Few people walk the foot-bridge across the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry, WV, without stopping midway, entranced by the view.
Even historian Dennis Frye, who has spent more than 30 years working at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, is no exception. It’s one of his favorite views.
Here, looking downstream, the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers collide in rocky swirls, with steep, forested slopes on either side. To the east, the face of Maryland Heights looms over the bridge as a wall of gray rock. At its base is the arched black mouth of a railway tunnel, built through the mountain in the 1890s. To the west, a cluster of historic buildings — the oldest preserved portion of the town — is perched on the hillside.
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.
If shorter days and cooler weather make you restless for a different kind of nature experience, head to Kiptopeke State Park in Virginia to witness the migration of hawks, falcons and eagles on their long and often extraordinary journeys from Canada and Alaska to Central and South America.
When people think about nature in the Chesapeake region, I would bet that most people don’t automatically conjure up images of downtown Baltimore and city life.
But nature is abundant in the Chesapeake’s cities. Leaving the city is not required to connect to our natural environment and experience the great outdoors, especially in Baltimore.
Baltimore has been judged by the National Wildlife Federation to be one of America’s Top 10 Cities for Wildlife. Baltimore’s Leakin Park is the second largest urban wilderness in the United States. In addition to Leakin Park and its connected Gwynns Falls trail, the city features other large parks for a total of 5,700 acres of parklands, 73 eco-schools and a number three national ranking in schoolyard habitats per capita. It also has urban gardens and pocket parks in many neighborhoods.
It’s been called the “wild, wooded heart of Washington, DC,” and in its 125th year, Rock Creek Park is as beloved by Washingtonians as it has ever been.
Its green mass of nearly 3,000 acres in the center of an otherwise concrete sea provides plenty of natural escapes to offset the frenetic pace of the capital. It is the backyard playground for thousands of residents and a treasure often undiscovered by visitors sticking to the National Mall.
Thirty miles up from the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay, the passage between the Bay’s Eastern and Western shores is a scant 12 miles. Though the water depths reach more than 50 feet in the main channel, Wolf Trap Shoals ripple out from Virginia’s western shore off Mathews County.
Here, the English naval vessel, HMS Wolf, ran aground in 1691 while combating piracy in the Bay on behalf of the English crown. Local residents helped float the ship off the shoals, but the ship’s master refused to compensate them, giving rise to the name “Wolf Trap.”
I learned about hemlocks before I knew their name. I was a kid, and it was a practical relationship.
If I was in the woods and it started to rain, I’d head for a hemlock. The umbrella of branches kept me dry. If my boots grew heavy from a snowy forest floor, I’d find a hemlock with ponderous boughs —the ground below was shielded from the snow. When I played in the creek, I’d avoid them. The water was warmer in spots that escaped the shade of those thick green arms.
Stands of wild rice, higher than most people’s heads, closed their annual display of flowering stalks in September and collapsed into the marshes that birthed them.
But the impact of this plant on the Chesapeake ecosystem continues. In the mud and shallow waters where the plants once stood, millions of rice seeds lie waiting. Flocks of migrating waterfowl arrive to feed on them in October and continue their feast through the winter.
“When I see wild rice, I see a smorgasbord for birds, a wealth of energy,” said Greg Kearns, a naturalist at Patuxent River Park in Price Georges County, MD.
The Fallingwater Cascades Trail on this day could aptly have been named the Falling Timber Trail. There were, after all, signs of a tough winter all around. Fallen trees — and parts of trees — were lying everywhere. Most, now in late April, had been cleared from the trail, though some still remained to be clambered over and ducked under.
Then there was the matter of the bridge. One of the crossings over Fallingwater Creek was altogether gone, leaving hikers to carefully step across its icy water on stones.
Chesapeake Bay cognoscenti would recognize most of the estuary’s charming waterfront villages — the islands of Smith, Tangier, Hooper, Tilghman, Deal; also the Rock Halls, Cape Charles, Solomons, Reedvilles.
Far fewer would summon to mind Saxis, VA, population “200 on a busy July weekend, 100 on a cold January day,” according to Moody “M. K.” Miles III, the town’s historian, and “local” enough that his family’s name adorns now- collectible oyster cans.
Something about the coldest winter in decades beckoned Steve Haas to go a-hunting. He wanted to see if the Tuckahoe Plantation near Richmond — where he lives, forages for wild foods and leads tours — had new edibles to put forth in its frostiest state, even if a little snow had to be pushed aside to find them.
“We found tens of pounds of all types of mushrooms all through the winter,” Haas said.
If George Washington actually did chop down a cherry tree and refuse to lie about it, the incident probably happened at Ferry Farm, his boyhood home along the Rappahannock River.
Many people who visit the site today arrive with this famous story in mind. They’ll find a few cherry-related items for sale in the visitor center and step into a vibrant garden with two cherry trees at the center.
Jeri Jones stood on a hill a couple of hundred feet above the Susquehanna River and explained how, at one time, he would have been underwater at this very spot.
“Imagine the river was at least as high as those hills that you see right there,” he said, pointing to hills across the river that overshadowed Safe Harbor Dam and rose above the hill where he stood in Apollo County Park. “So 125 feet above our heads is where the river would have been at some stage at the end of the ice age,” said Jones, a geologist and program coordinator with the York County Department of Parks and Recreation who has given many talks about the river’s geological history.
“That is what made the Susquehanna, really, what it is today.”
Lighthouses in the Chesapeake Bay region were designed to serve people who travel by water. In September, 12 lighthouses — and one lightship — can instead guide you to land-based adventures on the popular Maryland Lighthouse Challenge.
The Maryland Lighthouse Challenge takes place every two years, with this year’s event slated for Sept. 18–20. Organized by the Chesapeake Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society, it’s both a blitz-tour for lighthouse enthusiasts and an easy way for curious visitors to sample a few of these historic maritime structures.
There is a little-known museum and park in Maryland where you can learn about a man whose story deserves telling.
Benjamin Banneker, an African-American astronomer who helped survey the boundaries of Washington, DC, and once implored Thomas Jefferson to change his views on race, made his home at this Baltimore County site near present-day Catonsville on the Patuxent River. Today, the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum celebrates his accomplishments. What’s more, it’s a great site for hikers and nature lovers.
Hiking in the mountains of Maryland is a great way to spend an afternoon. Hiking with children? Well, choose your route carefully.
Between tired toddlers who want to be carried and teens who can’t bear to tear themselves away from their phone for a couple of hours, a walk in the woods can quickly become unpleasant, even when surrounded by beautiful scenery.