Sugarloaf Mountain

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view from White Rocks, looking a little north of west past
Cactoctin Mountain towards South Mountain

I could probably spend the rest of my life exploring the Potomac Gorge and still never learn everything about it. But there are other interesting natural areas nearby, and I’ve sworn to spend more time exploring them, and less time in the gorge.

So I decided to start with an old favorite: Sugarloaf Mountain. “Mountain” is relative, since the peak is only 1,282 feet above sea level, but it is about 800 feet above the surrounding land, and the only place of elevation of any sort east of the Blue Ridge, so “mountain” it is. It’s located in southeastern Frederick County, a few miles northeast of where the Monocacy River meets the Potomac. It’s near the western edge of the Piedmont physiographic province.

The really unusual thing about Sugarloaf is that it’s a privately owned park that’s open to the public year round, sunrise to sunset. Development has been minimal: there’s a one-way road up to near the top and back down, three parking areas (and one at the base), some picnic tables and portable toilets, and a nice network of heavily used, very worn trails.

Sugarloaf was my playground back in the ’80s and ’90s. It was one of the places I went when playing hooky from high school (when I had a car available). I went hiking on it with my best friend the night of our senior prom. After college I had a job nearby and often hiked there after work. But as time went on and I moved further away I spent less and less time there.

Last weekend Steve and I went back, for the first time in many years, and of course I kept my eyes open for wildflowers. I went back two days later without him to do more detailed exploring. Everything that was blooming was about two weeks later than in the Gorge. Here’s a list of finds; only the ones marked with an asterisk were actually blooming.

aster, white wood
bellwort, perfoliate
blueberry*
cinquefoil, dwarf*
corydalis, short-spurred*
cucumber root, Indain
dogwood, flowering*
fleabane, unsure which species*
jack-in-the-pulpit*
mayapple
meadow rue, unknown species
partridgeberry
pussytoes, plantain-leaved*
puttyroot
rattlesnake plantain, downy
rue anemone*
saxifrage, early*
serviceberry, either downy or common*
skunk cabbage
Solomon’s seal, smooth
toothwort, cut-leaf*
toothwort, slender*
violet, common blue*
violet, marsh blue*
wintergreen, spotted

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Short-spurred corydalis (Corydalis flavula, left, with dime for scale) was by far the most abundant of the flowering plants, which is interesting because it’s described as “uncommon” on Sugarloaf by Choukas-Bradley and Brown in their excellent book Eastern Woodland Wildflowers and Trees; however, the book was published in 2004. A lot can change in twelve years.

There were plenty of ground pines and ferns, too, including ebony spleenwort and Christmas fern, and several others that I’ll have to go back to identify once they’ve grown a bit more.

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Most exciting, for me, is the downy rattlesnake plantain (right), a native orchid that I had never seen before. The distinctive leaves make it easy to identify.

About the lead-in photo… White Rocks is actually an outcrop on a hill (800′ above sea level) that’s part of the Sugarloaf Mountain natural area, but not part of the mountain proper. The tree In the foreground is a table mountain pine; more about that next time.

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