kingsley Trail a third of a mile to the trailhead.
For more information on the park, contact the park manager, (301) 972-6581.
Heading home, visit Kings Park, a small county park on Clarksburg Road. It's on the left, 2.1 miles from this hike's trailhead. Amble around and imagine being in a Currier & Ives lithograph.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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