There's something shady about the public beaches that are within an hour's drive of Baltimore.
They may not rival their Eastern Shore counterparts in some ways, but a warm breeze, dry sand and boat-dotted waters mean summer no matter what the ZIP code. There are even waves -- tame ones, to be sure -- though many children won't know, or care, about the difference.
What makes these close-to-home beaches a respite for families, besides proximity, are their park-like surroundings. There's welcome shade and places to explore amid acres of trees and marshes.
"My family comes here with the kids because there's more to do than just the beach," says park ranger Peyton Taylor about the Gunpowder State Park's Hammerman area. She's just shown off a largely unknown nature trail that leads to an observation deck. Hop the tree stump at the doorway of the cabin-like structure and the marshy home of muskrats and great blue herons appears below. (The trail is located off parking lot "A.")
Gunpowder's beach lures windsurfers and their brightly colored crafts. They favor this spot for its constant breezes and accessibility. For landlubbers, a grassy slope provides a place to grill dinner while the kids build sand castles and swim.
There's also shady solitude at Sandy Point State Park, despite the crowds that descend on the mile-long beach in the shadow of the Bay Bridge near Annapolis. Gary Adelhardt, Sandy Point's assistant manager, recommends a 20-minute walk on the service road at the back of East Beach parking lot to Lighthouse Point. There's unspoiled shoreline and a favored view of oceangoing vessels passing through the shipping channel.
Of course, not everyone wants sunbathing solitude; Sandy Point won't disappoint on weekends. To avoid crowds, try this beach on a weekday in June or early July, before sea nettles take up residence. After that, 22 boat-launching ramps, a marina, trails, picnic areas, beachcombing, kite flying, fishing, boat rentals and a playground built to accommodate physically challenged children still make Sandy Point a popular mini-vacation spot.
At Middle River's Miami Beach, dozens of painted and snapping turtles frequent a murky marsh underneath a wooden bridge on the nature trail. Several children escaped the sweltering early season sunshine recently by lying in wait on the bridge for the sight of turtles barging through the grassy brown waters.
What this Baltimore County-owned beach lacks in length is more than made up for by the swimming area. A soft sand bar allows shallow-water swimming up to 200 feet from the shore. The beach is located in a residential area, giving an aura of a private community beach, despite the conveniences of a concession stand and bathhouse.
Three other beaches close to home offering sun, sand and shade are Baltimore County's Rocky Point Beach in Essex and Oregon Ridge Lake in Cockeysville, and the privately owned Bay Ridge beach in Annapolis. For a day at the beach, there's no place like home.
To reach the Hammerman area of Gunpowder State Park, take 695 to Exit 33B (I-95). Take Exit 67A (Route 43 to Route 40). Turn right at the first traffic light (Ebenezer Road) and drive approximately 5 miles to the park entrance on the left. The beach is guarded from now to Labor Day. Hours: 8 a.m. to sunset. Admission: $5 per in-state car. Call 592-2897. A concession stand, bathhouse and windsurfing equipment rentals are on the grounds.
Sandy Point State Park is off Route 50/301 at the western terminus of the Bay Bridge. The beach is guarded through Labor Day. Summer day use hours: 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Admission: $5 per in-state car. Call (301) 757-1841.
Miami Beach is at 4001 Bay Drive, Middle River. Take Beltway 695 to Chase exit (Route 150). Drive on Eastern Avenue past Martin Marietta complex. Make a right turn onto Carroll Island Road, another right onto Bowley's Quarters Road, and a left turn on Goose Harbor Road. Bear right into the driveway to the beach. The beach is open weekends until June 15, and daily through Labor Day. Hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission: $3 adults, $1 children ages 3 to 11. Call 887-5953.