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How River's Erratic Flow Shaped Land and Its Uses

The Potomac Bottomlands Trail offers a fascinating glimpse into the geologic past of this area. It bears the stamp of the Potomac River, a tireless force of nature whose watery path has shaped the face of western Montgomery County for millions of years. Along its current and past routes are swamps, upland forests, corn fields, and sod farms –diverse regions that reflect the range of soils and topography created by the river and its tributaries.

The scenery is explored in a ten-mile loop trail that starts from an old canal landing set on a mile-wide river terrace; skirts the foot of “redbed” uplands along Old River Road; climbs into a varied topography of oak woods and farm fields, some of them set on ancient river gravels; and descends again to the canal and river at Edwards Ferry. It is a leisurely three-hour bike trip with only one steep grade to climb.

Parking. At Sycamore Landing there is a parking lot next to the C & O Canal. Take River Road to Sycamore Landing Road (4.1 miles from the modern highway bridge at Seneca Creek), turn off, and follow Sycamore Landing Road about 0.8 miles to the canal. There are no stores, restrooms or water at Sycamore Landing, but a National Park Service Hiker-Biker Camp with water and an outhouse is on the towpath a mile down river.

1. Sycamore Landing Area
This was an old canal landing, known to boatmen as “rope harbor.” It is set on a broad terrace where the Potomac has shifted its channel back and forth between River Road and bluffs on the Virginia side to carve a two-mile valley that is prized for its soil fertility.

2. McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area
Because of their fertility and attraction for wildlife, the level fields around the parking lot saw intermittent use and occupation by the Indians, and were intensively farmed during canal days.

From the parking lot, cycle north on Sycamore Landing Road to Horsepen Branch and River Road.

3. Horsepen Branch
You will cross Horsepen Branch in two places: first over a tributary where a former cattail marsh (on the left) has been choked by detritus and is being invaded by willows and again at the second bridge.

4. River Road Intersection
Straight ahead is the red, rutted drive of the old Trundle farmstead, which marks the high water line of the 1972 Agnes flood and the start of the redbed uplands. From here, cycle west (left) on River Road past the intersection of Willard Road to a second set of bridges on Horsepen Branch, where the pavement ends; follow the blacktop road along a shelf at the foot of extensive shale beds to Mt. Nebo Road (about 1.4 miles).

5. Horsepen Branch (again)
A second set of bridges crosses a tributary and then Horsepen Branch again, over swampy ground that features big sycamores on the streambanks.

6. Large Shale Outcrop
This is a nearly barren rock face, on the right about three hundred yards before the intersection of Mt. Nebo Road.

7. Intersection of Mt. Nebo Road
River Road was at one time an Indian path, and later a tobacco rolling road (so named for the rolling of large wooden barrels packed with tobacco along its path).  Mt Nebo Road, named for an old farmstead that was just uphill on the left, is the detour. Land and farm buildings at the intersection are part of the Summit Hall Turf Farm. Go right and up the grade on Mt. Nebo Road.

8. Grade on Mt. Nebo Road
As you travel along the road examine the right side of the road cut for rounded cobblestones mixed with chips of shale bedrock. Potomac “bottomlands” were once a succession of river beds and terraces on the present upland, abandoned by the river as it shifted its channel to the west.

9. Old Fields and Hedgerows (along Mt. Nebo and Offut Roads)
After Indian days, almost all of western Montgomery County was timbered to make way for farms. Where before stood giant old-growth trees such as sycamore along streams, and white oak and hickory on uplands, today you’ll find plants that move in whenever people no longer cultivate the land. Roadside vegetation found along the way is partly the work of songbirds, who perch on fenceposts and telephone wires and sow seeds in their droppings.

At the intersection of Offut Road, which comes in on the right, go straight and follow the pavement around two sharp bends to Edwards Ferry Road, about 0.8 miles from the intersection.

10. Intersection at Offut and Edwards Ferry Roads
The field on the right and the woodlots and road cuts on Edwards Ferry Road are full of large and small cobblestones, rounded and water-stained from having been on the bottom of a river. This is the largest deposit of old riverine material on the trail: Edwards Ferry Road exposes a cross section over a mile wide, including several boulders the size of beach balls.

11. Big Boulder
A sizeable  boulder, made of quartzite rock whose nearest source is probably South Mountain, about 25 miles west, lies in a wood lot just off Edwards Ferry Road near a gate to the Old 99 Farm (on the left, 0.8 miles below Offut Road). Boulders this large may have been carried on ice floes and left in the riverbed when the ice melted.

From here, proceed to a steep grade and down to a “T” intersection where Edwards Ferry Road forks to the left and River Road resumes on the right. For an interesting ten mile side trip turn right on River Road, cycle to Whites Ferry and circle back on the canal towpath. River Road passes through bottomland woods and emerges to skirt large terraces that have been made into sod farms. If you decide against the detour, turn left at the intersection and proceed to the C & O Canal and Lock 25.

12. Edwards Ferry – Lock 25
The lock was made from sandstone blocks cut from the quarries at Seneca. The Potomac River is about one-fourth of a mile wide here. From Edwards Ferry, the trail follows the canal towpath back to Sycamore Landing, a distance of about a three miles.

13. Chisel Branch Hiker-Biker Camp
Water and an outhouse are available, plus a fine view from the shore at the river’s level. Below this point the towpath resumes its position on a shelf above the river, which in summer becomes a path through arching limbs and head-high jewelweed.

14. Summit Hall Turf Farm
About 700 acres of alluvial fields are farmed in three-year cycles of grasses. This and other turf farms on similar terraces above Edwards Ferry supply turf to resod everything from lands cleared for metropolitan area subdivisions to football fields, golf courses, highway medians and recreational areas.

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