5 scramble hikes for adventurous families

Hikes that scramble over rocks, around boulders and through crevices can be some of the most adventurous and fun for kids, and there are several in the Maryland-Virginia area worth exploring.

Scramble Hikes billy goat copy WMike Strzelecki loves hiking with his kids, but he finds scramble hikes especially fun.

“It’s sort of nature’s play,” the Catonsville resident says of hikes that require climbing up rocks and over boulders. “It’s more tactile than just walking through the woods.”

Because scramble hikes add an element of adventure, kids are more likely to be willing to hit the trails, says Strzelecki, who is the author of “Urban Hikes In and Around Baltimore.” These types of hikes are also more likely to have waterfalls, streams or overlooks that keep it interesting.

“I think the key is you want to get your children involved in nature early and often,” Strzelecki says. “You want them to climb over rocks and stuff ... to make it fun and not a trudge.”

If you are thinking about taking the family on a scramble hike, keep in mind they often require effort and stamina, and can be treacherous for young children, according to Sally Hurlbert, a ranger for Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Having enough water and snacks and proper footwear are especially important for rigorous scramble hikes, adds Linzy French, assistant to the superintendent for the C&O Canal National Historic Park.

“When there’s uneven terrain and you’re hopping from boulder to boulder, you have to have good balance and proper footwear,” French says.

Several scramble hikes in the area offer challenging climbs, beautiful overlooks and plenty of thrills for both kids and adults. Check our list of hikes, recommended by area hiking experts and park rangers. Be sure to consider the distance and difficulty before heading out.

Billy Goat Trail A, C&O Canal National Historic Park

This popular trail, accessed from the C&O Canal towpath near Great Falls, Md., offers great views of the Potomac River and a challenging rock scramble, says Heather Connellee, author of “Best Easy Day Hikes Baltimore.”

Park at the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center, head down the C&O Canal towpath (going downstream), cross a bridge and follow the towpath for about a mile. Signs will indicate the entrance to the Billy Goat Trail A — the most popular of the trail's three sections.

The trail includes a 40-foot cliff along the Mather Gorge where hikers must find a way up (or down, depending on the direction they are hiking). A section called “Pothole Alley” has large boulders and jagged rocks that hikers navigate over and around.

French recommends taking the trail from the visitor center as opposed to starting from the Anglers parking area. “I find that easier, especially if you’re afraid of heights,” she says.

Because of the difficulty of the trail, the hike could take two to three hours to complete. French doesn't recommend it for children younger than 8, but parents should judge their children’s abilities.

“The Billy Goat’s great,” French says. “You can’t beat the scenery.”

Trailhead location: Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center, 11710 MacArthur Boulevard, Potomac
Difficulty: Strenuous
Trail Distance: 1.75 miles; the entire Billy Goat Trail is 4.75 miles; to hike the A section and loop back via the towpath is 3.7 miles.
Distance from Annapolis: about 45 minutes
Cost: $10 per car
nps.gov/choh/planyourvisit/upload/GF-Map-Page-1.pdf
nps.gov/choh/upload/Billy-Goat-Trail-A-Tips-Access.pdf

Scramble Hikes Cat Rock WBob’s Hill and Cat Rock, Cunningham Falls State Park

This challenging hike consists of two separate major rock scrambles. Though the entire hike is 9 miles total out and back, hikers can turn around after the initial climb to the overlook at Bob’s Hill (although the scrambles are on the Cat Rock section of the hike).

Strzelecki recommends parking at the Bob’s Hill trailhead in the Manor area of Cunningham Falls State Park. The trail climbs 1.5 miles uphill, to the top of Bob’s Hill.

“There is a nice, marked outlook to the right, but an unmarked trail to the left of the lookout leads to a second and more private lookout,” Strzelecki says.

To tackle Cat Rock, a tall rock outcropping with large boulders, continue on the blue Catoctin Trail. Strzelecki recommends using a map of Cunningham Falls State Park to help navigate the way.

“This would be for older kids,” Strzelecki says. He also warns that the hike is best in cooler weather because rattlesnakes are common around Cat Rock in the hotter months.

Also be aware that parts of Cunningham Falls State Park are open to hunting so consider wearing orange and staying in areas popular with other hikers.

Trailhead location: 13102 Catoctin Mountain Highway, Thurmont
Difficulty: strenuous
Trail Distance: 9 total miles up and back
Distance from Annapolis: about 1½ hours
Cost: free
dnr2.maryland.gov/publiclands/Documents/Cunningham_map.pdf

Click next below for more scramble hikes.


Bearfence Rock Scramble, Shenandoah National Park

Short but challenging, the Bearfence Rock Scramble will have kids climbing and crawling. The scramble begins about a quarter mile into a 1.2-mile loop and is about half a mile long.

An overlook with 360-degree views of the mountains and valleys rewards hikers about halfway through the scramble. Make sure to follow the blue blazes to avoid steep drop-offs, according to Hurlbert, the ranger for Shenandoah National Park. The loop finishes along the Appalachian Trail.

“Kids end up loving this hike,” Hurlbert says. “They like to use their hands, their feet and their seat. There’s one little place where they slide down on their bottom.”

Trailhead location: Mile 56.4 on Skyline Drive
Difficulty: Moderate
Trail Distance: 1.2 miles
Distance from Annapolis: about 2 hours
Cost: $20 per car
nps.gov/shen/bearfence.htm

Wolf Rock and Chimney Rock Loop, Catoctin Mountain Park

This wooded trail is considered difficult because of the climb and rough terrain, but kids will love to trek over the rock outcroppings.

Along the 3.3-mile loop hikers can enjoy an overlook with a view of the Catoctin Mountains. It’s best to wait until cooler months to hike this trail because of the prevalence of rattlesnakes and copperheads in the summer.

“Both Wolf Rock and Chimney Rock have rocky areas for kids to climb around on. This is a very popular hike and lovely in the fall and will be crowded,” Strzelecki says.

Trailhead location: Wolf Rock Parking Lot, 14707 Park Central Road, Thurmont. It’s just up the road from the Visitors Center.
Difficulty: Strenuous
Trail Distance: 3.5 miles
Distance from Annapolis: about 1½ hours
Cost: free
nps.gov/cato/planyourvisit/upload/ChimWolfL.pdf

Scramble Hikes Old Rag WOld Rag Circuit Hike, Nethers, Va.

With breathtaking views of Skyline Drive, the Old Rag hike is one of the most popular scramble hikes in the region. The 8.8-mile circuit is challenging, however, and not recommended for small children, Hurlburt says.

Parking is available in a lot a mile or so from the trailhead on Nethers Road. The lot often fills up on fall weekends.

About 2 miles into the trail, hikers will encounter a rock scramble, which continues for about a mile.
“That’s a long time to be scrambling,” Hurlburt says. “People get tired.”

Hurburt warns that there are some difficult spots for kids (and adults) that might require help from a parent. She also stresses the necessity of wearing hiking boots instead of sneakers and taking plenty of water.

Because the hike is popular, the trail “gets outrageously crowded,” on the weekends, Strzelecki says.

“There are sometimes backups of an hour or more at certain places in the boulder field,” he says. “If you depart the trailhead after, say, 7 a.m. on weekends, you will be in the mob.”

One way to avoid the backups is to start the hike via the fire road and hit the trail and rock scramble from the opposite direction.

Trailhead location: Route 600, Nethers Road.
Difficulty: Very challenging
Trail Distance: 8.8 miles
Distance from Annapolis: about 2.5 hours
Cost: $20 per vehicle
nps.gov/shen/planyourvisit/old-rag-hike-prep.htm

By Kristy MacKaben

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