- The Washington Times - Friday, February 10, 2006

Patapsco Valley State Park, one of Maryland’s oldest state parks, stretches for more than 32 miles along the slow-moving Patapsco River. The park was established in 1907.

The park has five developed recreational areas. Because they are located from Sykesville in the west to Ellicott City in the east, it would be quite a challenge to hike all these areas in a single day.

One of the best hikes is in the McKeldin day-use area, located in the middle of the 14,500-acre park: A hike on the Switchback Trail goes four to five miles, depending on how many side and attached trails the hiker chooses to explore.

As you enter the park, stop at the contact station and pay a $2 entrance fee. Ask for the McKeldin Area map for an additional $2. This map provides important information on park services and facilities and, of course, a trail map. The station attendant will have trail and weather information needed for the well-planned hike. Leave your pets at home; they are not permitted in the park.

From the parking lot, walk back on the entrance road toward the contact station and look for the white-blazed Switchback Trail on your right. You may see other marked and unmarked trails on this hike, but you want to stay on the white-blazed trail throughout the hike.

Although you may see numerous tracks at this early stage, including those from mountain bikes and horses, the tracks will disappear as the trail descends into the trees on a wide path. You may hear Marriottsville Road traffic nearby, but that noise will fade quickly into the wonderful semisilence of a quiet woodland area. You are in a bottomland forest and flood plain .

Wild grapes grow in this area. In the spring, many species of wildflowers spread throughout this trail and the rest of the park; some species paint the trail all year. Dainty, small blue and pink flowers, black-eyed Susans, jack-in-the-pulpits, Indian pipe, lady-slipper and many patches of color can be seen from the trail at times during the year.

The white-blazed Switchback Trail swings left here, but as long as you follow the white blazes and consult your map, you should not get turned around.

One of the highlights of this hike comes near the two-mile mark. You will come up to the overlook to the South Branch Rapids just a few steps off the trail to the left, where you will see a modern split-rail fence and a bench.

After you take in the swirling, splashing rapids below, this might serve as a first good place to sit for a cold sip. Once you are ready to continue, return to the white blazes and descend the steep trail. This takes you from the heights above the cascades to the sandy beach of a sunlit pond into which the rapids empty.

Swimming is not permitted here, but this is a nice place for catching rays, taking photos or skipping stones across the wide pond.

If you have brought your rod and tackle, this is a fine place for trout and bluegill fishing. There are many places along the trail to try your luck and skill with Maryland trout, bass, bluegill, sunfish and pike.

The southern half of this hike takes you to the least visited and quietest part of the white-blazed Switchback Trail. Shady creek scenes dominate here as you walk along the north branch of the Patapsco River.

The park has a wide diversity of wildlife. Listen for bird calls and songs — did you catch the flittering movement a few yards from the trail? If you sit quietly at various points along the hike, or even walk quietly, you might see herons, egrets, hawks, several kinds of ducks, cardinals, Baltimore orioles, beavers, groundhogs or even a fox for those who are lucky or stealthy enough.

The sun filters through the trees above the Patapsco, dappling the brown and rust-colored waters with flickering light — as if diffused spotlights shine though the branches, highlighting the quiet scene below.

Through this section, you will hike past three left turns off your trail, but continue to walk straight (or the right fork in the trail). By looking at your map, you will see that these left-turn trails shorten your hike. Keep the north branch to your right by taking the trail on the right each time a trail comes in from the left. At times, you will be walking well above the branches of the Patapsco; at other times, you will be walking near level with the slow-moving waters.

At about 4.2 miles, the trail swings hard left and ascends to the top of the hill, where you continue right, along the white-blaze trail. If you go left, you will walk past horse-trailer parking and basketball courts, cutting short the last wooded quietness of the hike. Your trail takes you past the Liberty Dam Overlook, another good spot for a sit and a sip of home-made herbal iced tea or hot chocolate from your thermos.

From the Liberty Dam, take the paved road past the picnic shelter and the playground and head back to the parking lot. Do not take either of the left-turn options, one before the shelter and one after it.

Back at the parking lot, if it is a warm winter day, bring out the charcoal for a picnic of sausages or veggie burgers at one of the shelters or large picnic tables. The playgrounds will keep the children busy, and there is a well-kept disc golf course ready for flinging the Frisbee.

From the Washington Beltway, you get to the McKeldin entrance by taking Interstate 95 North off the Beltway to Interstate 695 toward Towson, to Interstate 70 West (Exit 16) and then to Exit 83 on I-70 — Marriottsville Road. Turn right (north) and go about four miles; the McKeldin entrance is on the right. From the Washington Beltway, it is less than an hour to the park.

You will want to return to this venerable and diverse park. With more than 30 miles of park property and four other recreation areas within Patapsco State Park, there is much to discover on other days. Camping, cabin rental and hunting are available in other sections.

• • •

For more information on Patapsco State Park, McKeldin Area, and the park’s other recreation areas, contact Patapsco Valley State Park, 8020 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City, MD 21043; phone 410/461-5005; visit www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/central/patapscovalley.html. For general information from the Maryland State Forest and Park Service, call 800/830-3974, or send e-mail to [email protected]

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