Hiking Greenbriar State Park — Big Red and Rock Oak Fire Trails

Greenbrier State Park, just off  I-70, is another of Maryland’s lovely state parks, and offers public recreation on South Mountain, just 3 miles northeast of Boonsboro in Washington County. The state park offers camping, fishing, a boat ramp, hiking trails, and a 42-acre man-made lake with picnicking areas and a sand beach that is quite popular in the warmer months.

The opportunity to enjoy nature, even in winter when it’s supposedly “dead,” is not to be missed. Hiking in winter allows me to remind myself of the wonder around us. And I get to see nature in new ways — the shape of tree branches silhouetted against a deep blue sky, the contrast between the brown leaves, evergreen mountain laurel and grey rocks… the opportunity for a bit of solitude because fair-weather hikers stay cozy inside.

Winter is my preferred season to hike. The bugs are at a minimum, the air is cooling and fresh. No humidity. And the pleasure of getting out into the sun instead of being cooped up inside is priceless.

The plan was to hike the 4.9 mile Big Red Trail (red blazes), the park’s longest, that takes you through the woods and ends with a pleasant, cooling-off level walk along Greenbriar Lake. It’s inclines and rocky trail causes it to be described alternately as “difficult” or “moderate,” although afterward, in looking at the alltrails.com reviews, the majority of hikers agree that it’s a moderate trail.

Remnants of former residents? An old farm shed or hunting blind?

We parked at the boat ramp — there wasn’t a lot of boating activity so we weren’t taking a spot from a kayaker or fishing boat — and made our way to the trail head kiosk at the treeline.

There’s detailed signage for the Big Red trailhead: you can either continue (left) along the lake or (right) into the woods. We opted for the woods, and that, we believe, was the wise choice.

There was a gradual but easily doable initial incline, which leveled out and then started a descent down the side of the mountain. We noticed the green-blazed Copperhead Trail as we traveled through. Mountain laurel thrive on the mountain slopes — this would be a really pretty hike when the mountain laurel is in bloom!

Leaves frequently covered both the Big Red Trail, which made traveling on it difficult, as it was hard to see the rocky trail — some of the rocks seemed placed with the intent to trip up the unwitting hiker!

Although initially we decided to hike the Big Red Trail, we felt discouraged by the trailhead sign describing it as “difficult.” We headed in anyway, but when we encountered the Rock Oak Fire Trail (royal blue blazes), we turned left onto it, rather than continuing along the Big Red Trail — probably shortening the hike by at least a mile and possibly two miles. The Rock Oak Fire Trail is a 1.5 mile “short cut” that connects two ends of the Big Red Trail, traveling along an old fire road.

The Rock Oak Fire Trail offers a wider path, and presumably because vehicles might be traveling along it — or had at some point — it was easier to walk along, with less trippy rocks jutting up. Once on the Rock Oak Fire Trail, it began heading sideways up the mountain, so there’s still significant elevation gain until you land back on the Big Red Oak Trail.

Once back on the Big Red Oak Trail, we turned left to head back toward the lake, curling left on a fairly steep incline to then follow the ridge of the mountain, making for pleasant walking. Along both trails there was evidence of old farmers’ field stone piles/fences. I wondered whether the park had once been farmed.

Soon enough you come within sight of the lake and then begin a rather steep descent down to it, which made us glad we’d opted to head straight into the woods for the more gradual inclines.

Greenbriar State Park’s trails are easy to navigate with detailed map signage at all the trail intersections. The Big Red Trail is a loop around the park west of the lake, and the Copperhead, Rock Oak Fire, and Snelling Fire trails intersect the bigger loop trail at various points, offering shortcuts or, conversely, opportunities to significantly extend your hike by taking the Rock Oak Fire Trail, then turning right briefly onto the Big Red Trail and right again onto the Snelling Fire Trail (which sort of parallels the Rock Oak Fire Trail), back to the Big Red Trail, and then turning left onto the Big Red Trail and following it back to the lake.

The hiking trails at Greenbriar State Park are among the best marked I’ve seen anywhere, with the park trail map posted whenever two trails intersect. 

You can also opt for a more level and better graded 1.3 mile walk around the lake.

For the Big Red and Rock Oak Fire trails, you will need appropriate footwear (the trails can be very rocky) — so ankle-supporting hiking boots — clothing and gear, including drinking water for you and your pooch.

Know before you go: Dogs are not allowed around the lake between Memorial Day and Labor Day, which means that bring pupper along with you on the Big Red Trail during that time is also not allowed.

Getting there: 21843 National Pike, Boonsboro, MD 21713

Hours: 8 a.m. to sunset

Website: https://dnr.maryland.gov/publiclands/Pages/western/greenbrier.aspx

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