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Hugging the picturesque Potomac River and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (C&O Canal Towpath), the Western Maryland Rail Trail (WMRT) rolls for nearly 28 miles through Maryland’s narrow panhandle wedged between Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
The flat route through the remote, wooded river valley set in the Appalachian Mountains passes many historical sites, including the old river town of Hancock. Trail users can either use the campsites and facilities on the close-by C&O Canal Towpath—the popular 185-mile unpaved route between Washington, D.C., and Cumberland—or use the towpath as a return route on out-and-back treks.
The trail follows the corridor of the Western Maryland Railway, which ran from Baltimore into West Virginia coal country. Although construction on the railway started in the 1850s, the segment that later became the WMRT was completed in 1906 and was celebrated for achieving easy grades through challenging mountain terrain. The train was shut down by the 1980s, and the state acquired it in 1990. In Cumberland, the railway lives on as the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad tourist train.
The WMRT starts in the east at Big Pool, about a mile from Fort Frederick State Park, home of a reconstructed stone fort built in 1756 to protect the frontier during the French and Indian War. Heading west to-ward Hancock, you’re free to explore locks and aqueducts on the adjacent canal. Although it’s wooded, the trail is never far from I-70 traffic in this segment.
In 11 miles, you’ll find a bike shop right at the Hancock trailhead and cafés, museums, and antiques shops nearby. The town, named for a local ferry operator, saw a skirmish during the Civil War when several buildings were shelled by artillery.
A more scenic trail segment rolls west from town as you leave the I-70 traffic behind. There are better views of the Potomac River through the trees, and large rock outcroppings will catch your attention. Three miles from Hancock you’ll find the ruins of the Round Top Cement Mill, which dates to the 1830s and was the area’s largest employer during the Civil War.
Be on the lookout for deer, wild turkey, and even bears as you pass through the Woodmont Natural Resources Management Area and Side-ling Hill Creek Wildlife Management Area. About 14 miles past Hancock, you’ll take a 2.3-mile detour onto the dirt C&O Canal Towpath, which bypasses the Indigo Tunnel so as not to disturb the eight species of bats that hibernate there.
Back on the trail, you’ll find a grocery in Little Orleans. The trail ends about a mile later just before a dilapidated iron bridge into West Virginia.
Fort Frederick State Park trailhead: From Interstate 70, take Exit 12 to State Route 56 and head east toward Big Pool. The trail parking lot is across the street from the post office.
Hancock trailhead: From I-70, take Exit 3 and travel west on SR 144 for 1.4 miles. There is parking at Hancock Station, just off Main Street.
Sideling Hill Wildlife Management Area trailhead: From I-68, take Exit 77 and head south on Woodmont Road, which will intersect with the trail at Pearre Road. Parking is available.
Little Orleans trailhead: The trailhead is located at 12719 High Germany Road. Head East on I-68. Take exit 68 for Orleans Road. Turn right onto Orleans Road and drive for 5.5 miles to High Germany Road, where you will make a sharp left. The parking lot will be on your right.
There are numerous other access points and parking areas along the entire route; refer to the map for more details.
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