Highway signs near the Bay Bridge in Maryland are plentiful, steering you toward the ocean or away from it, marking traffic lanes and luring people to local businesses. Among the signs on this busy corridor is a simple one for the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center. Is it worth the stop? Yes, it is.
“We don’t want to be a hidden gem, but we sort of still are,” said assistant director Vicki Paulas.
The Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center is just a few quick, easy turns from MD Route 50, filling more than 500 acres on a peninsula by Kent Narrows. Marshy Creek lies to the northeast, and Prospect Bay and Hog Bay wrap around the rest of it.
From the air, the land takes a shape that some say looks like a horse head — an inland pond forms the eye and a very slender neck connects to the mainland. When the land was purchased by the Wildfowl Trust of North America in 1981, it was known as the Horsehead Peninsula.
With so much shoreline, three ponds, woodlands and meadows, wildlife abounds.
“We have what may be the largest undisturbed marsh in the county, and there are so many transition zones here,” Paulas said. “You have a great chance of seeing something up close. You can readily see turkey, rabbits, deer, and lately we’ve had tons of fox, a few otters and muskrats. The turtles are going to start crossing the paths soon, and we have terrapin galore.”
Birding is good here, too. More than 200 species have been documented, including waterfowl such as canvasbacks, American black ducks, shovelers, ruddy ducks, redheads, Canada geese and tundra swans. Shorebirds make a strong showing in May and late summer.
You can hear muted traffic from Route 50 in some spots, and the Kent Narrows Bridge is a distant backdrop on the beachfront. But the grounds are large and immersive, with few modern buildings in sight. As a result, the center is part of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, providing an opportunity to envision the landscape as it may have appeared to English explorers who sailed the Chesapeake Bay in the early 1600s.
Today, visitors arrive by land. As you first enter the tract, the woodlands fall back to reveal an impressive expanse of green marsh on either side of the road that travels the horse’s “neck” toward the heart of the preserve. The road is long, straight and rumbly, a rough-hewn welcome carpet that insists you slow your vehicle and adjust your mental pace as well. When I arrived, tree swallows had moved into just about every nesting box installed along the road (and there were lots of them), with shiny blue heads poking out of each hole and others flitting down to the box with extra padding in their beaks for the nest. I stopped for photos. Many people do, Paulas said.
Trail maps, available at the visitor center, outline 4 miles of easy walking trails, and most sections have a view of the water in a surprising variety of settings. The best option is the Lake Trail, which loops around Lake Knapp — the “eye” of the horse. Start by the parking area on a wooded trail with a thick carpet of pine needles and you’ll soon see the lake to your left, with a rustic duck blind where you can watch waterfowl. On your right is the vista of Marshy Creek. Climb the raised overlook for a view of the marsh, rippling with bird life.
At the foot of the overlook is a sizable fleet of kayaks, both single- and double-seaters, available to rent for $15 per day, or free for members. Rentals are arranged at the visitor center, so check in there before walking to the kayaks. You might want to reserve one in advance or launch your own for a fee of $15.
The Lake Trail moves through and beyond another patch of woods to an open stretch beside Lake Knapp with a large picnic pavilion. From there, you can cross another green sea of marshland on a sturdy boardwalk that leads to a beach with a view of Kent Narrows. Walk back the way you arrived, or continue on the open path to visit a newly refurbished duck blind and pens for injured owls and hawks that have been given a home here.
The Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center, still owned by the Wildfowl Trust of North America, is often mistaken for a state park. In reality, it has a tiny staff that depends on donations to support the grounds, buildings and education programs enjoyed by more than 10,000 students and 20,000 general public visitors each year. Still, they chose to abolish their admissions fee — your visit will be free. “We don’t want people to hesitate about coming,” Paulas said. “We’d rather have people visit, enjoy themselves, and then donate if they like what they see and want to help out.”
Public support is growing as more curious people opt to exit Route 50. Some visitors are making day trips from Washington, DC, to hike, sit by the water, photograph wildlife and dine in Kent Narrows.
Paulas is pleased that the property is permanently preserved for wildlife and conservation education through agreements with the Maryland Environmental Trust and Eastern Shore Land Conservancy. “I can’t imagine this place not being here for people to enjoy,” Paulas said. “It’s such an amazing piece of property.”
The Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center is located at 600 Discovery Lane in Grasonville, MD. It’s open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Sunday and closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. For information, visit bayrestoration.org or call 410-827-6694.
You can rent a kayak or to launch your own for $15 per day (free for members). The last rental goes out at 3 p.m. Rentals are first-come, first-served, but you can make reservations in advance. No kayaks can be rented if there is a small craft advisory or thunderstorm warning, so be sure to check the forecast before visiting. Guided kayak tours for beginner and intermediate levels are offered monthly, May through October.
For details about other sites on the Capt. John Smith Trail, visit smithtrail.net.
This article was originally published on the Bay Journal website on June 2, 2016.