Trail Gazer A memoirist and seasoned world traveler meditates on her favorite local hiking and biking options.

By Holly Morse-Ellington



The path in a green summer forest.
The path in a green summer forest.

I’m a nomad. I don’t follow maps or signs, other than the  sign I was born under: Sagittarius, the adventurer. Hey, the shoe fits, be it hiking boot or cleated bike shoes: I’m a curious traveler who loves peregrination and reflection on the open road or trail. My favorite way to discover a place is on foot. I’ve hiked and biked across large portions of the Czech Republic, Montenegro, Slovenia, Turkey, Vietnam and other countries. But for all my roaming, I still enjoy coming home to Baltimore and the luxury of stepping out my front door any given day and having the escape into nature—and culture—at my feet.

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By Caleb Luke Lin.

The Gwynns Falls Trail

Car engines buzz in my ears like pesky mosquitos as I pedal along the shoulder of Security Boulevard just off the I-70/ 695 corridor. I grimace. A cycling guide I had in Turkey shared my annoyance with noise pollution. But he passed on some of his cycling guru wisdom: “Everything’s here,” he said, pointing to his mind. I haven’t mastered the power of mind over matter, but I do know from experience that something better is just around the corner. I follow the beginning of Trailhead 1 and turn right onto Ingleside Avenue. The sound of the Gwynns Falls streaming under the bridge softens the motorized nuisance. I haven’t found my rhythm yet and it’s tempting to duck into Bullwinkles Saloon. This wouldn’t be out of the norm of my experience with other bikers and hikers. A cold beer is a refreshing start to a ride or hike. But within minutes of beginning to pedal this 15-mile trail system from Franklintown to Federal Hill, I’ve entered a village with still-visible traces of its quaint 1761 origins. Tucked behind the uneven, dry-stacked stone walls are Victorian cottages and gardens. I have a better view from the height of my bike seat to peek into the yards, landscaped with brick-lain paths that connect flowerbeds, gazebos and meditative nooks with benches and sculptures. A few miles later, the trail diverges from the main road onto a paved path that winds beside the falls under a canopy of foliage.

This is the heart of the Gwynns Falls-Leakin Park that wouldn’t exist if plans for the East-West Expressway had succeeded. Fortunately, I-70 came to its abrupt end to spare the land. According to Molly Gallant, Outdoor Recreation Programmer for the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks, the Gwynns Falls Trail is the second-largest urban wilderness area on the East Coast. Outward Bound has a limited presence in cities, and the Baltimore Chesapeake Bay Outward Bound School at Leakin Park is one of their few urban campuses.

The last miles of the trail return me to city life, but end with the historic green space at Federal Hill, with views of the harbor and plenty of pubs to relax in and enjoy that cold beer.

Patapsco Valley State Park

The closest I’ve come to face-planting was along the Amalfi Coast. I had a choice between grazing my elbow against tour buses and hugging the road’s shoulder overgrown with vegetation that dropped off the side of the cliff. I felt like a real mountain biker, preferring to take my chances with nature over a busload of tourists on a schedule. Knowing my strengths and weaknesses has paid off—I’ve yet to break a bone. Knock wood.

I know I can’t bike Patapsco skillfully, as much as I’d like to. This is a favorite for advanced mountain bikers because of the technical level required to hop logs and navigate scary natural obstacles while maintaining balance.

Horror film buffs remember a haunted Patapsco Park in “The Blair Witch Project”—the real-life setting dates well before the province of Maryland was founded, so perhaps spirits do roam here. Exploring Patapsco’s 16,000 acres with 170 miles of trails is more than a journey through rugged nature and gently rolling falls—it’s a scavenger hunt through history.

I adore the Swinging Bridge, for instance. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such suspension footbridges allowed Howard County residents—in the community of Orange Grove—to cross the river into Baltimore and work at the Orange Grove Flour Mill, where flour was sold in bags tied with labels that read: “Patapsco Superlative Flour.” The Thomas Viaduct, another standout landmark, is a Patapsco granite arched bridge that was commissioned by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1833 and was once the largest bridge in the United States. But less obvious along the dams are the remnants of colonial port and mill towns, like Elkridge Landing, Avalon, Elysville, Alberton, and the still visible remains of churches and graves of the Daniels community, where canvas and denim mills thrived.

Hikers and bikers scored a historic victory this year when Governor Larry Hogan released his FY 2017 budget, which included $700,000 to build a pedestrian bridge over the Patapsco River, connecting and improving access between the McKeldin and Woodstock trail areas.

Loch Raven Trails

A breeze rustles the umbrella of trees. I pump my legs up and down, creating a cadence between my pace and my breath. Flocks of Canada geese skim across the water. I often spot chipmunks, white-tailed deer, groundhogs, raccoons, redheaded woodpeckers, turkey buzzards and foxes, even if it’s just a glimpse of their bushy amber tails as they scurry deeper into the forest. I high-five the mitten-like leaves of the sassafras tree, formed—as Native American legend has it—by a boy named Sassafras who fell so madly in love with a girl that he pled with a medicine man to make him unique. The result? He ended up with three thumbs.

My mind wanders into the mystery of these waters and woods. There’s a hidden city at rest beneath the reservoir—Baltimore poet Ann Eichler Kolakowski’s 2014 book, Persistence: Poems of Warren, meditates on her grandmother’s Warren homestead. Though not embossed in riches of gold like Atlantis, this storied land is entrancing—I imagine its citizens past continuing their day-to-day activities as I wind along the path, though I’ve yet to be lucky enough to see the tip of their church steeple rumored to surface when the water levels are low. I pass the small pet cemetery where chew toys and headstones like “Andy’s Scottie of Glen Leah” and “here lies Sam, a great dog” honor the memory of four-legged hikers who’ve roamed these woods.

Maryland State Sen. James Brochin ranks Loch Raven near the top of his list of favorite places to bike and hike. “My passion lies around Loch Raven Reservoir,” Brochin says. “It’s like no other place. You can get lost there…but in a good way. I hike there often and it clears my head, calms me down and reminds me of what’s important in life.”

Within these 50 to 70 miles of trails, Merryman’s Mill is lauded for hiking as is the Glen Ellen Trail for mountain biking. Just where cyclists are and are not allowed to bike has been an ongoing debate that may soon be resolved by a single-track trail for biking.

 Herring Run Park and Hamilton-Lauraville

In the early 20th century, the Baltimore Sun described a “little Eden” that had come to be on Harford Road—several miles north of downtown.

Years later, the newspaper likewise described “a hamlet set in the wilderness.” At that time, the Hamilton-Lauraville neighborhoods were considered suburban respites from the downtown hubbub. Although the landscape has become more city than suburb, it retains an idyllic urban-wilderness appeal. The wide bike lanes and sidewalks along south Walther Avenue—set against the panorama of charming 1920s Cape Cod homes of Beverly Hills and Arcadia—feed into the 375 acres of woodlands and wildlife at the west entrance of Herring Run Park. I like to take a detour parallel to the park along Parkside Drive. There’s a secret garden-like entrance on the eastern end marked by a handmade wooden stake painted teal with pink flowers and a butterfly that reads “Prior Avenue Trail” in yellow block print. I feel like a kid entering a hidden world as I descend this root-notched path to meet the babbling Herring Run stream.

I’m not the first to be overcome with curiosity about hidden treasures here. In 2015, archeologists Jason Shellenhamer and Lisa Kraus organized a community dig, which unearthed artifacts from the fieldstone cellar and home of one of Baltimore’s earliest and most prominent citizens, William Smith, supplier of flour during the Revolutionary War and delegate to the Continental Congress, U.S. House of Representatives and the Maryland Senate. Discoveries included what I imagine to be evidence of stylish dinner parties: bits of ceramic, pottery, glass and household items—and my favorite, a pile of oyster shells.

Additional points of interest include a commemorative garden plaza with a Memorial to Fallen Officers and the Columbus Obelisk, a 44-foot high brick-with-stucco-finish monument that was the first statue erected in America to honor Columbus.

Lake Roland Park

Just when I think I know a place, I make a new discovery. I’ve been hiking and biking in Lake Roland Park (Robert E. Lee Park) for 15 years. I start at the dam’s Greek Revival-style marble pumping station, cross the Northern Central Railroad tracks and find myself fully immersed in the typical woodlands surrounding a lake. But there’s a treasure I’ve yet to discover in this 500 acres.

“Ever hiked west of the lake to Bare Hills, Holly?” Evan Balkan, author of 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Baltimore, asks me.

I have not, but now, of course, it’s a must. According to Balkan’s research, between Bare Hills and Soldiers Delight (another good hiking destination in western Baltimore County), almost all the chrome in the world was mined and produced in the early to mid-19th century.

As Balkan describes it, you’re walking in familiar terrain lush with trees until you reach a stubbly landscape. “When you stand in the middle of it, you would think you’re in Nebraska,” Balkan says of the prairie-like setting with serpentine soil. It’s one of the few “serpentine barrens” that exist in the region, offering a unique grassland ecosystem that draws moths and butterflies to its scrub pines and rare plants, such as glade spurge, fameflower and prairie dropseed. And something distinctly majestic (and, for me, new) to behold!

Baltimore Bike Party

Spending the night with a group of girlfriends was the high- light of my Friday nights as a kid. Except, my mother has a thick southern accent, so I always thought hanging out with friends was called “spinning the night.” It’s no wonder I’m drawn to “spinning” Friday nights on my bike with hundreds of my closest cycling friends for the monthly Baltimore Bike Party (BBP).

Fabulously, the BBP is like a hike-and-ride. The event alternates between bouts of pedaling and walking your bike processional-style along the route, depending on the size and pace of the pack. The first time I joined a BBP was on a Halloween for their evening of “Brew Ha Ha.” I thought I was going all out to secure flashing LED lights to my bike, but, corralled at the starting gates in St. Mary’s Park among riders in full skeleton costumes and bikes tricked out with stereo systems better than the one in my car, I felt I’d arrived at the party underdressed.

Over the months, I realized that Halloween was not an exception. Not all bike partiers dress up, but those who do dress to theme: prom gowns, Hon wigs and faces painted like lions, tigers, or bears for “Animals” night. The streets of Baltimore turn into a big pep rally with music and “Bike party! Bike party!” chants amid flashes of neon lights that illuminate our home team against a backdrop of rowhouses.

“BBP is this ball of energy that creates the right kind of atmosphere for people to get exposed, get involved and celebrate what Baltimore has to offer,” BBP lead organizer Kim Lillig says. “I put so much work into making the event happen each month because of my strong belief in the revelry of BBP and its effectiveness for being a catalyst of change. When we parade through a typically ignored neighborhood in Baltimore, people that may never have interacted before are smiling and high-fiving and sharing in this incredibly positive moment of celebration.”

The BBP rides every last Friday of the month, starting from St. Mary’s Park in Seton Hill at 6:30 p.m., wheels up at 7. The starting point is fixed, but the routes and final destination with themed after-party vary. The theme for June is “Back to the Future.”

An important aside: While the party is free fun, it’s not a free-for-all. BBP volunteers organize a Baltimore Police escort when budget allows, and when it doesn’t, they ride under official West Coast Cycling rules for strict traffic law adherence. I find that as far as city cycling goes, the BBP is as steady as they come. I rode Bike Party-style in Hanoi wedged among thousands of motorcycles zipping past, stacked with everything from cages of ducks to grandfather clocks. That was a little trickier, but that’s another story for another issue.

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