50 Hikes in Maryland: Walks, Hikes, and Backpacks from the Allegheny Plateau to the Atlantic Ocean
Hike and camp along a 26-mile trail on Assateague Island, with wild ponies as your only companions. Travel along sections of the C&O Canal Trail, which stretches for 184 miles from Washington D.C. to Cumberland, Maryland. Forty miles of the Applachian Trail pass through the state, the 29-mile Catoctin Trail links three state parks, and there are 50 miles of hiking trails in Catoctin Mountain Park alone.
No matter where you are in the state, it is less than a 30-minute drive to one of the hikes in this book. The hikes range from a 1.2-mile ramble in Swallow Falls State Park to a four-day backpack trip across Maryland's width.
Total distance (circuit): 6.0 miles
Hiking time: 2 hours, 50 minutes
Vertical rise: 640 feet
Maps: USGS 7 1/2” Reistertown
Looking at the types of vegetation in Central Maryland today, it may be hard to imagine that grasslands once spread across tens of thousands of acres of this landscape. Prior to colonial settlement, much of Baltimore and Harford Counties and adjacent counties in Pennsylvania were covered by open spaces not unlike the prairies found in the Midwest.
In order to provide prime habitat for their favorite game animals, Native Americans had burned these areas on a regular basis for thousands of years, keeping them free of trees. Because colonists did not continue the practice, forests replaced the grasslands, and only on a dry and nutrient-poor soil did the prairie-like zones persist. Lamentably, the modern world has destroyed most of those by mining and development.
As in a number of other, now-protected areas profiled in this guidebook, it was private citizen organizations that worked hard to see that the largest remaining serpentine grasslands in the state, Soldier’s Delight, was preserved. (Never underestimate the power of one voice or group to effect policies or opinions.) The word serpentine is believed to be in reference to a snake which lives in a similar type of soil in Italy. The 2,000-acre tract harbors approximately 40 rare, endangered or threatened plants, as well as rare insects, rocks and minerals.
With only minor ups and downs, this circuit hike enables you to experience this exceptional province without having to expend a great deal of effort or energy. It consists of two loops, with your parked car being in the middle, so you could decide to do the loops on two separate occasions if you do not have the time or inclination to do the entire outing all at once.
The natural environment area may be reached by leaving I-695 (Baltimore Beltway) west of Baltimore at Exit 18 and heading westward on MD 26 (Liberty Road). Approximately 5.0 miles later, turn right onto Deer Park Road and continue for another 2.3 miles, bypassing the entrance road to the visitors center, and leaving your car in the gravel parking area on the left. The trails are open from sunrise to sunset; pets must be on a leash.
Looking out at the view, the hike begins by taking the green- and white-blazed trail from the left side of the parking lot. Walk along the shoulder of the road for a few feet before bearing right to enter pines. Turn right onto a woods road at 0.2 mile and come into an open barrens, your first chance to study one of the area’s special plants.
Once spread throughout the Coastal Plain, sandplain gerardia is now confined to the serpentine grasslands of Baltimore County and is possibly the last naturally-occurring population in the world. Its funnel-shaped, pink flowers bloom from August to October on a stem that grows to be less than a foot tall. An annual, its numbers in the environment area varies widely depending on each year’s conditions. At times, observers have found more than 10,000, while other years there were less than 200.
Stay on the woods road as you walk to the right of the visitor center (worth a visit if it is open) and to the left of abandoned, native stone Red Dog Lodge, built in 1912. The view beside the lodge provides a glimpse of the terrain through which you will be walking and provides insight into the area’s name. Local lore states that soldiers stationed here were “delighted” that the open nature of the landscape lessened the possibility of them being surprised by the enemy.
You will begin to descend, but must be alert at 0.5 mile when the Green Trail goes to the right. Keep to the left on the White Trail, walk along the edge of an open area, and keep left again to continue the descent.
You must be very alert at 0.6 mile. The main road you have been following swings to the left, but your route now makes a right to follow a track along the edge of the open field, next to the trees. If you are hiking here in mid to late summer, you might be wading into shoulder-high grass that almost obliterates the route. As you walk through it, and the tiny yellow Indian grass blossoms cling to your clothes and skin, remember that this is what thousands of acres of Maryland (and the Midwest) looked like at one time.
Be alert again a 0.8 mile; turn right to walk underneath a humming high voltage powerlines (and try not to think about studies that have uncovered the possible harmful effects on the human body of such lines).
Come to a four-way intersection at the top of the rise at 1.1 miles. The Green Trail goes both right and straight; you need to turn left to continue along the White Trail.
Enter a forest of Virginia pine that is becoming overgrown with greenbriar at 1.3 miles. Possibly more than anything else, the invasion of this pine tree and the eastern red cedar is the greatest threat to the grasslands. Being sun tolerant, they are the forest pioneers, growing taller than the grasses and providing the shade needed by many deciduous trees. In an effort to halt their spread, volunteers and state employees spend many hours cutting down the conifers and transporting them off site. When conditions are right, these areas are then burned in the hopes of restoring the barrens.
Swing right at 1.6 miles where a grassy road comes in from the left. Cross a couple of open areas populated by blaze star, another plant characteristic of prairie lands, at 1.7 miles. Blooming into October, its purple flowers are a welcome bit of color amidst the swaying, brown grass fronds of autumn.
Cross a small creek and rise into another barrens where, if you look closely, you should be able to find a few blossoms of sandplain gerardia. If you find them, you will also be looking at little bluestem, a prairie grass always found in association with the flower. Although the relationship is not clear, it is believed the gerardia parasitizes the roots of the grass.
Pass through a small wooded plot to swing right under the powerlines at 2.4 miles.
The White Trail may not be well-marked, so you must be paying attention when you reach the bottom of a dip at 2.5 miles. Turn left along tiny Chimney Branch and go upstream into a near-jungle of greenbriar. Within the moister settings of the environment area such as this is the only known population of fringed gentian in Maryland. One of the last flowers to bloom in late summer and early fall, its whorl of rich blue petals opens each morning with the rising sun and closes when the sun disappears beyond the western horizon.
Switch over to the right side of the water run, cross a small wooden bridge and rise to the overlook parking area at 2.9 miles. If this is all the time you have, drive home with plans to do the rest of this outing another day. If not, take a short break and enjoy the snacks and drinks you had left stashed in the car.
When ready to resume, cross paved Deer Park Road diagonally to the right and enter a pine forest on a route identified by yellow, red, and orange markings. Come to the Choate Mine site at 3.0 miles, where the opening of the mine, held up by old log supports, is still visible. Active for most of the eighteenth century and again during World War I, the mine produced more than 3,000 tons of chromite, used to produce chromium chemicals, paint pigments and dyes.
Continue on the main route, coming to a four-way intersection at 3.3 miles. The Red Trail goes left, the Orange Trail straight, and the Yellow Trail--the one you want to follow--turns right. Blaze star flourishes in the sunny spots next to the trail, but since the forest--with its shade--is encroaching, the flowers may not last here much longer.
Cross a small water run and an open area at 3.7 miles. An abundance of flowers grow near the next water run you cross at 4.0 miles. Be looking for blaze star, sandplain gerardia, asters, goldenrod and even some Queen Anne’s lace. Soon after this you must be alert to leave the water run and turn left.
Cross paved Sherwood Road at 4.4 miles and continue through the pink-tinged grass of late summer. Be alert at 4.5 miles. In order to avoid walking directly behind a housing development, turn left under utility lines and descend for a short distance, soon passing through a young pine plantation.
Come to an old woods road at 4.6 miles and turn right, but make an almost immediate left on the combined Yellow and Orange Trails (which may only be marked with orange at this point). Descend into a deciduous forest, listening to the chattering of squirrels--who have been conspicuously absent throughout most of this hike.
Swing left at 5.0 miles and begin walking upstream beside a small creek. Cross an open barrens area full of blaze star, serpentine aster and fame flower. The latter is found almost exclusively in serpentine outcrops. Bees are attracted to its small, star-shaped pink flowers, which only open for a few hours on sunny days.
Come to a T-intersection where the Red Trail heads left. You want to bear right and follow the pathway marked with yellow, orange and red blazes. Soon cross a small water run, swing left, and rise. Another mine site is to the right of the trail at 5.6 miles.
Be alert at 5.7 miles. Your route swings to the left and does not follow the lesser-used trail going more or less straight. After walking through more pines, turn left along the shoulder of Deer Park Road, cross the pavement and end the hike at 6.0 miles.