Park an idyllic refuge amid suburbia

Recreation: Since 1907, Patapsco Valley has been a cherished part of Baltimore County.


September 26, 2004|By Michael Reeb | Michael Reeb,SUN STAFF

There is no secret why Patapsco Valley State Park is so attractive to residents of western Baltimore County: It offers a bucolic setting within easy reach of the suburban landscape.

That goes for residents of Catonsville and Relay, many of whom live within walking distance of the park.

But it also goes for residents of Woodlawn, Randallstown, Owings Mills and Pikesville, who are no more than a 10-mile drive from one of five entrances to the park.

What might be a secret is the diversity of recreational activities the park offers, including camping, canoeing, fishing, hiking, picnicking and tubing.

Maryland's first state park, Patapsco Valley began with 43 acres in 1907 and now comprises about 15,000 acres along 32 miles of the Patapsco River.

The Avalon, Glen Artney and Hilton areas at the eastern edge of the park offer more than 17 miles of trails, ranging from easy to rugged, for running, hiking, cycling and horseback riding. The Grist Mill Trail, which recently was extended from the swinging bridge on the Baltimore County side of the river to Ilchester Road near Ellicott City, is paved and wheelchair-accessible.

Popular with runners

The Baltimore Road Runners Club holds one of the races in its trail series at Patapsco each May because the park is conducive to running.

"The last six years we've had this particular race in Patapsco, and everyone seemed to love it as a park," says the Road Runners' Chris Cucuzzella.

"As far as general running, the Patapsco's one of my favorite places," Cucuzzella says. "It has some hilly terrain; other terrain is perfectly smooth and flat. It has a lot of diversity.

"What's also nice is that you have scattered throughout the park comfort stations, along with water and even trail maps, so if you go out for a two-hour run, you don't have to worry about taking water with you."

On any given morning, Eric Bruner can be found cycling on the Grist Mill Trail on his way to work.

"I'm very fortunate to be able to do that," says Bruner, who lives in Ellicott City and works near the University of Maryland, Baltimore County campus.

Frank Ryan, a park ranger with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources who is stationed at the Patapsco's Hollofield Area, says that cycling has become a dominant activity in the park.

Mountain biking boom

"From my point of view, picnicking has fallen off," says Ryan, who has been assigned to the Patapsco for three different stints during his 35-year career with the DNR. "In its place, mountain biking from one end of the park to the other has grown tremendously."

One activity that probably has remained constant is fishing, albeit in considerably cleaner water than that which flowed through the valley three decades ago.

Several times a week in the summer, teens Patrick Barbarino and Nick Bond of Elkridge get a ride to the park's Avalon Area. Some days, they fish the area's Lost Lake, an impoundment that has been set aside for those younger than age 16 and older than 62.

"The other day I caught a catfish about 21 inches," says Patrick.

Ryan points out that, with cleaner water, the smallmouth bass population has increased and that fly-fishing - previously seldom seen on the Patapsco - is a more common sight.

"Smallmouth bass are very sensitive to pollution," says Ryan, 54. "Just to think that the river went from where it was before [Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972] - where it would change color three times a day depending on what the mills in Ellicott City were dumping into it - is phenomenal."

Although the Patapsco is a few miles from a major metropolitan area, it offers excellent camping opportunities, with the Hollofield and Hilton areas offering campsites and Hilton offering rental cabins.

Visitors from near, far

Says Kristen Fiackos, who worked at the Hollofield check-in office this summer: "This place has 72 camp sites. Hilton has cabins, and that's why some people go there. We have people from Quebec and Germany, all over the place. It's kind of cool."

Sometimes the visitors don't travel as far.

"Perhaps because it is a metro park," Ryan says, "people are here 365 days a year. There was a group of guys from Anne Arundel County who every year on the same weekend at the first hint of spring would pitch a tent. It was a spring ritual for them. But I remember back in '72 on that particular weekend, it snowed like the Dickens, and they were snowed in in their tent." Other visitors come to the park to picnic with family, friends or colleagues.

Says Ryan: "It seems with development through the metro area, the park grows more important each year. It'll always be important."

To make a camp reservation, call 888-432-CAMP (2267). Information: 410-461-5005 or

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