The Gwynns Falls bike and hike trail, which threads through Leakin Park in West Baltimore from Franklintown Road to Leon Day Park, is a link in a lengthening chain that some hope will unfurl into an East Coast greenway from Maine to Florida.
For now, the goal is to make the park trail part of a meandering 14 miles along a stream valley, cutting through the city where mills used to jut from the pristine falls landscape.
"You'll be able to get on a bike in [Leakin Park's] parking lot and end up at the Baltimore Rowing Club or the Inner Harbor," said trail naturalist Sharon Schueler.
In 2003, at the planned completion of the three-phase trail construction, Leakin Park on the city's western outskirts should be connected to Federal Hill and the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River, passing the former Montgomery Ward building in Carroll Park, the B&O Railroad Museum, Camden Yards, PSINet Stadium and the Baltimore Rowing Club.
The second building phase is slated to begin this fall.
Meanwhile, the first phase, Leakin Park's 4-mile portion, remains relatively unknown, except to those who live nearby. Walkers, joggers, birders, fly-fishers and bicyclists are quietly passing the word that a secluded trail is in town: paved, 9 feet wide, among the first visible results of federal transportation funding. All told, the three phases of the trail are projected to cost more than $6 million, city officials said.
"There's a bit of a quandary," Schueler said. "[People] want to tell their friends, but they don't want it to get too crowded." On the other hand, Baltimore's neighborhoods tend to be tightly knit and provincial, she said, so a more populated trail would provide opportunities for strangers to mingle. At present, many in Baltimore are unaware of the 2-year-old trail.
In the future, enthusiasts expect the trail to present a varied snapshot of the city that will encourage tourism and an influx of residents.
With 350 plant species in Leakin Park's 1,200 acres, more biodiversity and wilderness thrives along the trail than in most urban parks. A recently published trail guide lists several points of environmental interest, such as a freshwater wetland near Winans Meadow. And the scenery is perfect for bird surveys, said Baltimore Bird Club member Scott Crabtree, as he finished a solitary saunter with his binoculars one recent morning.
Butterflies and wildflowers, such as butter-yellow evening primroses, enhance the trail at this time of year.
"This fall, it's going to be knockdown gorgeous," said Beth Strommen, the city greenways coordinator.
"Every time I've been out there, I think, `This is unbelievable, this asset is close to home,'" said Jacqueline Carrera, executive director of the nonprofit Parks and People Foundation. "This is more beautiful than some places in Colorado and West Virginia and the beginning of a true journey."
The foundation, the city's recreation and parks department and the nonprofit Trust for Public Lands are part of an innovative partnership that has nurtured the goal of a premier urban bike trail in a city sorely lacking bike paths.
When the Maryland Department of the Environment moves into the former Montgomery Ward building, residents could ride their bicycles to work after leaving their cars in trailhead parking lots.
While city officials oversaw the design and construction of the trail, the Trust for Public Land helped acquire the nonpublic land, and the Parks and People Foundation organized a community base of support starting in 1994, Carrera said.
Gradually, the community base evolved into the Gwynns Falls Trail Council, which meets regularly to advise the city on the best uses of the trail.
There has been a fairly harmonious meeting of minds: "This community enjoys it broadly, because [largely closed] Wetheredsville Road has become a walking area," said Peter E. Auchincloss, a community leader in neighboring Dickeyville and a council member.
Auchincloss added that Leakin Park is significantly more safe since the first phase of the trail was completed: "With police services to the trail, that's raised some comfort levels. Now, reality is outweighing perception: Bad things don't happen."
Almost as an invitation to the general public, an art exhibition, Whisper the Wind, will display outdoor environmental artworks by Maryland Institute College of Art students starting Sept. 29, during a daylong festival.