Take a hike. A winter hike, that is
Offseason outdoors strolling let participants see the forest for the trees
From the Indian Head Rail Trail to wooded paths around Historic St. Mary’s City, there’s an outdoor hike for everyone. And, winter can be one of the best times to get out and see nature, according to hikers across Southern Maryland.
Some trails are BYOH — bring your own horse
There are several trail options in Charles County including nature, fitness, hiking and equestrian trails, said Jon Snow, chief of parks and grounds in Charles.
“The rail trial is the only one that al- lows bikes on it,” he said. The 13-mile Indian Head Rail Trail is great and “packed on the weekends. A lot of people are getting into their fitness regimes this time of year. Charity events and 5K races are hosted more often toward the White Plains end of the rail trail.”
Snow said the Indian Head side of the rail trail is “way down in the woods, there is some wild and crazy stuff to look at in terms of nature.”
“February is one of the best times to get out and use the trails,” he said. “The leaves are gone and you can see things like beavers making huts and ducks floating [on the Mattawoman Creek]. It’s a neat time to get out and go for a walk.”
Rocky Graves, rail trail manager, said that he and his team monitor the rail trail throughout the year on bicycles, off-road vehicles or trucks.
“I try to walk four miles every couple of days or so,” he said. “On two different hills toward the White Plains entrance, we maintain what looks like a wall of ferns and it’s just beautiful. We
also let wildflowers grow off to the sides of the trail and they bloom at dif- ferent times of the year. Some people think they’re weeds, but I don’t.”
Snow has worked as a park manager and has a “soft spot at Gilbert Run, Oak Ridge and Maxwell Hall” parks.
“Gilbert Run Park is our traditional multi-use nature park with a 60-acre lake and picnic areas,” he said. “You can rent paddle boats. It has a 2.5-mile na- ture trail, and it does go up and down hills. It’s not for the faint of heart, but noth- ing too hard core. It’s not a paved trail. You’ll pass wildlife areas and boardwalks and see beavers in action, osprey, lots of waterfowl, especially this time a year.”
Open seasonally from March through Novem- ber, Gilbert Run is the oldest park in the county, Snow said. “Folks are allowed to park out front and walk in if they want to go for a hike,” he said.
Equestrians can bring their horses to Oak Ridge Park in Hughesville and Maxwell Hall Park in Ben- edict, which hikers are allowed onto as well. The county doesn’t provide horse to rent and ride, Snow said.
“It’s BYOH — or bring your own horse,” said Donna Fuqua, with Charles County commu- nications.
Maxwell Hall Park is “a neat piece of land,” Snow said. “There is 14.1 miles of equestrian trails but we let hikers in. You can go up and down hills in the woods, or you can walk along the beach at the Patuxent River. That one is our main equestrian park and we have a trail course [with] obstacles and jumps.”
Snow said one of Charles County’s hidden secrets is Friendship Farm Park in Nanjemoy.
“Down there we have about seven miles of trails,” he said. “Most of those are open to equestrians as well. Those are probably some of the better trails in the county, it takes you down Najemony Creek and there is some good scener y down there.”
Laurel Springs Park offers a 1.6-mile fitness trail, and Friendship Park is one of the county’s newer parks on the western side, Snow said.
“It has a fitness trail three quarters of a mile long,” he said. “It’s a wide paved path that goes around the exterior of the park.”
Within the park is the standard playgrounds, ball fields, and the nature themed playground pods have been a huge success. There’s bee station where the kids crawl through a beehive and a water section where you’re crawling on fish. If you want to get a good workout, we’ve also added universal fit- ness equipment at different stations. The people enjoy the trail because it is flat and open. They dig it.”
Where the beach is growing
Across the Patuxent Riv- er, Battle Creek Cypress Swamp in Prince Freder- ick is ideal for a day trip hike, said Anne Sunder- mann, executive director of the Calvert Nature Society. She said the swamp features a “boardwalk and it’s very good for bird watching. We have the na- ture center right there to learn about the habitat.”
Sundermann said some of the bald cypress tree knees look like fairy homes.
“You could imagine hobbits living there,” she said as she pointed to a collection of knees that were peeking through the swampy earth close to the boardwalk. The knees that stick out of the creek and swampy area are part
of the trees’ root systems.
People tend to think of hiking as an activity to do in the spring, summer or fall, Sundermann said.
“A lot of people say that it’s too cold,” she said. “It’s not really that cold here, but it can be rainy. But you can see so much. In my mind, winter is the best time to go hiking. In summer it’s kinda claus- trophobic, but right now you can see through the trees and see little plants creeping up and it’s great. I call it off-season hiking.”
Karyn Molines, division chief of Calvert County Natural Resources, said the swamp is great all year long because it changes so dramatically each season.
“It’s a quick, easy hike that you can do in one hour or take longer if you take stops to contemplate the trees,” she said. “I really love being under the canopy of the magnificent trees. Kids love the nature center, and my grand- mother would have liked it for the ease of hiking.”
If she has a full day to hike, Molines said she enjoys “all the trails at the American Chestnut Land Trust.”
Sundermann said she likes to go in the off-sea- son to Flag Ponds to walk along the beach.
“I can’t get enough of that place,” she said. “It’s more popular in the summer and people go to the beach. The beach is growing unlike other places on the shoreline that are being depleted due to erosion. It’s growing due to something called ac- cretion.”
Molines said she also enjoys Flag Ponds, but it can reach capacity quickly in the summer.
“Many people know that this is the best site for being on the bay and finding fossils, so I like it best in the off-season and in the woods, rather than the beach. In the spring, it is one of the best places to see spring wildflowers. It’s a hot spot for spotting migrating birds. In the fall, the woodland trails have the diverse fall foliage and crisp autumn smells.”
Year-round hiking is the way to go, as each season brings a different set of experiences, Molines said.
“In Calvert County, and throughout the Mid-At- lantic region, the climate is perfect for hiking,” she said. “There are only a few very hot or very cold days. Our rains are predictable and any snow-covered trails will be clear in a few days. And I often find that overcast days are the most pleasant for hiking. Photographs are easier on cloudy days.”
Comfortable walking shoes are important for any kind of outdoor experience, Molines said.
“Sandals, Crocs, flipflops won’t cut it,” she said. “Dressing in layers works well all year. I like wearing lightweight pants, especially some of the newer ‘quick-dry’ fabrics, to prevent insect bites and brushes with thorns or poison ivy.”
Other gear she recom- mended includes a hat, water and a trail map. “Don’t rely on your GPS or phone, as the signals are faint in many parks,” she said.
Water is a necessity no matter what time of year or how long the hike will take, Molines said. “For longer hikes, I like to bring a granola bar, apple and carrots and worry about a more hearty meal for after the hike,” she said.
Joining foxes and deer on the trail
Ben Derlan, president of the Outdoor Adventure Club at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, said he start- ed hiking in St. Mary’s County during the fall of his freshman year with the club.
“I started exploring the trails around Historic St. Mary’s City,” he said. “Just around this imme- diate area, Point Look- out and other locations. There are trails that lead out to Chancellor’s Point, really beautiful natural his- tory area. They’re actually starting to rejuvenate the area, and there is camping out there now. It’s a 5-mile round trip, so I like doing that loop.”
While Derlan said he preferred hiking in the fall, he also enjoys day hikes in winter.
“Fall is probably the best for hiking, because it’s not too hot but it’s still nice out,” he said. “If I’m doing an overnight or multi-day trip, typically all you need [around here] is a sleeping bag and a tent.”
Derlan said the club also makes weekend treks out of the state, “so we’ll bring a backpack, sleeping bag and pad, a tent, and all the food you’d need.” He mentioned having a brief run-in with a black bear mother and cubs in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park with the outdoor club, and that he sees foxes and deer on his hikes locally.
“I love the foxes, and see deer all the time,” he said.
Derlan said there’s a trail for everyone, even trails that are accessible for folks with disabilities. “It just takes some looking,” he said. “There’s a whole psychology behind being out in nature, it’s healthy for you because [of the] physical fitness. I just love the beautiful scenery.”
Derlan repeated what Molines said about being prepared for the hike, but added comfortable socks as a necessity. “Go with someone who is experienced, but don’t be afraid to just get out there and do it,” he said.
Rocky Graves, Indian Head Rail Trail manager, has been managing the rail trail for four years and loves being able to work outside and walk for his job.
Ben Derlan, president of the Outdoor Adventure Club at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, packs a sleeping bag and other hiking gear into his backpack.
Bald eagles are a common sight at the Indian Head Rail Trail, said Rocky Graves, trail manager.
Cypress knees at Battle Creek Cypress Swamp are a part of the root system that support the tree, said Anne Sundermann, executive director of the Calvert Nature Society.
Anne Sundermann, executive director of the Calvert Nature Society, said Battle Creek Cypress Swamp was not named after a Civil War battle. She said, “They named the creek after the town Battle in England.”