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A note about COVID-19 and visiting parks: Help stop the spread of COVID-19 and follow all current directives from your governor and local health officials about wearing face masks and physical distancing.
Unlike the spot where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet, there’s no monument at Maryland’s “Four Corners” where the counties of Carrol, Frederick, Montgomery and Howard touch one another. But there should be. It’s very near that point where the Patuxent River begins as a trickle, only to become the longest river entirely within the borders of the state of Maryland.
The Patuxent runs 115 miles from there to meet the Chesapeake Bay at Solomon’s Island. The river ebbs and flows with the tide up past Jug Bay. The top 12 miles of the river run through the 6,700 acres of forest and farmland that comprise Patuxent River State Park. At the northern border of the park, you can hop across from one bank to the other, but it soon widens and becomes knee deep with some pools deep enough to flood your chest waders. It flows cool and clear over sand and rocks, cutting into the banks at the bends as it wends its way through a deep, forested valley.
I’ve probably waded more miles down the middle of the river than I have walked the trails at the park. In the frigid months of February and March, volunteers with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources stock brown trout along the upper stretches of the river. I’ve tagged along a number of times for the thrill of setting these beautiful hatchery-raised critters loose in their new natural habitat. This section of the river is strictly catch-and-release.
DNR volunteers (the author is on the right) brave the frigid water to stock the river with brown trout
I recently returned to the park to show it to my newly-adopted rescue retriever, Millie. We explored the park from bottom to top, crisscrossing the river by car and stopping at each bridge to take a walk along what the official website refers to as the “many unmarked social trails” created by wildlife and hikers over time.
The trails generally parallel the riverbank and range from deer tracks through the brambles to dirt paths used mainly by anglers and equestrians. At times, you’ll be following what seems like a perfectly followable path only to become stuck in the stickers. The park website cautions that you should use these trails at your own risk and have a GPS app handy on your phone. Plans are underway to grow an official trail system that will replace the network of social trails.
There are several short, marked trails on the grounds of the park visitor center located near Brookville. There you’ll find a handy portable toilet in the parking lot, the only comfort facility available anywhere in the park.
The visitor center is set in a beautiful stone house that dates back to 1865. It’s best to check the park’s calendar for when it is open. The lawn sweeps down to the river, where one of the trails follows the bank.
Further upstream, where the high banks are held together by the gnarled roots of the lofty sycamore trees, Millie found a stick washed up on the rocks and started prancing about with it, daring me to snatch it away. The game over, I examined her find: 18 inches long, 4 inches in diameter, gnawed to a point at each end, the bark nibbled off by a thousand teeth marks. Surely the work of a beaver. I took the stick home and after it dried out, I found it to have a pitch-perfect percussive tone when tapped with a crab mallet.
My favorite stretch of the river lies between Annapolis Rock Road and Mullinix Mill Road. Yes, there are two Annapolis Rocks, and this is not the one on top of South Mountain along the Appalachian Trail. It’s a wooded knoll with its crest at just 618 feet above sea level and not accessible by the public. I’ve tried and failed to find out why the one on the AT at 1,762 feet elevation is called Annapolis Rock. I’m in despair of ever discovering why there are two of them.
In any case, there’s a parking lot up the hill from the intersection of Annapolis Rock Road and Woodbine Road. A trail leads into the pines and one leg of that trail follows the river. There are several deep pools along here where I’ve snatched brown trout and smallmouth bass and kissed them before letting them go again.
There’s one particular book that I always keep within reach on my desk. It’s called “The Placenames of Maryland, Their Origin and Meaning,” by Hammill Kenny, published by the Museum and Library of Maryland History at the Maryland Historical Society in 1984. Annapolis Rock does not appear in this otherwise thorough scholarly tome. I can only assume that Mr. Kenny became baffled, too, and simply omitted the reference, hoping nobody would call him out about it.
Kenny does, though, discuss the name “Patuxent.” He notes that Capt. John Smith marked it as “Pawtuxunt” on his 1608 map of the Chesapeake. The author cites several experts of the Algonquian language who agree that the meaning is “At the falls or rapids.” A footnote suggests that a more complete translation is “At the little falls or rapids.”
I haven’t been on every mile of the Patuxent, but I don’t know of any rapids, big or little. However, the names of some of the roads crisscrossing the park – Mullinix Mill and Hipsley Mill -- indicate that there was once enough fall in elevation to make water wheels spin. The southern border of the park ends near where the river was dammed to create Tridelphia Reservoir. The elevation at the foot of the dam is at about 300 feet, a 350-foot drop from the head of the river 12 miles north. So it’s conceivable that there were little rapids before the dam was built.
Millie and I ended our exploration at the far northern end of the park, where the mighty river is narrow enough to flow through a culvert under a dirt road. I studied the Gaia GPS topographical map on my phone and was astonished to discover that as close as we were to the source of the Patuxent, the Patapsco River also begins just a mile or so away. Another reason for a monument at Maryland’s “Four Corners.”
The park is located on the border of Howard and Montgomery County between Maryland Routes 27 and 97. Paths lead from parking areas at road crossings over the river: Long Corner, Mullinix Mill, Route 94, Hipsley Mill, Howard Chapel and Route 97.
The park’s website advises that if you venture along the social trails, bring a cell phone. The phone number of the duty ranger is 443-962-0216.