Spring has sprung, and people are looking forward to warmer weather, sunshine and more outdoor activities.
One outdoor activity that seems to be a growing trend in Southern Maryland is hiking and biking on the many area trails, some of which have been expanded and some of which have been recently established.
Expansion, growthWith about 51 miles of various types of trails, Charles County has been “pretty progressive over the last couple of years” by continuing to add more trails, Tom Roland of the county parks department said.
“We hear from the public that trails are something that are desired by the community, and it makes Charles County a better place to live,” Roland said. “That’s part of our mission, to increase the quality of life for our residents.”
Residents and visitors can enjoy about 22 miles of trails in Maxwell Hall Park and Oak Ridge Park in Hughesville; about four miles of trails in Friendship Farm Park and Mallows Bay Park in Nanjemoy; and about two miles of trails in Gilbert Run Park in Bryantown.
Charles County’s major attraction is the 2½-year-old Indian Head Rail Trail, which offers 13 miles of paved trails, Roland said. The trail connects Indian Head with White Plains, and it passes primarily through undeveloped land.
The rail trail follows the stream valley of the Mattawoman Creek and its tributaries, Roland said, and interpretive signs are set up at five different access points along the trail to allow people to travel to different locations. Picnic shelters, observation decking and some wetland creek areas that Roland said have “tremendous wildlife viewing opportunities” are available on the trail.
Roland said both national and local surveys have shown that trails are “just about the most popular park amenity that a community can have.”
He said all of the county’s trails are open year-round and are primarily used from April through November, but this year’s mild winter weather has propelled an increase in trail use during the winter months.
Roland said “a number of things” attract visitors to use the trails. He said most of the trails are in “very nice settings” in underdeveloped natural resources areas, which allows opportunities for hiking and cycling as well as the ability to enjoy peaceful walks and view wildlife.
Roland said he believes the fact that visitors feel safe on the trails and enjoy clean facilities keeps them coming back. He said the facilities are maintained and the trails are inspected on a regular basis by the staff.
“In the two and a half years we’ve been open, we’ve been continuing to expand the amenities,” Roland said. “We estimate we’ve had about 300,000 visitors to the trail since it’s been open.”
Roland said about 95 percent of out-of-county visitors are from the Washington, D.C., Baltimore and northern Virginia areas, and there have been visitors from North Carolina, Florida and Wisconsin.
Jim Hudnall, of Prince George’s County, said he has been using the Indian Head Rail Trail since it became available for public use and rides his bicycle there on a weekly basis. He said the Oxon Hill Bicycling and Trail Club, of which he is a member, visits the trail at 1 p.m. every Friday and rides its entire length.
“We like to ride the trail, 26 miles, 13 miles there and back, and we’ll have an early supper in Indian Head,” Hudnall said.
Hudnall, 70, said he has been riding his bicycle since he was 6, and the quietness and serenity of the Indian Head Rail Trail still are enjoyable for “experienced cyclists.” He said sometimes the group will ride more slowly to enjoy the nature along the trail.
“We quite frequently see bald eagles and other wildlife,” Hudnall said. “It’s very quiet and peaceful.”
Other times, he said, the group members will travel the trail more quickly to get their heart rates up and get a little exercise.
“Riding our bikes definitely keeps us young,” Hudnall said.
Roland said the Indian Head Rail Trail has turned into one of Charles County’s major tourism venues.
“There is certainly an economic development value to trails, especially significant trails like the Indian Head Rail Trail,” Roland said.
The Charles County Commissioners recently approved the purchase of an old train caboose to serve as a trail visitors center to further enhance the trail experience.
Other benefits of the trail include providing local outdoor recreation for county residents, protecting a natural resource and providing health benefits, Roland said. Social benefits also have been noticed since the opening of the rail trail, he said, with clubs, trail groups, walking groups and people who have like interests using the trail together.
“These are important resources for a community,” Roland said.
Trails like the Indian Head Rail Trail are important investments to the community, Roland said. Studies showing average expenditures of those who use the trail show that the trails “pay for themselves” in a short period of time, he said. The average person spends about $5 or $6 in the local community when he visits the Indian Head Rail Trail, Roland said, and with 300,000 visitors already, that means about $1.5 million has been put back into the community, he said.
“Over time, these investments pay off and they really do contribute to the economic development of the county,” Roland said.
Year-round useCalvert County contains multiple parks that offer a variety of trails to residents and visitors year-round, giving them a glimpse of different areas of the county, said Calvert County Tourism Specialist Joyce Baki.
“Hiking any of the trails is amazing all year long because there are so many things that you see in the winter that you wouldn’t normally see in the summer,” Baki said. “It really is kind of a cool thing to do.”
Within the 3,000 acres of Parkers Creek Watershed Nature Preserve, managed by the American Chestnut Land Trust, visitors can walk more than 15 miles of trails and enjoy the “pristine area,” Baki said.
Calvert Cliffs State Park allows visitors to take a nearly two-mile hike to the cliffs and hunt for shark teeth and various fossils. Thirteen miles of six marked foot trails are also open to the public within the 1,079 acres of preserved wildlands in the park.
Trails in Battle Creek Cypress Swamp, Flag Ponds Nature Park and King’s Landing Park are contained in the Calvert County Nature Parks. Baki said each park “offers a different experience.”
At Flag Ponds, visitors can walk down to the Chesapeake Bay and hunt for shark teeth or fossils along the beach trail, or hike along lake, marsh, forested and shoreline trails. At Battle Creek, visitors can enjoy a quarter-mile walk while listening to sounds of nature and viewing the seasonal flowers. Battle Creek “takes you through the northernmost naturally occurring stand of cypress” in the United States and is on an elevated boardwalk, Baki said. King’s Landing offers trails through meadows and a forest, and also offers canoeing and kayaking to visitors.
Baki said a lot of people who take advantage of the trails enjoy the outdoors and often become the “regulars” who hike the trails.
Paul Elliott, a Washington, D.C., resident, said about once a month, he travels to Calvert County to use the hiking and biking trails at Calvert Cliffs State Park, Battle Creek and Flag Ponds, but the one he’s “come to relish the most” is Jefferson Patterson Park.
Baki said Jefferson Patterson Park in St. Leonard offers five both paved and unpaved trails for visitors to hike for several miles, and also has a canoe and kayak launch.
“I enjoy Jefferson Patterson Park for several reasons,” Elliott said, including its proximity to the Patuxent River, its diverse scenery and its active archaeological sites. “It just so happens that if you walk along the river on the east side looking west, the sunsets are spectacular. I very much enjoy going there.”
What Elliott said he enjoys about hiking the Calvert Cliffs trails is that he has “access to a beach and beautiful trails,” and people can occasionally finds fossils there. Calvert Cliffs and Flag Ponds “are really good places to go hiking,” Elliott said, and Battle Creek offers views of “spectacular trees and wonderful scenery.”
A hike leader and service project leader for the Sierra Club and Appalachian Mountain Club and volunteer for the American Chestnut Land Trust, Elliott said he leads a “mix of people” along the trails, with both men and women, young and old, novice and experienced participants.
Elliott said he began frequenting Calvert County trails about nine years ago after he accidentally stumbled upon them while searching for an American chestnut tree. One day while browsing the Internet researching the tree, Elliott said he found the American Chestnut Land Trust website.
“Out of curiosity, I went and explored the place and discovered its trails,” he said.
Calvert County participated in the 2010 Maryland State Parks Economic Impact and Visitor Study, which showed that people who visited state parks accounted for 76 percent of total annual visitation. According to the study, of the state parks surveyed between May and October 2010, 49 percent of overnight visitors and 29 percent of day visitors were out of state, Baki said, and hiking was rated the most popular activity.
Most people that visit the state parks also end up visiting other attractions and businesses the county has to offer, she said. The survey showed that 70 percent of economic impact is generated within a 20 minute driving area of a state park, Baki said, and 88 percent of the local impact is attributed to day visitors.
Connecting the community
While there are several parks in St. Mary’s County that contain nature and hiking trails, perhaps the most-used trail and biggest tourism draw for the county is the under-construction Three Notch Trail.
Kathy Bailey, executive coordinator for the St. Mary’s County Department of Recreation and Parks, said the Three Notch Trail, which opened in 2006 is still being constructed in chunks along the 28-mile county railroad right of way, which runs south from Hughesville to Lexington Park.
Bailey said all trails are tourism assets to the county, but since the Three Notch Trail will eventually run from north to south in the county and generally parallels Route 235, it has the highest potential to draw tourists to the area. She said as more of the Three Notch Trail is completed, the tourism and economic benefits of the trail will continue to increase.
The trail begins at Route 236 in New Market and runs to Route 5 in Mechanicsville. As land is planned for and acquired, six remaining phases have yet to be opened to complete the trail.
Last November, Mother Catherine Spalding School took advantage of the growing trail and held a 5K walk/run fundraiser for the school.
“The reason we were brainstorming having a 5K walk/run as a new fundraiser [was that] we were trying to do something new … something focused on fitness,” Principal Jessica Bowles said.
Bowles said the school chose to have its fundraiser at Three Notch Trail because it would be safer there than on county and state roads, especially if some students decided to participate. The 5K walk/run was held last November, and Bowles said there was a “pretty good turnout” with about 80 participants.
“Everything was very safe,” she said. “We loved the trail. It was very nice and had great scenery.”