Top 5 Places to Explore the Outdoors in Maryland
By Charissa Hipp, Girls Who Hike Maryland Ambassador
National Geographic Magazine once referred to Maryland as “America in Miniature” and the title stuck. It’s fitting considering the diversity within the state’s 10,460 square miles of land and water. You’ll find mountains, marshlands and beaches from Western Maryland to the Chesapeake Bay and Eastern Shore. Maryland is home to more than 50 state parks and 29 national park sites. Here are the top five places to explore the outdoors in Maryland.
Tucked into the far corner of Western Maryland is Swallow Falls State Park with some of Maryland’s most incredibly beautiful mountain scenery. The park’s easy 1.25 mile Canyon Trail guides hikers through a spectacular old growth forest to several waterfalls. It’s hard to decide which is more impressive -- the forest or the falls. The Youghiogheny Grove is a 37-acre area of Virgin Hemlock and White Pine trees estimated to be 300+ years old and is the last stand of its kind in Maryland. Muddy Creek Falls is a crashing 53-foot waterfall, the largest at Swallow Falls State Park and the tallest in Maryland. It is the result of Muddy Creek falling into the gorge carved out by the Youghiogheny River. There’s also a 5.5 mile hike between Swallow Falls State Park and Herrington Manor State Park that travels through the Garrett State Forest. Camping, fishing and picnicking are other popular activities at this state park.
If you’re ever near the DC-Metro area, Great Falls should be on your must-see list. It straddles the Maryland / Virginia line with sections in Montgomery County, Maryland, and Fairfax County, Virginia. The Maryland side of Great Falls is part of the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal National Historical Park and is adjacent to the C&O Canal towpath. The Billy Goat Trail, one of the most popular hikes in the region, is at Great Falls. It has three sections that are accessible off the towpath between Great Falls Tavern and Carderock. All three sections combine for eight miles of hiking. Section A is the most treacherous of the three and is considered a technical and strenuous hike. It is less than two miles but involves some rock climbing and scrambling over very slippery surfaces. Section B is rated as challenging and Section C is considered easy. All three sections of the Billy Goat Trail have beautiful scenery and views of the Potomac River. In addition to hiking the towpath there are more than half a dozen other hiking trails and paths in the area. Bicycling is also popular on the towpath.
If you enjoy sandy beaches, maritime forests and coastal bays you’ll love exploring Assateague Island National Seashore. The 37-mile long barrier island is situated just off the eastern coast of the Delmarva peninsula facing the Atlantic Ocean. The northern two-thirds of the island, which contains the majority of the park, is located in Maryland while the bottom third is in Virginia. In addition to beach hiking the park has a variety of paved and unpaved trails for hiking and bicycling. Other popular activities include camping, horseback riding and over sand vehicle (OSV) use. Water activities include canoeing and kayaking as well as shellfishing, surf fishing, swimming and surfing.
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1933 as a waterfowl sanctuary for birds migrating along the Atlantic Flyway. Often referred to as the Everglades of the North, the refuge contains one third of Maryland’s tidal wetlands and is home to the largest breeding population of American bald eagles on the East Coast, north of Florida. Wildlife Drive is a 4-mile paved road that takes visitors along the Blackwater River and offers excellent views of the refuge. The road can be driven, hiked or biked. There refuge has four land trails and several water trails for paddlers. Cycling, fishing and wildlife viewing are popular activities at the refuge.
Although most people think of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park as being located in West Virginia, part of the park is located in Maryland (and Virginia). In fact, the Maryland portion of the park is Maryland Heights, known for its Civil War history and a very popular hiking trail. The trail is rated as difficult with some steep and rocky sections and is 4.5 miles or 6.5 miles round trip depending on whether you take the shorter or longer route. Wayside exhibits placed along the trail explain more about its Civil War history and the fortifications built there. The remains of the fort are at the summit of Maryland Heights. The Overlook Cliff Trail features spectacular views of the historic town of Harpers Ferry, the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, and several units of the national park system that intersect at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park - the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal National Historical Park and the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail.
Next time you’re in the Mid-Atlantic region, be sure to check out Maryland’s diverse terrain. Enjoy exploring the outdoors in scenic Maryland and see for yourself why it’s called “America in Miniature”!