Little Bennett Regional Park
Friday, November 25, 2016 11:30 pm
Location: Little Bennett Regional Park (12.3 miles)

My third outing with MAHG was a bit closer to home, this time at the Little Bennett Regional Park in northwestern Montgomery County. With the temperature in the low 50s and a cloudy, overcast sky (and no wind!), it was a good day for a hike — especially to burn off some Thanksgiving dinner calories.

As usual, the group attending met shortly before 10 am at a parking lot near a trailhead. This time, though, we had two people that cancelled, no doubt due to eating too much turkey yesterday!

Our hike today started at the Kingsley parking area, and briefly followed the Western Piedmont trail, which forms the backbone of the trails on the north side of Little Bennett Creek, before crossing the. Once on the other side of the creek, we turned onto the “Mound Builder” trail, apty named for the Allegheny Mound Ants that make their home there, with dozens of several-foot-tall ant mounds in the woods surrounding the spur trail. I took some photos, but the pictures didn’t really do justice to the size of the anthills.

Leaving the anthills behind, we turned north onto the Bennett Ridge trail, and then west onto the Woodcock Hollow trail, eventually reaching an intersection with the Antler Ridge trail marked with a sign pole that had fallen down, laying across the trail.

Unfortunately, our hike leader had not previously hiked in this park before, the map he was using was old and rather poorly designed, and the directions seemingly contradictory with what we had encountered, so it seemed unclear exactly which way we needed to go. Continuing straight seemed the best course of action; worst case, we could just double back if it took us someplace unexpected.

The trail eventually led us to a road and parking loops for the park’s car campground. Following the road brought us past a (closed for the season) restroom and a portapotty, so we stopped for a short break. While stopped, I remembered that I had, at some point in the past, downloaded a copy of the park’s trail map from its website. I was able to bring it up, and by comparing the GPS traces the hike leader and I had been making, we were able to clearly figure out what we did wrong. (We should have turned onto the Antler Ridge trail at the intersection with the downed sign, which would have taken a wider path through the park, eventually bringing us to the restrooms, or further down the road depending on where exactly we went.)

Our bearings and path more clear, we followed the road to the Stoneybrook trail, which led us north, eventually to a trail intersection with a “Trail Closed” sign. Unsurprisingly, the (now clearly old and outdated) directions for the hike were for us to take that closed trail.

The trail was closed for a reason, though, so rather than blazing our own path through the forest over a clearly unmaintained trail, we improvised, setting out to return to the parking lot and taking a different trail to our next destination. The Stoneybrook trail brought us to the Wilson Mill trail, which would lead to the road our parking lot was on; I suggested instead turning continuing on Stoneybrook until it intersected with the trail that brought us to the Mound Builder trail, and we retraced steps, leading us back to the parking lot the same way we started the hike.

From the parking lot, our next stop was to the Kingsley Schoolhouse, a 19th-century one-room schoolhouse. After a three-quarter mile hike down a relatively straight and gradually inclined trail that also served as a bike path, we arrived at the schoolhouse, with sat, fenced in, in a small field on the other side of a creek. A number of picnic tables were arranged between the trail and the creek, so we stopped there for a lunch break.

Roughly half of the hike so far had been on hard-packed or gravel trails, and I’d wound up carrying my trekking poles for most of it, rather than actually using them. (The ground was far too hard for the poles to have any chance at penetrating the ground, so all I’d accomplish by using my poles would have been to wear out the tips.) This hadn’t been too much of an inconvenience so far, since the trails were mostly clear and level.

The Purdum trail that we followed from leaving the picnic area, though, wound up being the steepest section of trail so far that day, and because the trail was (somewhat deteriorated) asphalt, not wanting to use my poles there was an annoyance. Fortunately, the particularly steep section only lasted about two-tenths of a mile, and once we passed a hike-in campground with a few very well developed fire pits (complete with concentric rings of benches), the trail turned back into dirt.

We continued to weave our way through the woods of the northern section of the park, occasionally having to contend with confusing intersections that didn’t appear to line up with our maps. We also had to get off the trail once to allow a pair of horses and their riders to pass, and several times so bike riders could pass us.

We eventually reached the Tobacco Barn trail, which climbed to the high point of the day and took us past the ruins of an old tobacco barn adjacent to a large open field.

Following the trail alongside the field and then back into the woods, we passed by a couple of private residences and what appeared to be the old, abandoned, ruins of a log cabin.

After crossing a stream, the trail eventually reached the edge of the ridge, and from there, only a few hundred feet away, we could see the parking lot and our cars. However, we were over a hundred feet in elevation higher, so while we could have shuffled down a very steep hill, blazing our own trail, the trail took us about half a mile out of the way via more gradual switchbacks, eventually taking us back to the Western Piedmont trail that would take us back to our cars.

Despite the confusion in finding the proper path, the trail closure, and the resulting detours, the hike today wound up being the 12 miles it was advertised to be. (Though I’m not sure I’d agree with the “moderate to strenuous” designation. It seemed “moderate” at best.) I wish our hike leader had been able to have hiked the route beforehand so we weren’t figuring things out as we went along, but we (mostly) got everywhere we were meant to be, and he did the best he could with what he had.

The hike description also advertised 4,000 ft of elevation change, which I had misread to mean 4,000 ft of elevation gain. It appears as though the hike had about 3,500 ft of total elevation change (probably only slightly shortened due to our reroutes), so with only about 1,725 ft of elevation gain, the hike wound up being significantly easier than I had been expecting.

I need a bit more of a challenge. I’m attending a 7.5 mile hike through wetlands on Sunday (so I can’t imagine that will be very difficult, though it’ll certainly be a nice change of scenery). That “very strenuous” 12 mile hike in Shenandoah next weekend is looking much more attractive now...