Images of West Baltimore generally feature asphalt, rowhouses and corner stores -- not frothy streams, thick brush and chirping birds.
But the city's park officials and nature lovers hope a 14-mile hiking and biking trail along Gwynns Falls will change all of that. Yesterday, Mayor Martin O'Malley opened the second stretch of the trail, which now runs between Leakin Park and Carroll Park and will eventually continue to the Inner Harbor.
Those who have walked and biked the trail say city residents will be amazed that wilderness snakes through the heart of such an urban expanse.
"You leave behind the gray asphalt, and you have no idea you're still in the city," said Rose Harvey, a Baltimore native who works for the New York-based Trust for Public Land, which is developing the trail with the city. "It really is undiscovered wilderness. I think it will allow people to connect with nature in a meaningful, meaningful way."
O'Malley and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat, said they were amazed.
"There are all sorts of natural sights in this city that remain to be discovered by the vast majority of people," O'Malley said after a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Carroll Park. "I've only seen a lot of these places for the first time over the last few years."
Cardin said: "Martin and I hiked the trail, and it's a beautiful way to see Baltimore."
City park officials say the trail, about half-finished, will be complete by late next year or early 2005. The third section will run past the city's baseball and football stadiums before splitting into two trails, one that will end at Harborplace and another ending at Middle Run. Officials hope the trail will be part of a greenway stretching from Maine to Florida.
Several West Baltimore residents who attended yesterday's ceremony said the trail has opened new worlds to their neighborhoods.
"It's been cleaned up so much so that people will now ask you how to get to Gwynns Falls," said William Fussell, who has lived in Windsor Hills since the early 1960s. "They don't even know it's in their own neighborhood."
Fussell's son, Eric, said the trail will give neighborhood children a natural play area that they have sorely lacked.
"Maybe people will begin to take pride in it, and our neighborhood will progress instead of regress," he said.
City officials have known about the lush woods along Gwynns Falls since the late 1800s. But plans to use the stream as a connector between parks and neighborhoods had collected dust for almost a century, Harvey said. The idea for the trail came back to life in the early 1990s as park and environmental advocates looked for ways to brighten the city.
The first four-mile stretch of trail, which begins in Leon Day Park, opened in 1999. The secluded stretch of asphalt has become popular among bikers and bird lovers, but those who have worked on the trail say they want to spread the word much wider. To that end, O'Malley announced a $5,000 city grant to help the park organizations launch a publicity campaign.
"This is a big issue for the neighborhood leaders, but we need to get the word out to the rest of the people in the neighborhoods," he said.
Those who have worked on the trail say the new three-mile stretch contains not only scenic wonders but remnants of the city's industrial past such as railroad viaducts, brick and granary mills, and an old broom factory that relied on hair from hogs slaughtered in Pigtown.
"People don't necessarily connect all those things in their minds, but that's what this trail will do," said Guy Hager, a spokesman for Parks & People Foundation of Baltimore, which has worked on the trail. Hager said he envisions placing information centers along the path that would tell walkers and bikers the history of Gwynns Falls.
Harvey said she hopes the trail will eventually wind all the way around Middle Run, a largely unexplored segment of the city's harbor. She projected that the final bill for the project will be $12 million to $14 million, about half of that covered by federal transportation money and the rest by state, city and private donations.
About 180 bikers paid $25 each to ride in the first Tour Du Park, a 35-mile ride through 10 city parks that ended at the Carroll Park ceremony. Those funds will go to city parks projects such as the trail. The riders offered positive reviews for the new Gwynns Falls path.
"I didn't know these kinds of parks and trails were so close and so accessible in the city," said Redmond Ingalls, who works downtown.
"I was surprised how beautiful it was," added Tom Garrison of Govans. "I had never seen it."