Nature: It Does A Body Good
If you're looking to get outside and venture beyond Baltimore City without traveling too far, here are three spots worth a visit.
Spending time in nature is good for you. Studies show physical and mental health benefits from being outside; being surrounded by undeveloped green space can reduce stress and promote well-being.
Lucky for us, Baltimore is home to large, expansive parks and smaller pockets of protected green space. Beautiful beaches and majestic mountains are within a day's drive, too. But for times when you want to get out of town without going too far, we explored three places no more than 30 minutes from downtown that are worth a visit any time of year.
While each of these parks is unique, they all underscore the importance of protecting undeveloped natural areas for the benefit of plants and animals—and us.
Located southeast of Baltimore City in Edgemere, North Point State Park is about 13 miles from the National Aquarium. The park sits on a peninsula jutting into the Chesapeake Bay. It's bordered by Back River to the north and Shallow Creek to the southwest.
There is a small fee to enter the park, which varies based on when you visit. Once inside, North Point's Black Marsh Trail is wide and flat; it sits on the bed of an old trolley line that used to ferry visitors to Bay Shore Amusement Park, which operated from 1906 to 1947. The trail isn't paved, but it's covered in materials from the old Sparrows Point steel mill, which keeps it from being too muddy or mucky.
The trail is shaded by tall trees like tulip poplars. Marshy habitat runs along both sides of the trail, and it's bordered by tangles of vines, heavy with berries at certain times of year. You can also see pale, bare tree stumps poking up from the swampy land. Depending on when you visit, you might catch turtles sunning themselves on fallen branches—or hear them drop into the water to hide as you approach.
After you pass an abandoned concrete station that used to generate the trolley's power, you can turn off the path to reach a narrow strip of sandy beach on the Bay. There, you can collect well-worn pieces of sea glass and get a clear view of the long pier that used to house many of the Bay Shore amusements.
The 500-acre Lake Roland park in north Baltimore is about a 20-minute drive from the Aquarium up I-83. There's no fee to enter the park, which is also accessible by MTA Light Rail and bus service, with the Falls Road station located directly outside one of the park's entrances.
The park's namesake lake is manmade, created in the mid-1800s as part of Baltimore's municipal water system by damming the Jones Falls River. While Lake Roland was removed from the water system in 1915, the stone dam and pump house still stand today.
Lake Roland's 2-mile Red Trail follows the Jones Falls along what was once the Greenspring branch of the Northern Central Railroad. The iron and timber tracks are still visible in spots, and a rebuilt trestle bridge over the river offers a peaceful spot to stop. The Red Trail is flat and narrow, and it can get quite muddy in some areas. A variety of mature trees—maple, oak, hickory, sycamore and more—tower over the trail, keeping it shady and cool. Thanks to these trees as well as the river and lake, Lake Roland is an excellent place to see and hear resident and migratory birds, including herons, red-winged blackbirds, woodpeckers and hawks.
Veering off the Red Trail onto the Yellow, Green or Orange Trails will lead you to the southwest corner of the park where there's a rare and important ecosystem called serpentine grassland. This prairie-like habitat supports endangered plant species that are adapted to its dry, nutrient-poor soil. These grasslands used to be common across northern Maryland and into Pennsylvania, but they have largely been destroyed by mining and development.
The Cascade Falls Trail at Patapsco Valley State Park is located near Catonsville, west of downtown, about a 30-minute drive from the Aquarium. The park was founded in 1907 as the Patapsco Forest Reserve, making it Maryland's oldest state park. Today, it spans more than 16,000 acres and has more than 200 miles of trails in eight separate recreational areas, with the winding Patapsco River as the thread tying them all together. The river is 39 miles long, flowing from Marriottsville through Baltimore City and the Inner Harbor before reaching the Chesapeake Bay.
The Cascade Falls Trail is about 2 miles long and is accessible from the Avalon and Orange Grove parking areas. There is a small fee to enter the park, ranging from a per-vehicle rate on weekdays to a per-person price on weekends and holidays. The trail is mostly flat, following a stream that has multiple small waterfalls and the slightly larger namesake Cascade Falls. Patapsco Valley is home to a wide range of deciduous trees, plants and animals—including mammals, amphibians, reptiles and birds.
A historic, suspended swinging bridge over the Patapsco River is located near the Cascade Falls Trail. Footbridges at this location used to allow residents of the Orange Grove mill town to cross the river to reach the flour mill operated by the C.A. Gambrill Manufacturing Company. The Orange Grove flour mill, which produced Patapsco Superlative Flour, burned down in 1905. Much of what remained was destroyed by Hurricane Agnes in 1972, although some stone ruins are still visible.