When my husband Dean and I hear about a hike that offers incredible panoramas, scenic footbridges, a lake with the bluest water in the state, and hardly a non-photogenic view in sight (that last one is for me), we are all in.
That’s exactly how the Lakeside Loop hike at Rocky Gap State Park is described. Rocky Gap State Park is a 3,000-acre public recreation area in Flintstone, Maryland. The Lakeside Loop is a 5.3-mile hiking trail that encircles the beautiful 243-acre Lake Habeeb. Located in the western “Mountain Side of Maryland,” this hike lives up to its reputation.
Here are my top tips to get the most from this hike.
1. Arrive Early
Once again, being early risers worked to our advantage. We got to the park at 8:45 a.m., ready to go. As a result, we had a private hike for the first hour or so.
Pro Tip: This is common sense hiking, but be sure to bring water and a snack or trail mix with you. This hike is longer than five miles, so you might need a refreshment.
2. Stop By The Visitor Center
If you are fortunate, when you go to the visitor center at 8:45 a.m. and find out they don’t open until 9:00 a.m., a kind park ranger will open the door to ask if he can help you. We asked him if there were any conditions (muddy, washouts, etc.) on the Lakeside Loop that we should know about. There weren’t, so we grabbed a map and set out.
3. Ignore The Casino
We read online ahead of time that Rocky Gap Casino Resort (privately owned) makes its home on the shores of Lake Habeeb, so we weren’t surprised to see it (but frankly, it’s still a little jarring). To us, it seemed out of place. To their credit, it wasn’t gaudy or obnoxiously lit up (of course, we were there during the day) and the design blended, as best it could, into the surroundings.
Early in the hike, we could hear the casino music blaring and it did detract somewhat from the setting, but soon we were out of earshot and natural sounds trumped the casino noise.
4. Get Your Bearings
We chose to do the hike clockwise, so we got the less desirable (to us) casino views out of the way first. We started at the visitor center, walked to the beach, and took the path west, following the orange blaze marked trail, around the lake.
Pro Tip: The Lakeside Loop is a moderate hike, which means encountering some narrow paths, roots, and rocks. We also had one flooded, but very shallow footbridge to cross. I think this hike is rated “moderate” mostly because of the length. Also, this is black bear country, so remember common tips as you hike.
5. Notice The Sparkling Sun
This is the good that comes from an early-morning hike. The sunlight glinted on American lotus (I thought they were lily pads at first) like diamonds, transforming them from common and ordinary to something truly radiant and special.
6. Enjoy The Expansive Lake Views
The description is right. As you hike around this lake, there’s hardly a non-photogenic view, and I took full advantage of it. We happened to have a picture-perfect day, which didn’t hurt either!
7. Reflect While Sitting On A Bench
If you need a breather or a snack, take a break and enjoy one of the park benches along the way. Dean suggested this might be a place where folks who spent too much time at the casino consider the state of their new financial situation.
8. The Tuscarora Sandstone Gorge
While other softer forms of rock, like limestone and shale, have eroded over time, a sign at this spot on the hike told us that the hardness of Tuscarora sandstone makes it resistant to erosion, which is why there’s such a magnificent gorge at Rocky Gap.
9. Enjoy A Picnic Lunch At The Gazebo
We finished our hike before lunch, but if your timing works, this gazebo is a great spot to enjoy a picnic lunch that you carry in. This is in the same area as the gorge, so there are plenty of great views here.
10. Don’t Be Fooled By The View
The lake is curvy and full of inlets and bays. More than once as we hiked along, I was convinced we were at the halfway point because it looked like we were straight across from the visitor’s center. More than once, I was wrong. Around the next bend in the trail was another bend, and then yet another bend. There are no shortcuts on this 5.3-mile hike — unless you are up for a swim.
11. Appreciate The Variety On The Trail
Parts of the trail are along a sidewalk (the part by the casino), some are dirt paths and narrow, there are a few mild inclines, and other parts are over footbridges. There’s a lot to love, but here are two of my favorite parts of the trail.
Walking Through A Cathedral Of Trees
I loved two distinct areas on the northeast side of the lake that formed a veritable “cathedral of pine trees.” The trail here was cushioned with fallen pine needles and the trees towered overhead. It’s a regal feeling to walk in this space. Spectacular.
Hike Among Orange Mushrooms
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cluster of orange mushrooms, much less on a hiking trail. Web research told me they are (appropriately) called the Eastern American Jack ‘O Lantern variety. I’m sure this is a seasonal thing, but I loved seeing this bright splash of unusual color on the trail.
12. Note The Gorgeous Trees And Plants
We saw a mix of curious, beautiful trees and plants on this hike. Chestnut trees, hemlocks, rhododendron, mountain laurel, and grapevines. Thanks to the free Seek app by iNaturalist, I can tell you we saw common jewelweed (orange and yellow cone flowers), reddening lepiota (white and brown spotted mushrooms), and wild teasel (brown cone shapes) that were past flowering but still fascinating and lovely.
13. Watch The Wildlife
We saw ducks on the lake at various points in our hike, and it was calming to watch them float and feed. We also saw these beautiful orange butterflies (the Seek app tells me they are Great Spangled Fritillary). They were fun to watch, and we were surprised at how close they would let us get without flying away.
14. Try Your Hand At Fishing
A sign told us that Lake Habeeb is home to brown trout, rainbow trout, channel catfish, largemouth bass, and smallmouth bass. On our hike, we saw a fishing pier at the far west end of the lake and a couple of fishermen angling from shore on the eastern side.
15. Hike On Canyon Overlook Trail
Feeling ambitious? Take the Canyon Overlook Trail one-quarter of a mile up to an expansive canyon view at the southwest end of the park. We were expecting the canyon to display more of the Tuscarora sandstone we had seen earlier, but instead, it was heavily wooded. We imagined in a few weeks, it would be resplendent with fall color.
Pro Tip: The Canyon Overlook Trail doesn’t intersect with the Lakeside Loop Trail. We drove to a separate trailhead to hike this trail.
Other Outdoor Options At Rocky Gap
Play A Round Of Golf
If hiking is not your thing, the Rocky Gap Golf Course might be. Play 18 holes in a serene, mountain and lakeside environment (minus the casino). This is Maryland’s only Jack Nicklaus Design Golf Course. Rent clubs and enjoy this 7,000-yard, par 72 course that features a 50-spot driving range and two putting greens and chipping areas.
Water Sports Equipment
The visitor center rents equipment including canoes, kayaks, and stand-up paddle (SUP) boards. The day we were there, we saw several kayaks on the lake, as well as a couple of people enjoying SUPs.
The Beauty Of Maryland
Maryland is famous for big-city Baltimore, Chesapeake Bay, the military renown of Annapolis, and blue crab deliciousness, but Rocky Gap State Park, on “The Mountain Side of Maryland,” has a lot to offer. What a beautiful and varied state! The hikes around beautiful Lake Habeeb and up to the Canyon overlook are a wonderful way to enjoy the natural beauty of this amazing area.
Pro Tip: There is a day-use admission fee to access Rocky Gap State Park.