Maryland's Big Savage Mountain

Heavy forests and the roar of whitewater wait in this section of the Appalachian Mountains.
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Heavy forests and the roar of whitewater wait in this section of the Appalachian Mountains.

Little-Known Fact: Savage River State Forest was the site of the 1989 World Whitewater Championships.

Scrambling south along the 17-mile spine of Big Savage Mountain, I wade through streams of withered leaves that flood the trail. The rattling fall canopy of airborne leaves blocks the sun's warmth and traps the moist, earthy smell of the forest below it.

About seven miles along the ridge, I venture off the trail for a vista of Elbow Mountain and Blue Hick Hollow. Behind Meadow Mountain, the sun releases parachutes of red that slowly turn to black. I make camp nearby and dream of red and gold drifting leaves.

In the morning, a ghostly light fills the air. Unzipping the tent door I face a stark and silent whiteness. Three inches of snow lies where only dry leaves lay yesterday.

A set of neatly formed footprints crosses to a snow-laden fir. There a silver fox sits motionlessly beneath the branches. I quickly fumble for my camera, but when I finally turn back, the creature has disappeared. I would have done better to simply watch. A cloudless, robins-egg blue sky silhouettes a red-tailed hawk circling above me, its cry emphasizing the silence and the isolation.

With the wind at my back and a trackless white path ahead, the fiendish tale behind the mountain's name fixes my imagination. An English survey team in the mid-1700s lost its way in these isolated hills of the Allegheny Plateau. In desperation and delirium from lack of food, the group made a grisly decision: to eat the weakest members of the party. Rescued before carrying out its act, the thankful group named the mountain after its first intended victim, John Savage.

Big Savage Mountain is a part of the Appalachian Mountain Range that is frequently overlooked. It's almost hidden in the north-west Maryland panhandle, but is not hard to reach for those who know of it. And it offers a quick retreat for victims of the urban shuffle. Perhaps the visions of hardship that the name suggests keep people away -- and its rugged terrain well-deserves the name -- but all the better for those seeking solitary refuge.

Occasional panoramic views of the Savage River Watershed to the west and Dans Mountain to the east open up the Big Savage Trail, but most of it meanders through heavy forest. The trail is quite rocky, but some sections cross an old logging road that eases the terrain a little.

As I near the northern end of the Big Savage, I hear the whoops and shrieks of kayakers twisting through slalom gates and punching holes in the rapids. One of the steepest rivers in the world, the flood-controlled Savage River drops 85 feet per mile. When the dam lets loose, water gushes at 1,000 cubic feet per second. The Savage River recently dared the world's best paddlers to survive its demolition-derby whitewater during the World Slalom Canoe and Kayak Championships.

With calf muscles aching, I sit on the bank and let the roar of whitewater envelop me. I'll have to come back another day to try the wilder, watery side of Big Savage.

Contact Information:

Maryland Forest, Park and Wildlife Service

Savage River Complex

349 Headquarters Lane

Grantsville, MD 21536
(301) 895-5759

New Germany and Big Run State Parks

Rt. 2

Grantsville, MD 21536

(301) 895-5453

Location:

The Big Savage is on the northwestern border of Maryland, in the Appalachian Plateau Region of Garrett County. It's about 150 miles west of Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and 300 miles west of Philadelphia. This is the birthplace of the Savage and Casselman rivers. Separated by the Continental Divide, each river flows in an opposite direction. Grantsville is 4 miles from park headquarters. Cumberland ((301) 334-1948) and Allegheny County ((301) 722-2820) are also nearby.

Getting There:

No information is available.

Seasonal Information:

Summer hiking can be refreshingly cool. Fall ventures along the Savage may be a chilling experience. Snow can arrive as early as November and may remain as late as early April. Temperature extremes range from -20 in winter to 90 degrees F in summer.

Wildlife:

Diverse wildlife ranges from black bears to brook trout, from great-horned owls to long-tailed salamanders. Mammals include deer, bobcat, raccoon, squirrel, beaver, and bats. There are over 100 species of birds including hawks, owls, grouse, wild turkey, and songbirds. Snakes, turtles, and frogs complete the long list of wildlife.

Insects:

Because of its altitude, the area is relatively free of insect pests.

Plant Life:

Most of the area is red and white oak and hickory, but there is also red maple, ash, sugar and red maple, yellow and black birch, beech, basswood, tulip poplar, and black cherry. Important evergreen species are white pine and hemlock. Mountain azalea and rhododendron provide color.

Facilities:

There is primitive camping by permit; self-register at the office. Primitive campgrounds are located at Elk Lick, Poplar Lick, Savage River Road, and Whitewater. Backpacking is encouraged along Monroe Run and the Big Savage Mountain trails.

Within New Germany and Big Run state parks, there are slightly more developed sites, including sites to accommodate motor homes. New Germany also offers cabins.

Parking:

No information available.

Permits:

Obtain primitive camping permit for $2 from the state park office.

Policies:

Camping is forbidden in the Big Savage Mountain Wildland.

Hazards:

There is no potable water, so bring your own, boil spring water, or use a filter.

Leave No Trace:

All LNT guidelines apply.

Maps:

Maps are available from Maryland Forest Park and Wildlife Service.

Other Trip Options:

Running through the area, the Savage River is one of the steepest rivers in the world, dropping 85 feet per mile.