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The Paul Sarbanes Trail: a hidden gem in Western Maryland

Nearly 40 years ago, the Army Corps of Engineers built a massive earthen dam on the North Branch of the Potomac River that created a 952-acre lake at the zig-zag border of Maryland and West Virginia. Filled with some 10 million cubic yards of earth and rock, the dam rises almost 300 feet from the lake bottom, and the lake stretches more than six miles into the forested countryside. The little town of Shaw, on the West Virginia side, was evacuated and inundated in the creation of the lake.

Authorized by Congress and completed in 1981, the dam is a wonder of engineering, running more than 2,100 feet across the remote river valley where Maryland’s Garrett County and West Virginia’s Mineral County meet. Officially, the project was for flood management, but the lake is also used today for recreation by boaters, bathers and anglers. There are boat launches on both the Maryland and West Virginia sides.

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In 1987, the lake was named for Jennings Randolph, a Democratic senator from West Virginia who served in Congress from the time of Franklin Roosevelt into the mid-1980s. Randolph died in 1998. His name appears prominently in the stone entranceway to the dam off Walnut Bottom Road in Swanton, on the Maryland side.

But while Randolph gets top billing at the lake, the name of one of his peers from Maryland appears on one of the dam’s most pleasant and under-appreciated features.

From the crest, there is a hiking trail named for Paul Sarbanes, the former Democratic senator from Baltimore who served in Congress from 1971 until 2007.

The Paul Sarbanes River Access Trail leads from a gravel parking area at the dam to the banks of the North Branch in the valley below. The trail is just a bit more than a mile long but seems longer because little of it is flat. And the hike seems twice as long coming back as going down.

At the start, the trail is a wide, mowed path through a sloping meadow and over a couple of small, wooden footbridges. Except for the occasional sound of a truck or the distant whine of power tools up at the dam, the descent into the valley is silent and even a little mysterious. It is not a high-traffic trail, but it offers a peaceful walk through diverse terrain and a challenging return trip.

The mowed trail continues into a forest, where, out of the sun, a summer hiker will feel the air temperature drop instantly and significantly. Through the woods of tall oak, gum and maple, a hiker will find one of the footbridges over a dry ditch and, from there, the trail opens into the sunlight again. That is about where the final descent to the river begins.

Thousands of wildflowers — electric-purple ironweed and yellow wingstem — adorn both sides of the trail. On Labor Day, the stalks were high and thick, and the colors stunning. Pollinators were all over the plants, working nonstop to take advantage of the late-summer blooms.

Over another footbridge, past a grove of black walnut trees and back to the mowed path, the Sarbanes trail reaches a place where the hiker can see the steady outflow from the dam, a water tunnel built into a vast gray man-made hill, a strange sight midst the wild surroundings.

The hike finishes at a spot along the North Branch with a helpful sign that says, “End of trail.” At that point, the river is a series of white-water riffles and long, blue-green pools. The air is cool, and the only sound is the rushing water. The setting is so tranquil, a hiker’s biggest challenge is turning to face the all-uphill of the trail back to the dam.

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