Sideling Hill Creek

River of the month #98

author: Pat Reilly
date: August 2007

This river had been high on my hit list for a number of years until I finally bagged it last fall. And it did not disappoint. A true 'scenery excellent' rated river, it was worth the wait. Where is Sideling Hill Creek? Well even if you've never heard of the creek, there's a good chance you've seen Sideling Hill, which is no hill at all, but a respectable sized mountain. Interstate 70/68, stretching across the top of Maryland is the paddler's route to the great whitewater of western Maryland and West Virginia, as well as a turnpike alternative to PA's lower Yough. Even before Hancock, Maryland, when still 20 miles away a motorist can easily identify Sideling Hill by the distinct notch cut into it for the highway. This 300 foot 'V' blasted out of 1600 foot Sideling Hill exposed so many layers of strata that the department of highways put in a walkway and interpretive viewing area to give budding geologists a worm's eye view of the rock. The creek flowing along Sideling Hill's western side adopts the mountain's name.

Actually there are 2 Sideling Hill creeks, the other being entirely in Pennsylvania. Pa's Sideling Hill Creek originates in the same area as the one we're talking about here. But the Pa version runs north and empties into the Raystown Branch of the Juniata. It is reported to be a decent creek, but when a paddler mentions Sideling Hill Creek with a certain reverence, you can bet they're talking about the Sideling Hill Creek that flows south through Maryland and dumps into the Potomac. This is truly a special creek and one that is fairly well known.

Sideling Hill is a creek of consistent scenery. It’s fashionable to celebrate diversity these days and, personally, I enjoy diverse scenery. But when the view from the boat is this good, it can be the same for miles and miles and you’ll get no complaint here. The creek typically bops along through the woods, riffly and mellow. You’ll not go far however before the gradient picks up and soon you find yourself cruising down a heavy riffle or small rapid headed straight for a pretty outcrop or little cliff of shale. Don’t get too distracted looking at the interesting strata in the rock formations or the ferns and wild flowers hanging from them, else you’ll be slamming into the rock. Time after time the creek plows right into rock walls making for some technical paddling along with the pleasing scenery. But it is never so steep or pushy as to surpass a class 2. Most rapids won’t even rate that - just great cruising for those capable of elementary boat control and water reading.

With Sideling Hill to the east and Town Hill (also not a hill, but a mountain) to the west, the creek drains the same wide valley that we talked about when discussing The Pawpaw Bends of the Potomac (ROM # 26). Little Sideling Hill Creek meanders back and forth between the mountains much the same as the big Potomac does. As it twists and turns, it makes its way south and joins the north flowing Potomac. Then the waters of both rivers cut through Sideling Hill and head east then north toward Hancock, Md.

Most of the paddleable section of the creek is in Maryland. I began my exploration of Sideling Hill Creek near Silver Mills in Bedford County, Pa. Ed Gertler’s description begins 4 miles further up, near Purcell. Normally, I wait to write up a river until I’ve paddled it all, usually meaning as much or more than Ed if the creek is in one of his guidebooks. But I decided to write up Sideling Hill now since it is so special and I don’t know when I may get back to get in the uppermost 4 miles.

As my buddy and I loaded his C-2 at the put in, we could see an eye-catching dark shaded cliff and sparkling waters about 100 yards upstream. If this is any indication of what we missed, maybe you’ll want to put in above our spot. But we needn’t have regretted not paddling past this lovely cliff as it was merely a token of what we were to see for the next 2 days. There’s more houses, farms and cabins up here in Pa. than in Maryland, but the creek is all rural, mostly wooded and more remote than most. And it just gets better as it goes. There is some annoying highway noise for a few miles before you go under I68 just below the Maryland line. But then Sideling Hill goes through a Maryland Wildlife Management area and gets very remote in the process. You might as well consider this wilderness. You’ll go for many miles without seeing any sign of civilization, not even a bridge.

Down near the end, about 1.5 miles from the mouth, Sideling Hill displays it’s grand finale – a beautiful arching cliff towering 200 hundred feet above a deep dark pool - simply gorgeous. If you’re ever in this area (paddling the Potomac, say?) and want to get a glimpse of what a Sideling Hill trip would be like, park at the last bridge over the creek (Zeigler Road) and walk upstream for ¼ mile to see this spot. If you do, it probably won’t be long before you’re planning a Sideling Hill Creek excursion.

The Zeigler Road bridge is your last chance to take out before entering the mighty Potomac. Some of the biggest rapids are in the last 1.2 miles after the bridge. So to get in the whole creek and not miss these rapids you’ll have to plan on cruising down the Potomac for a few miles to take out. My partner and I went all the way to Hancock, camping the 2nd night at one of the C and O Canal National Park hiker/biker spots accessible from the Potomac. Ending at Hancock forms a big ‘V’ with a relatively short 18-mile bike shuttle across the top and a 34-mile boat trip on the 2 sides.

How about camping along Sideling Hill Creek? I never met a creek so camper friendly. Ready to camp? - just pull over. It seems like you are always within sight of an ideal site. Most of the attractive cliffs so prevalent on this creek are across the water from nice flat woods where you can mellow out watching the sun dip below the cliff and listening to gurgling waters. What more could you want? So if you see the Bellegrove gauge is at least 1.7 feet, head west on I68 toward the big notch in Sideling Hill showing the way to some great remote creek tripping.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2007 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.