Passport to Nature

Sugarloaf Mountain: A D.C. Escape

Gordon Strong thought there was “transformational power in experiencing a beautiful view."

By Kathryn E. Arion

When I was growing up, my family spent some time every summer hiking throughout New England’s White Mountains, and I easily fell in love with exploring peaks and reaching their summits. I even spent my college years in New Hampshire because of its beautiful wilderness.

Though I have not been back to the Granite State since graduation, I recently found a new haven closer to home: Sugarloaf Mountain in Dickerson, Maryland.

Maryland’s Monadnock

After traveling an hour north of Washington, D.C., I was abruptly surrounded by farmland with a lone knob (a monadnock) rising up in the distance. After winding up the slope of the mountain, Nature Conservancy GLOBE intern Jennifer Sun and I met up with naturalist Melanie Choukas-Bradley. Jennifer had organized this meeting with Melanie to record audio tours about Sugarloaf Mountain, and I tagged along to discover the wonders of this area that the Conservancy helped protect.

In 1950, the Conservancy purchased a 187-acre farm on the eastern slope of the mountain, and two decades later sold it to Stronghold, Incorporated, under the condition that the land would never be developed. With one visit, I could see that Stronghold had stayed true to its word.

The Mountain in Our Backyard

Sugarloaf Mountain has quite the history. It was a Union army lookout station during the Civil War, and then in the 1890s, the mountain’s historical protector, Gordon Strong, stepped in and purchased the land piece by piece to preserve it. Then in the 1920s, Frank Lloyd Wright designed an opulent building to sit upon the top of the mountain that would include restaurants, ballrooms, theaters and more. Fortunately for those of us who enjoy wild nature, Strong cancelled the project. (The design was later used to inspire the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.)

After our introduction to the site, we started our hike on the Green Trail, part of the 15 miles of trails that Sugarloaf Mountain has to offer. Throughout our walk, we stopped at plants that caught Melanie’s eye, from fruitful persimmon trees to the mysterious Indian pipe.

During takes of the audio recordings, I practiced my nature photography, capturing glimpses of spiders in their webs and staring at the tree canopy to catch the sunlight slipping through the leaves.

Everywhere I looked, I saw lush green woods and jutting cliffs that summer camp children were rappelling down. My fingers brushed against what Melanie described as the “pattern of ridges and valleys” on the bark of the chestnut oaks, and the summer breeze was strong enough to make me glad I brought a light jacket.

I heard the call of an Eastern wood pewee in the distance and the incessant trill of cicadas throughout the day. I inhaled deep breaths of fresh air and smelled the wintergreen twigs of black birch around us. And I could not resist tasting some wine berries that were red and ripe, ready to be eaten by the next creature (animal or human) that passed by.

The Woman Who Wrote the Book on Sugarloaf Mountain

As much as I was in awe of the nature around us, I was equally enamored with Melanie’s stories. Her way with words beckoned my ears to listen, as she described wildflowers as “bodacious” and milkweed plants as “airports for butterflies.” She even talked about the chestnut oak as a “prolific producer of acorns,” joking that hikers may want to wear hard hats to protect themselves from the falling nuts.

Melanie’s interpretation of the nature around us reminded me of the mountain’s Civil War past. She talked about the American chestnut trees as if they were an army that “didn’t give up” after a blight “marched down” and decimated the species’ population in the eastern United States. The seeds of the witch-hazel tree act like cannons that “come flying out explosively” in the fall, Melanie told us.

And millions of years ago, the continents of North America and Africa wrestled as if in battle. This fight created a mountain ridge that included Sugarloaf Mountain, the only “survivor” after long years of wind and rain and other acts of erosion.

Memories Brought to Life

Upon reaching the summit for the West Side view, I was hit with a wave of nostalgia. The farms in the valley, many of which are part of Montgomery County’s agricultural reserve, reminded me of New Hampshire, where I spent so many of my formative years. And I cannot imagine any scene more striking than the intersection where green land, blue sky and gray rock meet.

With the beauty that encircled us, I could see why there was such historical interest in the place, from Frank Lloyd Wright to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR apparently originally wanted Sugarloaf Mountain to be the White House retreat before choosing the current site of Camp David.

Gordon Strong thought there was “transformational power in experiencing a beautiful view”, and I wholeheartedly agree. Places such as Sugarloaf Mountain, and moments like those on the rocks, remind me again and again of why I love nature, and why I want to protect it for years to come.


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