June 2006: Sugarloaf Mountain


Dickerson, Maryland

A free-standing mountain that dominates the surrounding landscape is always captivating. You are driving along in flat farmlands and suddenly, bang, there it is, like an escapee from the nearest mountain range twenty miles away. That is exactly what happened to Gordon Strong back in 1902 on a bicycle trip west of Washington, D.C. when he saw Sugarloaf - so named because it is said to have resembled loaves of sugar to early settlers.

Strong was in A position to act on his fascination. A wealthy Chicago businessman, he and his wife Louise began acquiring tracts of land on the mountain to preserve it for the enjoyment of the public. In 1924 he consulted with Frank Lloyd Wright to construct a monument of a building on the summit that would be an automobile destination for tourists. The legendary architct designed an innovative spiral building that would complement the twisting road but Strong ultimately rejected the plan in favor of a traditional park. Wright didn't let his sketches go to waste - he used them as the foundation for the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

During the Franklin Roosevelt administration Interior Secretary Harold Ickes tried to purchase Sugarloaf as a Presidential retreat but Strong - a Republican - would not sell and the search moved to what would become Camp David to the northwest. Instead Gordon Strong set up a private foundation, Stronghold, to manage the mountain for the enjoyment of the public - free of charge. A rare gift indeed. 

Geologists call Sugarloaf a monadnock, a mountain that stands alone, made of tougher stuff than the land that erodes around it. Here that hard rock is quartzite that has survived 14 million years relatively intact.

How would you like to enjoy the views and forests of Sugarloaf Mountain with your dog.? Just about any way you can think of has been anticipated. the canine hiker who is looking for a long ramble around the mountain before heading to the top there are three mostly concentric routes available at different elevations. The longest, typically reserved for equestrians and mountain bikers, is the Saddleback Horse Trail at seven miles. The popular Northern Peaks Trail, marked in blue is a good workout that leaves the casual visitors at the overlooks and covers five miles. Closest to the summit is the white-blazed Mountain Loop Trail that gains about 400 feet in elevaion across 2.5 miles.

None of these hiking loops actually reach the 1,282-foot summit; that is left to short - but steep - trails from the overlooks. Of the trio of trails that tag the top of Sugarloaf Mountain the A.M. Thomas Trail is the easiest (it uses stone steps) and the Sunrise Trail the steepest; it goes almost straight up in places and your dog's four-wheel drive will come in handy across near-vertical rocks. You may even need to supply some steadying support.

Unless you are a guest you can't stop and admire Strong Mansion or its neighbor, Westwood, but you can drive s-l-o-w-l-y past on your way off the mountain. 

Follow Route I-270 South to the Hyattstown exit, follow Route 109 to Comus, then right on Comus Road to the Stronghold entrance.