From the placid farmland of the Eastern Shore to the cliffs and mountains of its western counties, Maryland prides itself on the ever-changing, often rugged beauty of its state park system.
On 3,000 acres of public park land in the town of Flintstone, Md., Rocky Gap in the western panhandle of Allegany County is the perfect location for lovers of spectacular fall foliage. In the mountainous terrain surrounding the park and around its 240-acre Lake Habeeb, the variety of trees and wildflowers appear as brilliant gemstones in a setting of bright blue sky.
These trees are found all over individual camping areas called loops with each loop being named for a specific genus – ash, birch, chestnut, dogwood, elm, fir, hickory and ironwood.
“One of my favorite loops in the park is the Ironwood (that) creates such bright yellow leaves,” noted Sarah Milbourne, ranger and park manager. “When the season slows down, it’s so pleasant to look out over the water.”
Slowing down is a relative term, as these days Rocky Gap brings almost as many foliage spectators in fall as in summer by its lake.
There are 278 individual campsites in the park, 30 of them equipped with electric hook-ups. Dumping areas and hot-water bathhouses are located in each loop. Additionally, the park boasts 15 mini cabins scattered around the campground, each accommodating four to six people. Those who like group camping will find a large site with electric hookups and room for 40 people.
Many visitors choose to relax at their site, gazing at the lake and colorful falling leaves, while others take full advantage of the park’s attractions such as an aviary, nature center, playground and a private beach. A Snack Shak, camp store and playground are just a few of the park’s amenities. Canoes and kayak rentals are also available, as are stand up paddleboard rentals.
Then there are the visitors who embrace all the excitement the three mountain trails offer. The first is called the Lakeside Loop. This winds around the periphery of the lake, which totals a reasonably flat 5.5 miles and showcases a multitude of fall colors reflected in the water.
“Those who can’t make the whole walk can call the rangers’ office and be picked up,” Milbourne explained.
The mountain trail is a fairly hefty hike in the area with a rock “hop down” from the trailhead into a mile-long gorge that is filled with magnificent rhododendron and hemlock. The climber notices a drop in temperature here, which can be quite a relief from summer’s heat. A quick climb to the top of the mountain and a walk along the Mason-Dixon Line rewards the hiker with an incredible view of fusing colors much like those of an impressionistic painting.
Finally, the Canyon Overlook, considered an intermediate hike, takes no longer than 10 to 15 minutes. Not even a mile long, it is considered one of the very best places to enjoy the spectacular view.
There will be those who wish to take advantage of the day-use area and visitor center only. Amenities, amid this beautifully rustic landscape, include a men’s and women’s bathhouse, picnic tables with grills, a playground, pavilion, and beach, along with boat rentals.
“Some people come specifically to see the Sunflower Yard (that) blooms in late summer and early fall,” said Brittany Wandless, a seasonal park ranger. “We’ve had people travel upwards of four to six hours to get to our day area.”
Rangers, both full- and part-time, walk around the park checking that all is as it should be.
“People approach me to say how much they love the park,” Wandless continued. “This gives me a burst of energy for the rest of the day!”
This is as it should be – to coincide with the burst of autumn’s multi-colored magnificence.
For more information on Rocky Gap Park, reservations, park hours and maps, visit rockygap.statepark.