The urban wilderness


Trails: Phase I of the Gwynns Falls Trail opens Saturday, and it represents a big step forward in reclaiming Leakin Park.


Standing atop a cliff in Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park, Chris Rogers was awed by the magnificent view of the lush, green stream valley below. He completely forgot the hustle and bustle of city life -- only the occasional sound of a nearby siren reminded him that he was in an urban area instead of a mountain wilderness.

The oasis of peace in the heart of Baltimore inspired the Recreation and Parks intern to energize a group of people into implementing the Gwynns Falls Trail project.

That was eight years ago.

Saturday, Phase I of the 14-mile trail officially opens and you're invited to join the celebration. Pack a picnic, don your hiking boots or favorite walking shoes, strap on your in-line skates, jump on a bike, push a baby stroller or spread a blanket on the meadow and enjoy a day in the park.

"We're planning an old-fashioned community day -- a trail party instead of a block party -- with strolling musicians and jugglers, African dancers, big-band and jazz music, environmental demonstrations, a climbing wall, guided hikes and lots of food," says Ellen Smith, a community coordinator with the Parks and People Foundation. The nonprofit organization, a provider for creative solutions to recreation and park issues, is one of the partners in the trail project. Other partners include the City of Baltimore, the State of Maryland, the Trust for Public Land and the Gwynns Falls Trail Council.

Designed by Daft-McCune-Walker and constructed by Beka Industries at a cost of about $1.2 million, Phase I encompasses 4.5 miles that stretch from the western end of Franklintown Road near Winans Way to Leon Day Park. The 10-foot-wide, mostly paved path winds along the rocky and picturesque banks of the Gwynns Falls and meanders through forests thick with ancient and massive tulip poplar, oak and ash trees.

Portions of the trail follow a filled-in millrace, a source of water power in the late 18th and early 19th centuries for the many grist mills situated along the stream.

Although hikers at times walk alongside streets leading through parts of the park and have to be aware of traffic when crossing, the first phase of the trail is entirely contained within the 1,200-acre Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park.

"Most people don't seem to realize that this park is one of the largest urban parks in the country," says Smith, adding that it's a sanctuary for wildlife, songbirds and native plants.

The park borders on several West Baltimore neighborhoods, including Hunting Ridge, Franklintown, Dickeyville, Windsor Hills, Fairmount, Rosemont and Edmondson Village.

Trail organizers hope that by making the park more accessible, neighbors and tourists will enjoy the great outdoors without leaving the city.

Heidi Grundmann, a nearby resident, park advocate and president of the Friends of Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park, agrees. "I never did understand why my children were bused to Baltimore County to learn about nature when nature was only a short walk down the street."

She says it's important to introduce park activities to bordering communities and to make others aware of its wilderness and scenic beauty.

"The park has a reputation as a trash and body dump. . . . The trail is a good beginning for a more positive image," explains Grundmann.

Throughout the years, Grundmann and fellow volunteers for the Friends of Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park have removed tons of trash from the park during scheduled clean-up campaigns, and they will continue to monitor the environment.

"It's important to preserve the health of the Gwynns Falls Valley," adds Greg Mitchell, of the Gwynns Falls Watershed Association and a member of the Gwynns Falls Trail Council. "The park can't become a playground. We have to strike a balance of recreation and ecological health. By really caring for the valley, we can secure the vitality of the adjacent neighborhood."

He says the newly built trail has the potential to show people just how wonderful the land is, "providing we preserve its nature."

Once all three phases of the project are completed, the 14-mile trail will connect more than 20 neighborhoods along the stream valley with the Inner Harbor and the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River.

Meanwhile, back at the Winans Meadow in Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park, near the children's loop, workers are busy putting finishing touches on the trail and are completing work on the amphitheater where Saturday's opening ceremonies will be held.

Private and public funding have made the construction of the trail possible, including money from the federal Department of Transportation, the Maryland Program Open Space, the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund and France-Merrick Foundation.

"The idea for the trail is actually not a new one," explains Smith. "Plans go back to 1904 when the Olmstead brothers proposed an urban greenway through the city -- we just took the plans off the shelf and dusted them off."

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