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A note about COVID-19 and visiting parks: Help stop the spread of COVID-19 and follow all current directives from your governor and local health officials about wearing face masks and physical distancing.
At 55,155 acres, Savage River State Forest is the largest state forest in Maryland. All but about 40 acres of it resides in Garrett County, the westernmost county in Maryland. The rest crosses over into Allegany County near Frostburg and Lonaconing. The state forest straddles the Eastern Continental Divide. Those parts which lie west of the divide have waterways that eventually drain into the Youghiogheny River, the Ohio River, and finally the Mississippi River, thus making it part of the 1,245,000-square-mile Mississippi watershed, the largest drainage basin in North America. Much of the forest is situated east of the divide, comprising part of the 64,000-square-mile Chesapeake Bay watershed, with waterways that flow to the Savage River, the Potomac River, and eventually the Chesapeake Bay.
Savage River State Forest covers a lot of ground – more than I could reconnoiter in just a few days. So I decided to limit my exploration to two discontiguous portions in the northern half: St. John’s Rock and Mt. Aetna.
St. John’s Rock is a resistant sandstone outcrop of the Pottsville geologic formation located on Big Savage Mountain. Since the late 1800s, it has been a tourist and recreational attraction, with some visitors leaving their name and date of visit etched into the rock. From its 2,904-foot overlook (shown at top), one can clearly see the town of Frostburg about two miles to the east.
About 800 feet south of St. John’s Rock is the northern terminus of the 17-mile-long Big Savage Mountain Trail, a popular and rugged backpacking trail that follows the Big Savage Mountain ridgeline southwest to the Savage River Reservoir. To the east of the Big Savage Mountain Trail lies the St. John’s Rock Off-Road Vehicle (ORV) Trail, the first trail on Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) lands designed specifically for ORV enthusiasts.
This area is also known for containing three miles of the historic Braddock Road, a military road constructed in 1755. Named after British Major General Edward Braddock, to whom George Washington served during the French and Indian War, it was the first improved thoroughfare to pass over the Appalachian Mountains. Several sections of this historic path are still visible on the northern side of the St. John’s Rock ORV Trail main access road.
About five miles west of St. John’s Rock lies the 700-acre Mt. Aetna Tract, a network of hiking trails nestled between Mudlick Run and Savage River. After parking at the trailhead just north of the Mt. Aetna Road bridge, I set off on a 4.3-mile hike on the red-blazed Outer (aka Mt. Aetna) Loop, a moderately challenging hike featuring diverse and pristine terrain. The first thing I noticed were wind turbines on Fourmile Ridge, about 0.75 mile to the east. Completed in 2015, the Fourmile Wind Energy Project, along with Backbone, the other Western Maryland wind farm, generates enough clean energy to power more than 30,000 homes!
Wind turbines on Fourmile Ridge
A moist, sunny clearing near the Savage River was home to a variety of interesting plants. The tastiest – teaberry, also known as checkerberry or wintergreen – typically has shiny green leaves, but at this time of year, they are dark red. Peeking under the leaves, I found bright red fruit, which is used to flavor teas, candies, medicines, and chewing gum. Next to the teaberry lay hair-cap moss, also known as pigeon wheat, which forms large mats in peat bogs, old fields, and areas with high soil acidity. Just below the hair-cap moss grew reindeer lichen, which is used as food and medicine in some cultures.
Teaberry, hair-cap moss, and reindeer lichen
Hiking north, I picked up the orange-blazed Red Oak (aka Tall Oaks) Trail, which took me to the most northern section of the Mt. Aetna Tract, where I crossed over a footbridge made from what appears to be a recycled pier. Eventually, I connected again with the Outer Loop, this time along Mudlick Run, which, as the name implies, created muddy conditions. The damp ground and cold air had its advantages; they brought to life wintry sculptures comprised of dirt and needle ice, including one that resembled a demon claw emerging from the ground. Other parts of the trail were covered in needle ice and created a “crunchy” walking sensation as ice shattered under the weight of my footsteps.
Demon claw ice sculpture
It is hard to comprehend the immense size of Savage River State Forest, which makes up roughly 13% of Garrett County, Maryland, the second largest county (by area) in the state. My exploration just scratched the surface – and only from a hiker’s perspective. One might claim that the place is so big that it couldn’t all fit in a single watershed…so it straddles two.
For more information, see
Maryland DNR – Savage River State Forest
Chesapeake Bay Program – Watershed
Wikipedia – Savage River State Forest
Maryland Historical Trust Determination of Eligibility Form – St. John Rock
Legends of America – Braddock’s Road of Pennsylvania and Maryland
Maryland DNR – Savage River State Forest Trail Guide
Maryland DNR – Savage River State Forest Mt. Aetna Tract
Maryland DNR – Off-Road Vehicle Use on Maryland's Public Lands