Jeff Holland: Looking back at some of my top hikes of 2023 | COMMENTARY

Jeff Holland: Looking back at some of my top hikes of 2023 | COMMENTARY

At this festive season, consider giving yourself the gift of a walk with a friend. And your friend’s dog, too.

No matter what time of the year, it’s wonderful being out in the woods and by the water —  wonderful in the true sense of being full of wonder at the inspiring beauty of nature. And having someone to share it with is key to your appreciation of it all, even when that someone has four paws and a mind of her own.

Here are just a handful of the many hikes I took this past year with my dog, Millie, and other friends, too. We’re lucky living in this area to have such a wide variety of outdoor habitats to explore.

Each of these walks takes you to some river, stream, marsh or bayside beach. None of these are all that far away, most of them are free and all of them welcome polite dogs on leashes, although some sites do have restrictions as noted below. And you don’t have to be a seasoned hiker, either. Just call a buddy, grab a leash and get out there.

Hemlock Gorge. (Jeff Holland/Courtesy photo)
Hemlock Gorge. (Jeff Holland/Courtesy photo)

Hemlock Gorge

The upper stretch of the Big Gunpowder Falls runs through Hemlock Gorge before it flows into Prettyboy Reservoir. It’s located near a hamlet called Hoffmanville, about 30 miles north of Baltimore. Over the eons, the river here has cut a deep, narrow gorge through the hills. A path follows the river downstream and takes you through a hardwood forest of sycamores and poplar trees, then into a dense realm of hemlocks. It’s a scene you’d expect to find somewhere high up in the Cascade Mountains in Oregon.

  • Prettyboy Reservoir Park
  • Hoffmanville, Baltimore County
  • Limited roadside parking. No toilets. No admission.

Calvert Cliffs State Park

This day-use park features a sandy beach known for its abundance of fossils, a freshwater and tidal marshland and 13 miles of hiking trails. Over the years, collectors have scavenged Calvert Cliffs State Park for the fossils of more than 600 prehistoric species including sharks, whales, rays and enormous  seabirds, mostly relics of the Miocene epoch, millions of years ago, when this area was covered by a warm, shallow sea. The Red Trail runs 1.8 miles down to the beach. At this point, the Chesapeake is so wide, you can hardly see across to the Eastern Shore.

  • 10540 H. G. Trueman Road
  • Lusby, Maryland​​
  • Open daily, sunrise to sunset, year-round. There is a modest admission fee per vehicle. Restrooms are available. Portable toilets are available on the trail.
Eden Mill Nature Center. (Jeff Holland/Courtesy photo)
Eden Mill Nature Center. (Jeff Holland/Courtesy photo)

Eden Mill Nature Center

Eden Mill Nature Center in Harford County, north of Baltimore, serves as the county’s environmental education center. It’s set in an old grist mill by a dam on Deer Creek. There’s also a museum dedicated to the history of the mill, a handicapped-accessible canoe launch, gardens, a pavilion, picnic tables and grills.

Volunteers offer family programs throughout the year, many of which are aimed at introducing small children to the delights of the natural world. The three miles of marked trails take hikers through the park’s 118 acres, from the wetlands along the banks of the creek and up the steep, forested hillsides to high meadows.

  • 1617 Eden Mill Road
  • Pylesville, Maryland 21132
  • The park grounds (canoe/kayak launch, trails, picnic areas, etc.) are open daily from dawn to dusk.
  • There are portable toilets on site. There is no admission fee.

Great Falls Tavern Area, C&O Canal National Historic Park

The Great Falls Tavern, about 14 miles upstream of the canal’s origin at Georgetown in Washington, D.C., serves as the park’s visitor center. From there, you can take the well-named “Billy Goat Trail” up the mountainside or a summertime cruise on a replica canal boat.

The towpath runs the 184.5-mile length of the park along the Potomac River. Between 1850 and 1924, mules trod that path, hauling packet boats loaded with coal, grain, lumber and building stone from the mountains to the tidewater of the Chesapeake Bay. Walking along the towpath today is an easy stroll, and you’ll find plenty of places to admire the breathtaking views of the mighty river crashing through rocky chasms.

  • 11710 MacArthur Blvd
  • Potomac, MD 20854
  • There are toilet facilities available. Polite dogs on leashes are welcome on the towpath, but they are not permitted in certain areas. Park hours are 7 a.m. until dark, every day. Admission: $20 for a vehicle pass that’s good for 7 days. See the web site for occasional free admission days.
Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center. (Jeff Holland/Courtesy photo)
Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center. (Jeff Holland/Courtesy photo)

Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center

This site, a prime example of the bay’s marsh habitat, is located on a 510-acre peninsula on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, just south of Kent Narrows. You can begin your Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center tour at the visitor center and gift shop next to the conference center, then head off into the pine woods along a trail that loops around the man-made Lake Knapp.

A side path leads to a wood-decked overlook with a panoramic view of Marshy Creek. Another path runs along a boardwalk across a marsh. This leads out to the beach on Hog Bay, where you can see the bridge across Kent Narrows in the distance, off to the north.

  • 600 Discovery Lane
  • Grasonville, MD 21638
  • Open daily, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Indoor and portable restrooms are available. There is no fee for using the trails. Members can bring dogs on weekends and check out kayaks for free, among other privileges.

Rachel Carson Conservation Park

This delightful county park near Brookville in Montgomery County comprises 650 acres of meadows and woods with nearly six miles of trails. It’s named for Rachel Carson, America’s preeminent environmental author, educator and activist.

One leg of the path leads down to the Hawlings River, really not much of a river at all, but a very pretty stream, with clear water flowing down a bed strewn with huge boulders. The trail follows along the river for a little more than half a mile, taking you through a hobbit tunnel of mountain laurels and providing striking views at every turn.

  • 22201 Zion Road
  • Brookeville MD
  • Open sunrise to sunset. There is no admission fee. There are no toilet facilities on site.

Beverly Triton Nature Park

Located at the tip of the Mayo Peninsula in Edgewater, this Anne Arundel County park sits between the South and Rhode rivers, offering a scenic view across the bay and a mile of beach to explore.

This was once part of two side-by-side beach resorts restricted to whites only. It was saved from development in the 1980s and has recently been renovated with a new bath house, a picnic pavilion and other nice amenities. One of the nicest is the canoe and kayak launch. There are five miles of wooded trails around three large tidal ponds, and plenty of places to drop a line, as long as you apply for a fishing permit.

  • 1202 Triton Beach Road
  • Edgewater, MD 21037
  • Open daily from 7 a.m. to dusk. Admission is $6/vehicle. There are public toilets in the new bath house.

Adkins Arboretum

This 400-acre native garden and preserve located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, 25 miles east of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, is dedicated to promoting environmental stewardship. There are five miles of trails that wind through the arboretum grounds.

The Blackston Branch path offers a walk through mature bottomland forest of oaks, beeches, poplars and sweetgums. One of the trails parallels Tuckahoe Creek as it meanders down to the lake and then on to connect with the Choptank River. The arboretum’s Tuckahoe Valley trail connects to Tuckahoe State Park’s trail system if you’re up for a longer hike.

  • 12610 Eveland Road
  • Ridgely, MD 21660
  • The grounds are open daily from sunrise to sunset. There are toilet facilities in the visitor center. Admission for adults (ages 18+) is $5; youth (ages 6–17) is $2. Ages 5 and under are admitted free, as are Arboretum members; however, you’re still welcome, even if you can’t afford the fare.

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