Sugarloaf, which protrudes from the farmlands of Frederick County like a misplaced Western mesa, is one of the area's finest places to take a family hike.
It's privately owned and maintained by the Stronghold Foundation, established by the property's owner to permit people to enjoy the pristine little mountain stub (elevation: 1,282 feet) in perpetuity. Consequently, it's visited mainly by locals who happen to know about it and is rarely as crowded as many national and state parks.
Park your car in the highest (West View) lot the first time you visit; a network of well-blazed trails leads to the top. The green-blazed trail from this lot is probably the easiest; the orange-blazed trail is steep. Either way, it's a challenging but safe climb that robust kids four and up love to make. (Older kids and energetic parents will enjoy parking at the bottom and climbing the entire mountain, which takes more than an hour.)
The payoff for the hike is spectacular: a broad vista of nearly pristine farmland as far as the eye can see. (Okay, an incinerator smokestack is clearly visible, and
you can make out a cluster of Gaithersburg office buildings in the distance, but it's still pretty impressive.) The peak is covered by gigantic chunks of quartzite, and any weekend you're sure to see other parents watching their kids climb around and fighting the urge to bark commands to "be careful!" On a good day, you'll see impressive birds - one time we saw a gorgeous hawk - hanging motionless in the air near the peak, riding the funky air stream that often flutters across this odd bit of geology.
--John Kelly and Craig Stoltz
Words to the wise: This is a largely amenity-free park, so bring snacks and a water bottle or two. You'll find a few picnic tables, but fires aren't permitted. Though the park draws only a couple of hundred visitors on beautiful days, the "go early" rule still applies if your heading for
the parking lots near the top, which are small and can fill up quickly.
Notes: Nearby are Whites Ferry and Seneca Creek State Park.