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December 2017
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Hiking Monocacy Natural Resource Management Area

Winter Branches

Winter Branches

Living in the Washington area has a lot of advantages.  One advantage it doesn’t have is easy access to the wilderness I seek out for solitude and relaxation.  The closest really satisfying wilderness for me is Dolly Sods, in West Virginia, but that’s a 3-4 hour drive, so I don’t go often.

But there are some great hiking trails close to DC.  The Billy Goat Trail, along the Potomac, is excellent, for one example – challenging hiking, interesting nature, and spectacular views.  But on weekends it is simply mobbed, and even on a weekday you are unlikely to find solitude. So, I am always on the lookout for alternatives.

Which brings me to Monocacy Natural Resource Management Area.  It’s a nice little patch of woods just across the line from Montgomery into Frederick County.  It’s a beautiful area along the Monocacy river, not very developed, with some fun, not very challenging, trails.  But the best thing about it is that it is quite lightly used.  Many of the old trails are somewhat overgrown, and that gives it a bit of a wilderness feel, even though it is small and only a 20 minute ride from home.

Local Hikes and AllTrails (National Geographic) both have (mostly) the same information on this area (wonder who stole it from whom), and AllTrails may have more info in it’s “Pro” section, but I object to paying $30 to access the information I and other hikers provide to National Geographic for free.  So, I’ll provide what I can here and if you have any corrections or additions, put them in the comments. (And we’ll see, maybe Local Hikes and/or AllTrails will steal it and charge for it anyway, right?)

Winter Berries

Winter Berries

Both Local Hikes and AllTrails suggest that the area, “can be an adventure in finding your way around,” but that adventure does seem a bit constrained by the size of the wooded area.  There really is not enough space in Monocacy NRMA to get lost.  If you can keep yourself walking in a straight line for an hour you will inevitably walk to the river or right out of the woods (and from the river you can exit either up or downstream). So getting really lost is not a serious danger for an adult.

Despite the small size (I really think a wilderness area needs to be large enough to get lost in to really be “wilderness.”), I like the Monocacy NRMA.  It’s close, it’s easy, it’s uncrowded and it’s even got some interesting historical aspects. I’ve been going hiking there pretty frequently, and it does help me keep my head while I’m trapped in the urban “wilderness” we call DC.


The Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties lists more than 20 sites of historical interest in and near the Monocacy NRMA, ranging from prehistoric lithic scatters dating back as far as 6000 BC to early 20th century constructions.  Eleven prehistoric archaeological sites in and near the Monocacy NRMA contain(ed) artifacts dating back to periods including the Middle Archaic, Late Archaic, Early Woodland and the Late Woodland (6000 BC to 1100 AD).  The historians posit that indigenous people began to inhabit the Monocacy River Valley during the Late Pleistocene/Holocene transition as glaciers gave way to warmer weather and both flora and fauna adapted to these changing conditions.

While none of the points (arrowheads, spear tips, etc.) typical of the Pleistocene have been found in the sites of the NRMA, a few have been found in other locations in the Monocacy River Valley.  The idea is that a pattern of human habitation which had been focused on locations for quarrying crypto-crystalline stone (for use in points) and for hunting using those points gave way to general foraging as flora began to provide more food and fauna, less.  People likely moved with the seasons and some writers have suggested that the Monocacy River Valley may have been the site of only seasonal or temporary camps for people based along the Potomac.

When explorers and traders reached the Monocacy River, they found no stable indigenous populations.  Apparently, Piscataway/Conoy, Shawnee, Delaware and Catawba Indians all were present in the surrounding area, and Tuscarora Indians established a town either in or just south of the NRMA in about 1712.  The tribe was migrating north to escape the ongoing Tuscarora War in South Carolina, which ended in their defeat.  They ultimately moved on to the north, leaving behind only place names.

For example, two miles up Rt. 28 from the NRMA parking lot the road changes direction and name, becoming Tuscarora Rd.  In a little less than a half-mile, Tuscarora Rd. passes by the Tuscarora Gun Club and then through the small unincorporated village of Tuscarora, before crossing Tuscarora Creek another 1.5 miles further along.  (And, for those with a sweet tooth or hot and tired after a hike in the NRMA, it’s just another 1.5 miles, for a total of 5.5 miles from the NRMA, to Rocky Point Creamery, with excellent ice cream made on site.  Check their unique operating hours on their website before you go to avoid disappointment.)

French explorers Louis Michel and Martin Chartier discovered the mouth of the Monocacy River in 1700.  In 1711, Christof de Graffenried, a Swiss explorer, reported finding Sugarloaf Mountain close nearby.  German and English settlers began arriving in search of fertile land by 1720, and prominent speculators were active obtaining tracts of land in the area by 1732.

The Jehovah-Jireh Farm website suggests that the area may have been more heavily populated hundreds of years ago.  I’m not sure of that, especially with the suburbs now encroaching on the area nearby, but it is clear from the ruins in and around Monocacy that there was some important economic activity taking place.  Walking through Monocacy you will likely cross the slag heap of an 18th Century iron furnace, and come across a lime kiln and some stone walls.  Reportedly, one of the first ever railroads (a track-based system, but with the cars pulled by mules) operated from the iron works to the C&O Canal, just a couple of miles away.

The Hike(s)

MNRMA Map - Click to expand

(click on map to see it complete)

Hiking around the Monocacy NRMA is not physically challenging.  Where there are altitude changes, they are mostly pretty moderate.  The more serious issues are water and mud, after rains, finding your way around, ticks, and the briar patches.  As most of the trails become either long puddles or small brooks after a rainstorm, you will likely want waterproof foot gear.  Most of the trails cross Furnace Branch and its small tributaries multiple times, and in dry weather they can all be jumped or crossed on stepping stones.  In wet weather, however, you are going to be wading most of them — and the crossings are so close together that changing shoes each time is going to be frustrating.  You would be better off with boots that allow you to wade 6-inches or more of water, or to just accept that your feet will get wet.

The trails are mostly unmarked, which is, in my book, a plus.  And since they are lightly used, some of them are pretty overgrown (two more pluses).  Even some of the well established trails are blocked by numerous fallen trees, and where fallen trees have not been removed for some time, the underbrush builds up among them.  This is not a serious problem, since, as I noted, there is little real danger of becoming truly lost, but if you have a particular destination for your hike and your sense of direction is not strong (or if you want to come out the same way you came in and find your car, for example), you might want to use a GPS and my gdb file.

Much of the underbrush is made up of rose bushes and other thorny plants.  Since you are inevitably going to do at least occasional bushwhacking just to get around fallen trees, you are likely to get pretty scratched up if you go hiking in Monocacy in shorts and/or short sleeves.  Similarly, like any other place off the road in Maryland (likely including your backyard) you should keep ticks in mind, especially since they can carry Lyme disease.  Get someone to give your body a good once over when you get home.  Lyme disease does not spread quickly or easily.  Usually a tick will not pass the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium that causes Lyme disease until it has been on your body for more than 36 hours.  As a result, checking your body, or getting someone else to do it, is a very effective way to avoid Lyme disease.  Another best practice is to treat your hiking clothes with permethrin.  Permethrin will kill the ticks before they can bite you, and it is safe for you (check the warnings regarding cats, though, if you have cats).  You can buy permethrin, at exorbitant prices, at any area hiking or sports store.  You can buy it in concentrated form from at a small fraction of the cost.  (Compare retail brands, like Sawyer, which sells 12 oz of 0.5% permethrin concentrate for $10, to Martin’s brand, which sells a quart of 36.8% permethrin concentrate for $22.  Somebody please check my math, but I think that 12 oz of 0.5% permethrin, produced by diluting the Martin brand concentrate costs 11.2 cents!)

It’s worth noting that the Monocacy NRMA is open for hunting, except on Sundays.  While I rarely run into hikers in the NRMA, I do occasionally come across hunters.  The Monocacy River is known as a good bass fishing ground (mostly from canoes/kayaks).

I provide a map and gdb file to cover the area, with the understanding that my explorations of Monocacy have been limited, so the information is not really complete.  Still, it’s probably worth what you are paying for it.


There are a number of interesting places to check out within the Monocacy NRMA.  Here are the ones I’ve been to:

The Quarry

Triangular Blasting Hole

Triangular Blasting Hole

I found the quarry particularly interesting.  It is easy to see the scores in the still standing stone where the holes were chiseled down into the rock.  The scores are triangular in shape, having been cut with a flat chisel which was rotated in between blows of the hammer.  Their

Triangular hole viewed from the bottom, where it had been blown away

Triangular hole viewed from the side, where it had been blown away

triangular shape allowed for more control in the direction of the break of the stone.  The holes were filled with black powder which was ignited to blast the stone from the cliff.  The process is described on the website Stone Structures of Northeastern United States.  I found one stone at the base of the cliff with one of the triangular holes still partially intact.  Perhaps not enough black powder was put in the hole or (more likely) the force of the explosion escaped through a weaker part of the stone leaving part of it unaffected.  In any case, it left the triangular hole completely visible, as you can see in the photos.

The quartzite from this quarry has refractory properties (it withstands high temperatures), which made it useful for lining furnaces, forges and kilns, which you will see below was a major advantage.  This quary was also reportedly the source of some of the stone used to construct the Monocacy Aqueduct and carried on the railway to that location.

The Johnson Iron Furnace

Well, this is not much of a destination, but the story is interesting.  The Johnson brothers, Thomas, Baker, James, and Roger, had built the Catoctin Iron Furnace (still standing), as well as a small forge and a rolling and slitting mill in the area.  They expanded their iron operation in about 1785 with the construction of another iron furnace, usually called the Johnson Furnace, on what became Furnace Branch in the present-day NRMA.  The bellows of this cold blast furnace were powered by a waterwheel on the Furnace Branch, the iron came from local sources and the nearby Point of Rocks deposit, and the forests for miles around, including most of the standing trees on Sugarloaf Mountain, were felled and burned to produce the charcoal for the furnace.

There is nothing left of the furnace building itself, but you will walk right over the slag heap.  The trail crosses the heap right after crossing the bridge and until reaching the next junction. Look down at the trail right after you cross the bridge and you will see lots of glassy stones strewn on the trail.  These are obvious products of the heat from the iron furnace.

The Johnson brothers were pretty prominent in the area.  Thomas Johnson was a friend of George Washington, a member of the Continental Congress, the first Governor of Maryland, and an early justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.  In fact, he wrote the court’s first written opinion, in the case of Georgia v. Brailsford, in 1792.  Roger Johnson ran the furnace, and took sole possession when the brothers divided up their property in 1793.  It continued to operate until about 1820, when it closed due to competition form larger furnaces and, perhaps, the increasing scarcity of the wood necessary for charcoal production.

The Early Railroad

Although I have yet to find them, there are reported to be some signs of an early “railroad” still visible in the Monocacy NRMA.  The railroad was built to carry stone from the Johnson Quarry to the aqueduct when it was under construction. According to T.H.S. Boyd, The History of Montgomery County, Maryland, From Its Earliest Settlement in 1650 to 1879, this railroad used wooden rails – logs with a quarter of their circumference cut away – to keep the iron car wheels on a solid wooden surface all the way along the track.  The railroad was abandoned once the aqueduct was completed, and the rails were likely carried off and used as firewood.  According to the Maryland Historical Trust’s inventory of the MNRMA, remains of the railroad had been reported near the quarry and kiln, but none were found during the inventory (that said, the drafters of the inventory did not find the quarry, either, whereas I found it without great difficulty). I haven’t found them, but haven’t yet looked closely. If you find them, please leave a note in the comments.

The Lime Kiln

The Lime Kiln

The Lime Kiln

The Lime Kiln, in contrast, is not hard to find and is marked on my map. It’s a small building built into the hill behind it.  The date of the building is uncertain — there is no known documentary information about the kiln, but it seems obvious that the lime was produced for use in construction, and possibly in agriculture.  The kiln was used to heat limestone to produce lime for use in mortar and concrete and possibly to condition soil.

The Jehovah-Jireh Farm

Electric Fence Blocking Access to the Farm

Electric Fence Blocking Access to the Farm

There is some good information on the history of the area and some interesting photos posted on the website of a farm which is on (or adjacent to?) the NRMA, the Jehovah-Jireh Farm.  The website of the farm is interesting, as well, for the story of how the family came to be the curators of the property, which they say is a lifetime sinecure provided by the State of Maryland.  Very interesting system.  You will definitely come upon their farm if you do much hiking in the NRMA.  On the above map one of the trails is marked with green “fence” icons and labeled as “electric fence.” It runs along the side of the electric fence, posted with warning signs, that keeps you from crossing over into the Jehovah-Jireh Farm.


There are a few sites nearby that are worth checking out if you are at the Monocacy NRMA.  All of these locations are marked in the gdb file.

Rocky Point Creamery

As noted above, the Creamery is a fun place to stop for a cone after a hike in the NRMA.  It is only about five minutes from the Monocacy NRMA parking lot.

Point of Rocks

Just beyond the Creamery, lies the small unincorporated community of Point of Rocks.  It’s worth checking out for its attractive train station, built for the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad in 1876.  The station now serves as the Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC) train stop, but the building is used for storage and offices and is not open to the public.  Still, it’s worth seeing.  The actual “point of rocks” for which the town is named, is the rock formation which protrudes into the water gap which the Potomac has carved through the Catoctin Mountain.  It is just north of the bridge over the Potomac, and is best viewed from the other side of the river.

The Monocacy Aqueduct

The aqueduct is the largest of the eleven aqueducts built for the C&O Canal.  It has been called “one of the finest canal features in the United States.”  It has been fully restored to its original state.  It is built, in part, from stone quarried from the Monocacy NRMA (see above) and carried to the site on the railroad.  It is definitely worth a stop, as it really is a beautiful piece of early American history.  It is only a five minute drive from the NRMA parking lot (but in the opposite direction from the Creamery and Point of Rocks).

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