Catoctin Mountain Park | ORANGE TRAIL NORTH LOOP HIKE

Orange Trail North Loop Hike map (click to enlarge)

Orange Trail North Loop Hike map (click to enlarge)

Length:  5.5-mile loop
Time:  2.5 hours
Difficulty: mainly easy, but there are a few short, strenuous hills to climb and some long stretches with moderate climbs on the east side of the loop

The Orange Trail, also known as the Horse Trail, is located on the west side of Catoctin Mountain Park. It runs both north and south of the Owens Creek Campground, and combined with the Catoctin National Recreational Trail, hikers and horseback riders can embark on a very long loop hike that covers the entire west side of the park. I chose to break the hike into two shorter loops, and this report covers the trails north of the campground. See the Orange Trail South Loop Hike review for information on the southern loop.

There are two things you should know about this hike, one of which applies to any hike within Catoctin Mountain Park during the summer. First, be prepared for gnats. I highly advise wearing a hat and mosquito net on your head—I had one in my bag just by chance. I saw dozens of people with mosquito nets during my four-day visit, so it appears that the locals know to come prepared.

Second, for those on horseback, think twice about riding on the Orange Trail. I encountered at least a half dozen downed trees that horses are not getting over, under, or around. Some of the trees had fungus growing on them, which indicates they may have been there for a while. The campground host told me that nobody hikes the trails on the west side of Catoctin Mountain Park, which means very little maintenance dollars are sent this way. Perhaps I visited on a bad day. Perhaps the trees were removed shortly after my visit. Perhaps. Regardless, I wouldn’t ride a horse on the Orange Trail without first consulting with park Rangers about the condition of the trail (and it is doubtful even they would know since most likely none of them have been on the trail in recent times).

I began the Orange Trail North Loop Hike at Campsite 30 at Owens Creek Campground on what is technically called the Deerfield Nature Trail, a hikers-only trail. I was camping at Owens Creek and thus walked from my campsite. Non-campers can park just outside the campground entrance and walk in.

Horseback riders obviously cannot start from the campground, but instead must begin at the horse trailer parking lot across the street from the Camp Greentop entrance and take the Orange Trail from there. When approaching the campground, the Orange Trail runs parallel to the Deerfield Nature Trail, but on the other side of Owens Creek. Horseback riders are essentially doing the north and south loops as one, which makes perfect sense if you are riding and not walking.

Campsite 30 trailhead for the Deerfield Nature Trail at Catoctin Mountain Park

Campsite 30 trailhead for the Deerfield Nature Trail at Catoctin Mountain Park

The Deerfield Nature Trail is marked with yellow triangular blazes, which are paint splotches on trees and rocks that you follow like Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs so that you don’t get lost. The trail is easy with a few moderate hills and has a surface that is pretty smooth as far as Catoctin Mountain Park trails go, which tend to be very rocky. It runs for .4 mile, at which point it dead ends into the Orange Trail. Take a right to head north (which is where this hike is heading) or left to head south. For more details, see the Deerfield Nature Trail review here on National Park Planner.

Typical terrain of the Deerfield Nature Trail at Catoctin Mountain Park

Typical terrain of the Deerfield Nature Trail at Catoctin Mountain Park

Once on the Orange Trail you have a steep uphill climb for about 350 feet, then a moderate climb for another .2 mile before the terrain somewhat levels out at the top of the hill. From there to the next intersection a quarter mile away, there are some hills, but in most cases you won’t even notice them. What is of more concern are the overgrown sections of the trail. At one point I was in a thicket of small trees and bushes, and I don’t see anyone high up on horseback getting through without taking a beating. Even when it’s not overgrown, the trail is narrow, so you will be brushing up against greenery for most of the way. Ticks live in the vegetation low to the ground, so there is plenty of opportunity to pick up a hitchhiker. Be sure to check the fronts of your legs often. Also, poison ivy is prevalent in the park. Because of this, I highly suggest wearing long pants. For the record, I did not pick up a tick or get a case of poison ivy.

Typical terrain on the first section of the Orange Trail North Loop Hike at Catoctin Mountain Park

Typical terrain on the first section of the Orange Trail North Loop Hike at Catoctin Mountain Park

Typical terrain on the first section of the Orange Trail North Loop Hike at Catoctin Mountain Park

Typical terrain on the first section of the Orange Trail North Loop Hike at Catoctin Mountain Park

It was along this stretch of the Orange Trail that I came across the first of many downed trees. A horse might be able to get over this one, but others on the trail were chest high. I could limbo under them but a horse could not. But remember, these trees may well be cleared by the time you visit (and there may well be more to take their place).

Downed trail on the Orange Trail at Catoctin Mountain Park

Downed trail on the Orange Trail at Catoctin Mountain Park

The intersection with the Catoctin National Recreational Trail comes one mile into the hike. Horses are permitted on this part of the trail, but not on the segment south of Park Central Road. A directional sign is at the intersection. The Orange Trail North Loop Hike takes the long way around, which is HORSE TRAIL LONG LOOP on the sign, so head in that direction (left turn). Turn right if you want the quickest way back to the campground.

Western intersection of the Orange Trail and Catoctin National Recreational Trail within Catoctin Mountain Park

Western intersection of the Orange Trail and Catoctin National Recreational Trail within Catoctin Mountain Park

The hike is uphill for the next .4 mile. There is one very short climb that is moderate in difficulty, but as with the previous section of the hike, the rest of the ascent is barely noticeable. The trail is much wider and in better condition, which is probably due to it being a “National Recreational” trail maintained by volunteer organizations, not some Catoctin Mountain Park trail that nobody cares about. The trail is marked with orange and blue blazes, blue being the color of the Catoctin National Recreational Trail.

Typical terrain on the Catoctin National Recreational Trail near the northern trailhead at Catoctin Mountain Park

Typical terrain on the Catoctin National Recreational Trail near the northern trailhead at Catoctin Mountain Park

At the end of the .4-mile ascent, the trail comes to a T-intersection (1.4 miles from the start). This is the northern trailhead for the Catoctin National Recreational Trail. The southern trailhead is 27 miles to the south at Gambrill State Park. A short ways down the trail to the left is a small, gravel parking lot on Mt. Zion Road. To continue around the Orange Trail Loop, take a right. At this point the trail follows what appears to be an old road, and at some points the grass between the tire tracks is a little tall.

Orange Trail at the intersection with the Catoctin National Recreational Trail's northern trailhead in Catoctin Mountain Park

Orange Trail at the intersection with the Catoctin National Recreational Trail’s northern trailhead in Catoctin Mountain Park

This stretch of the hike lasts about a mile before coming to the next intersection. The condition of the trail switches between well groomed and overgrown a number of times, and the farther you go, the rockier the trail surface gets. After .2 mile you’ll be heading downhill, but again, the slope is barely noticeable. Overall it is an easy stretch of trail to hike.

Typical terrain of the stretch of the Catoctin Mountain Park's Orange Trail near the northern trailhead for the Catoctin National Recreational Trail

Typical terrain of the stretch of the Catoctin Mountain Park’s Orange Trail near the northern trailhead for the Catoctin National Recreational Trail

Rocky section on the stretch of the Catoctin Mountain Park's Orange Trail near the northern trailhead for the Catoctin National Recreational Trail

Rocky section on the stretch of the Catoctin Mountain Park’s Orange Trail near the northern trailhead for the Catoctin National Recreational Trail

Just before coming to the next intersection (.6 mile from the last turn) is a side trail that leads to two Adirondack-style shelters just like the ones along the Appalachian Trail. These are available for camping (reservations required, see the Adirondack Shelters web page here on National Park Planner for details). The shelters have three closed sides and one open side. Campers can just toss their sleeping bags on the floor, though with all the gnats, and possibly mosquitoes at other times of the year, camping out in the open is the last place I’d want to be during the summer.

Adirondack Shelter at Catoctin Mountain Park

Adirondack Shelter at Catoctin Mountain Park

When you reach the intersection, which is directly at the second Adirondack shelter, you have the choice to continue straight or turn to the right. If you continue straight, you’ll eventually end up on the paved Raven Rock Park Road. To continue the hike around the Orange Trail, take a right. You’ll see a HORSE sign, and a little farther down you’ll see an Orange blaze on a tree.

Orange Trail just east of the Adirondack Shelters at Catoctin Mountain Park

Orange Trail just east of the Adirondack Shelters at Catoctin Mountain Park

At this point you are at the far end of the loop and are now beginning the hike back towards the Owens Creek Campground. The area around the shelters is forested, but open with very little brush on the ground. However, as you continue south, the Orange Trail gradually becomes narrower, and you’ll soon be back in brushy terrain. At one point the trail was so overgrown that I had to check my GPS to make sure I was heading in the right direction.

Narrow section of the Orange Trail southeast of the Adirondack shelters at Catoctin Mountain Park

Narrow section of the Orange Trail southeast of the Adirondack shelters at Catoctin Mountain Park

The hike to the next intersection is approximately 1.5 miles. Half of the journey is downhill and the other half uphill, and the uphill section is a little steeper than the hills you have encountered up to this point—the climb is somewhere between moderate and strenuous. Referencing the trail map, the hill comes at the point where the trail starts to zig-zag, which is essentially a section of switchbacks. The habitat changes constantly. One minute you’ll be in the forest on a rocky trail, the next in a field so overgrown with grass and bushes that you can’t even see the trail.

Rocky section of the Orange Trail southeast of the Adirondack shelters at Catoctin Mountain Park

Rocky section of the Orange Trail southeast of the Adirondack shelters at Catoctin Mountain Park

The next intersection comes right around 4.25 miles into the hike. If you recall the intersection earlier where you could make the long or short loop around the Orange Trail, this is where you would come out if you took the short loop. Signs mark the intersection—continue in the direction of the Owens Creek Campground / Catoctin Trail. This section is the Catoctin National Recreational Trail (blue blazes), so expect a better maintained and wider trail.

Catoctin National Recreation Trail north of Owens Creek Campground at Catoctin Mountain Park

Catoctin National Recreation Trail north of Owens Creek Campground at Catoctin Mountain Park

It is 1.25 miles back to the campground from the intersection. Unfortunately, I have no more photos of the trail due to being caught in a thunderstorm. It was so dark in the forest that it seemed like night. Other than a short uphill climb right when you make the turn at the intersection and another one just before you get to the campground road, the hike is downhill. There is one very short-but-steep hill, about the drop of a two-story building. The very last segment of the hike is along the campground road.

There is nothing to recommend about the Orange Trail north of Owens Creek Campground, which is why so few people hike on the west side of Catoctin Mountain Park. The scenery is mundane, and the trail is overgrown in way too many places. And unfortunately due to the number of downed trees, the trail may not even be suitable for those on horseback, which is really what the trail was designed for.

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Last updated on February 2, 2023
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