Where to explore the urban wilderness

The public parks in Baltimore mean the great outdoors is never far away

The great outdoors is closer than you think

October 31, 2002|By Lisa Wiseman | Lisa Wiseman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Where can you go fishing, ride a miniature train, tour a historic mansion, hike in the wilderness, visit a living memorial or try out some radical new moves on a skateboard -- all within the boundaries of Baltimore City?

That's right, if you're a city dweller, all these activities can be found right in your own back yard -- in some of Baltimore City's public parks. Who knew? Many parks activities fit in the best-kept-secrets category. In some cases, the parks themselves are a best-kept secret.

Even though summer is over and cool weather is here, there are still plenty of fun things to see and do in city parks. Why not discover something new about a place you cherished in your youth? Or visit a park far from your own neighborhood? If you're a newcomer to the area, how about introducing yourself to Baltimore's numerous green spaces?

The following is a guide to the offerings of several city parks. Even if you've lived here all your life, we bet you'll find a few surprises.

All parks listed below are open year-round from dawn to dusk unless otherwise noted.

Gwynns Falls/ Leakin Park

Windsor Mill and Franklintown roads, 410-396-7931; Carrie Murray Nature Center, Ridgetop Road, 410-396-0808; Gwynns Falls Trail, Eagle Drive, 410-396-0440.

Located in Southwest Baltimore along the Gwynns Falls stream valley, Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park is a great spot for hikers, bird-watchers, nature lovers and those who simply want to escape city life for a couple of hours.

With more than 2,000 acres, the park is one of the largest wilderness woodland parks in the eastern United States. The 4-mile-long Gwynns Falls Trail stretches from one end of the park to the other. Eventually, the path will be 14 miles long and reach all the way to the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River and the Inner Harbor.

In addition to hiking and biking trails, the park features a nature center, tennis courts, baseball, basketball and football play areas and several picnic spots.

The Crimea Mansion and nearby stone chapel, at the end of Eagle Road, were built in 1850 as part of the country estate of Baltimore railroad designer Thomas Winans.

In addition to the B&O Railroad, Winans designed the St. Petersburg-Moscow rail line in Russia. He named his home after the Crimea area of Russia. Today, the chapel is closed and the mansion is used for park offices, but you can still check them out from the outside.

Climb aboard a small-scale version of the Chesapeake & Allegheny Steam Engine near Windsor Mill Road and Forest Park Avenue in the park. The train runs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. the second Sunday of the month from April to October. Plan now to take a ride next spring. Call 410-252-2055.

Are old ruins your thing? Near Winans Meadow, you'll find some along the trail that resemble an old, bombed-out fort. Park officials believe that a fort may have been built during the Civil War to keep Union troops away; the Winanses were Southern sympathizers. Another theory suggests that the fort is a replica of a battle site of the Crimean War. No one knows for certain.

Dead Run, a tributary of the Gwynns Falls, once provided water to Crimea Mansion. The riverbed may be dried up, but the old water wheel that pumped water uphill to the Winans' home remains and can be found along the trail.

Bet you really didn't know: Portions of the movie The Blair Witch Project were filmed at the park. But don't worry, the trails are clearly marked, so you won't get lost in the woods like those poor kids did.

Druid Hill Park

Madison Avenue and Druid Park Lake Drive, 410-396-7931; Conservatory and Botanic Gardens, Gwynns Falls Parkway and McCulloh Street, open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, 410-396-0180.

Besides being the inspiration for the name of the Baltimore-based R&B group Dru Hill, Druid Hill Park has been a favorite recreational spot for city dwellers since the 19th century. The 744-acre park is home to the Baltimore Zoo and the Conservatory and Botanic Gardens, which feature a Victorian Palm House, three greenhouses and more than an acre of flowers.

The centerpiece of Druid Hill Park is the lake. The path around it is about two miles, and it's a great place to bike, jog or simply stroll.

Picnic areas abound, and there are ballfields for all ages and playgrounds for children. Youngsters also can learn about the rules of the road in Safety City.

For big kids (adults, that is), there's a golf course in Druid Hill Park that doesn't require you to have a caddy or clubs or wear funny-looking pants. It's a disc-golf course, and it's located near the Reptile House.

Never heard of disc golf? That's not surprising. There aren't too many disc-golf courses around, so folks in the know come from all over Maryland and beyond to play the game in Druid Hill Park.

The object is to get your flying disc to drop into a basket in the fewest number of throws. The course was recently spiffed up by the city, and now it has all new baskets and tee pads.

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