Where to begin with a visit to Patapsco Valley State Park in Maryland? Even calling Patapsco a park seems so…inadequate.
Patapsco Valley State Park is more than 14,000 acres and includes 32 miles along its namesake river. Its terrain is at turns hilly, rocky, flat, wooded and paved. It touches four metropolitan counties, several towns and is in the backyards of thousands of people. There are gorges and waterfalls, bridges and caves, rocky outcroppings and corridors for deer to roam. Originally called a “forest preserve” or “river forest park,” Patapsco is a wilderness at Baltimore’s doorstep. Busy Thurgood Marshall Baltimore-Washington International Airport, the aerospace corridor it supports and the bustling campus of University of Maryland, Baltimore County are all about 5 miles away.
Where you start a visit depends on what you like to do. Summer brings crowds for fishing, swimming, kayaking, canoeing and wading. Fall is a popular time for mountain bike racing. Hiking takes place all year. Mushroom hunters search for chanterelles and morels in the woods; dog walkers amble along its shady paths; trail runners test their mettle up the steep hills; and equestrians enjoy the secluded ride along shaded paths. Children love the famous swinging bridge, built long ago by a mill operator so workers could cross the river to the mill. They also love the butterfly garden, the natural playground and another filled with equipment made out of tires.
And if all that was not enough, the staff at Patapsco manages two natural areas, Soldiers Delight and Morgan Run, which feature extraordinary landscapes and more opportunities for recreation.
Other park managers acknowledge they face challenges getting people to leave the nature center or family picnic area and get lost in the woods. Park manager Rob Dyke said that’s not a problem. In fact, Patapsco is so popular that the parking areas often fill up on summer weekends and the staff has to close the gates and turn people away.
“We’re trying to get people out in nature. But for the most part, the people we’re seeing don’t need a push. They’re already out there,” he said. “Most everyone who comes to the park goes out on the trails.”
For the first-time visitor, Patapsco can be intimidating. A visit to the Department of Natural Resources website page for the park is a good way to start. There, you can download maps and print them or put them on a smartphone to help navigate the woods.
Baltimore’s elite class worked with Maryland’s Board of Forestry to establish the Patapsco Forest Reserve in 1907, as it was then known. Initially,
the push to preserve the land came from timber interests and the owners of several hydroelectric dams that drew power from the river. The dam owners believed that reforesting the area would reduce the silt that could fill the reservoir and clog the power-generating turbines.
But the park was also part of the grand vision of the Olmsted brothers, who were partners in the United States’ first landscape architecture firm and designed many of the nation’s premier parks. John Charles Olmsted and his brother, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., inherited the landscape business from their father, Frederick Law Olmsted, who is perhaps most famous for designing New York’s Central Park.
Baltimore’s Municipal Art Society hired the brothers to recommend a plan for public lands in Baltimore. The brothers saw great value in protecting the Patapsco River valley and urged the forestry board to join forces with other government entities and private landowners to purchase the land.
Patapsco Park began in 1933 as a 40-acre park and is now a 14,000-acre woodlands, in large part because homeowners, mill operators and railroad interests donated portions of their property over the century. That generosity resulted in a large but not contiguous park. Indeed, Patapsco is divided into eight distinct areas. Getting from one to the other is not always easy.
Dyke recommends those new to the park start in the McKeldin Area, which is the farthest north. McKeldin offers a disc golf course, many picnic tables and pavilions and trails where hikers can watch the rushing waters and rapids of the Main and South Branch of the Patapsco. Dyke said McKeldin is “hard to get lost in,” and accessible off Marriottsville Road. Trails are well-marked and it’s usually less crowded than the more centrally located areas.
Just south of McKeldin are the Woodstock and Daniels areas of the park. These wilder areas near each other have limited parking. Dyke said that cars have to park along the road. Often, during the summer, the park management has to close the gates to these sections because the parking lots can’t accommodate any more people. Dyke suggests arriving at the park before 11 a.m. If parkgoers are with a group, he recommends they coordinate so that part of the group isn’t left outside the gates. (For updates about gate closures, follow the Patapsco Valley State Park’s Twitter feed.)
South of Woodstock and Daniels is Picknall Hollofield, which is only open by reservation on Saturdays and Sundays and is a flat recreational area with ball fields and open places to run. It is used for youth retreats and large gatherings.
South of Picknall Hollofield is the part of the park that many people know: the Hilton, Glen Artney, Orange Grove and Avalon areas. Here, hikers will find beautiful stone tunnels, rocky gorges with waterfalls and the famous swinging bridge.
The Hilton area is an excellent place to start exploring the park, especially with children. Here, visitors can begin at the tire playground and check out the many trails. The Grist Mill trail takes visitors 2.5 miles through the forest, past the swinging bridge. The bridge allowed workers to walk across the river for jobs at the Orange Grove Flour Mill. In later years, the building next to the Orange Grove parking lot was a rough-and-tumble bar and, at a different time, the park headquarters; now, it houses some of the park’s bathrooms.
Bloede Dam, also in this part of the park, supplied power to the region but has been defunct for decades. The Department of Natural Resources, with help from the federal government and American Rivers, is spending close to $8 million to tear it down. It will be one of four dams on the Patapsco to be removed. When they’re all gone, the shad and river herring will have 175 miles available for spawning and swimming.
Bloede has been a safety hazard for decades. Signs posted in English and Spanish warn people not to swim in the area or jump off the dam, yet people always do. In June, a 22-year-old Landover man died while swimming at the dam. He was the sixth person to die in a decade there, according to the Natural Resources Police.
Dyke expects work on Bloede to begin early next year and last for 18 months, maybe longer, because the contractors will have to move a sewer line. But he expects many of the trails in the area to remain open.
Along the trails, interpretive signs explain the area’s past. One placard details streetcar directions for how to arrive at the park from Baltimore for a grand opening celebration. Another is a monument to the workers who died building the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which crossed through the area. There are ruins of old churches that were part of mill towns, pieces of Native American history and even an old Nike missile site.
One sign details how the Hutzler’s department store company reserved dozens of campsites at the park for their male employees and their families. The men commuted to Baltimore, but the women and children stayed behind to enjoy the wilderness. The company even had ice cream delivered once a week.
Placards with facts like these are all over the park, and walking through the woods there is like walking through a time we have forgotten. The landscape — except for many of the trees, a lot of which were planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps — is as it was 100 years ago. But everything else — the way we move, the places we work, the sources from which we draw power — has changed.
“You see these old pictures of the people who used to live and work there. You think about how much it’s changed since then. It gives you a haunting feeling,” said Joe Sugarman, a Baltimore writer and editor who is an avid hiker of the park. “It’s nice to get a dose of history with your hike. You can’t do that everywhere.”
Perhaps the greatest feature of this wilderness gem is that it exists at all. If not for the smart decisions of city and state planners, committed volunteers and influential landowners, this valley park could have easily been housing developments. Indeed, homes directly outside the Hilton area announce they are selling for the “mid-$500,000s.”
“There was some very wise thinking long ago that saved it from development, and even today, we are still growing the park, but very slowly,” Dyke said. “We have 32 miles of river you can float down that is undeveloped. Where else can you do that on the East Coast?”
Patapsco Valley includes five developed recreational areas, providing hiking, fishing, camping, canoeing, horseback and mountain bike trails, as well as picnicking for individuals or large groups in the park's many popular pavilions.