The Rail Trail and Towpath at Hancock, Maryland

An ironic effect of the stay-at-home orders in place this spring is that Sue and I have had a harder time getting away from people.

Nearby walking and biking paths are much more crowded than in pre-pandemic days. The National Park Service closed large parking lots along the C&O Canal towpath at Carderock and Great Falls, Maryland, so people crowded into other places. Parking areas along the canal as far away as the Monocacy Aqueduct (Milepost 42) now fill up as they never have before.

We normally strive to do things out of synch with others. That’s harder now in the areas we frequent most. So we’ve started to range farther afield to get away from the crowds, especially on weekends.

One Sunday near the end of May, we drove to Hancock, Maryland, about an hour and half from home via I-270 and I-70. Hancock is situated along both the C&O Canal (Milepost 124) and the Western Maryland Rail Trail, a 26-mile paved path that parallels the canal. Hancock lies midway along the rail trail, at about Mile 10.

The parking lot beside the trail at the center of town has meters that take quarters and charge a nostalgically low rate of 25¢ an hour. Weaver’s Restaurant, a popular diner and bakery, is a short walk up the street.

On previous visits, we’ve always biked west from Hancock, where the Western Maryland Rail Trail offers diverse and dramatic views of the Potomac River and nearby mountains, and passes through shady forests and alongside rocky cliffs. Along this stretch, we once spotted the smallest fawn I’d ever seen, and another time a black bear crossed the trail ahead of us.

This time we decided to ride east from Hancock along the less scenic section of the rail trail to its terminus, just so we could say we’d now biked the entire trail. We made it a round trip by returning via the canal towpath.

For much of the way, this section of the trail is within sight or sound of I-70, so it doesn’t feel as remote and rural as the trail west of Hancock. On the whole, it was also less smooth. In some places, the dappled shade hid bumps caused by tree roots. Where the trail veers away from the interstate, the riding becomes more pleasant. You pass right by a couple of farms and beside the lengthy pond called Little Pool.

When we reached the parking lot at Mile 0, we turned around. Had we wanted to extend our ride, we could have biked about another 3½ miles via road and canal towpath to Fort Frederick State Park, which preserves a large and impressive stone fort built in 1756 during the French and Indian War.

We decided to ride back on the C&O Canal towpath. There are only a few places where you can switch between the rail trail and towpath. We took the first one we came to, just east of canal Milepost 117. For the next three miles, the towpath surface consisted of fine gravel and was surprisingly smooth. The fine gravel abruptly ended at Milepost 120. The riding got a little bumpier, but still not bad for the towpath.

The 7-mile stretch of towpath we rode proved to be a bonanza of interesting sights: two aqueducts, two locks, lock house ruins and other canal structures, along with fine views of the Potomac River and Little Pool. Entering Hancock, we passed by the National Park Service visitor center (closed for now) housed in a handsome brick Colonial-style house dating from 1785.

In short, it turned out to be a surprisingly enjoyable 21-mile ride. On our drive home, just before the road out of Hancock merges onto the interstate, we stopped at the Blue Goose Market for some tasty treats: a slice of freshly made peach and berry pie to eat there and a rum cake to bring home. A few miles east of Hancock, we exited the interstate speedway and took US 40 through Indian Springs and Clear Spring, then Route 68 to Williamsport and Booneville, and finally US Alt. 40 to Frederick—a far more scenic and relaxing route than I-70.

So if you’re looking to get away from the crowded trails near Washington, D.C., Hancock makes a good daytrip destination. The parallel paths of the Western Maryland Rail Trail and C&O Canal towpath offer an impressive range of sights and scenery and many options for roundtrip routes. And a slice of freshly baked pie at the Blue Goose or Weaver’s provides the perfect finish.

Other posts about the Western Maryland Rail Trail:

Biking the Western Maryland Rail Trail, 2015

Exciting Changes to Trail and Towpath, 2019

David Romanowski, 2020

Gold Mines at Great Falls in Maryland

A while ago in this blog, I wrote a post called Walking the Gold Mine Loop, about the trail system in the woods near the Great Falls of the Potomac on the Maryland side of the river. The loop trail is named for the gold mine that once operated here. That post has received a small but steady stream of hits, so I thought I’d do an update, about what I’ve recently learned about this area.

“Historic Mining Along the C&O Canal”

As a volunteer at the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, I recently attended a presentation by Jessica Lindsay, who had completed a Geoscientists-in-the-Parks internship here. She had been tasked with mapping mining structures throughout the entire park and identifying current hazards related to these sites.

There was quite a lot of mining over the years along the 185-mile canal, for concrete, lime, sandstone, coal, iron, and gold. While little in the way of technological ruins remain, the landscape still bears lasting signs of mining. For example, Lindsay showed us images from west of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, showing long gashes in the landscape up to 70 feet deep from iron mining. Most evidence of mining within the park is much more subtle.

Her talk, “Historic Mining Along the C&O Canal,” focused mainly on the Great Falls area and its many defunct gold mines, in particular the Maryland Mine, which the Gold Mine Loop and its connecting trails overlie. Mining took place near Great Falls from the 1880s to the 1940s, when the Maryland Mine closed.

The gold veins threading through the hills here are the northernmost end of a gold-bearing belt that extends all the way to Georgia. Gold nuggets weren’t panned from streambed sediments here, as in California during the gold rush years of the mid-1800s. Instead, the gold-bearing rock here had be crushed into small pieces and then the gold extracted using mercury. It was a laborious, dangerous, and poisonous process. Because of the relatively minor amounts extracted, it ultimately proved unprofitable.

Lindsay clarified some mining terms for us. A tunnel is a chamber that has openings on both ends, like a train tunnel. An adit has only one opening; it leads to a dead end. A shaft is a vertical chamber. Don’t step into one.

Gold Mines at Great Falls

One of the sources Lindsay relied on was the Department of the Interior’s Geological Survey Bulletin 1286, “Gold Veins Near Great Falls, Maryland,” published in 1969. Most of the text is heavy duty geology, but the 22-page bulletin also contains interesting historical background and some intriguing photos and graphics.

Consider the cover illustration, created from a historical photograph reproduced in the bulletin. It shows the processing facility for the Maryland Mine. The caption for the photo explains what role the various parts of this structure played in the gold extraction process. Knowledgeable locals know that the remains of this facility—a concrete structure that supported a water tower—can be seen in the woods on the left as you enter the C&O Canal National Historical Park from MacArthur Boulevard. Last year, the National Park Service removed some wooden structures from here that were not historic or even historically accurate. They were built in the 1980s to help interpret the site for visitors but had deteriorated and become hazardous.

As you walk the trails through the woods here, you’ll see little other obvious evidence that mining took place here. And yet, there is much among the trees that just doesn’t look quite right. “If it doesn’t look natural,” Lindsay said, “it most likely isn’t.” There are earthworks and stone structures dating back to the Civil War, traces of old roads, and exploratory prospecting pits and trenches from the mining operation.

One illustration in the bulletin reveals how extensive the Maryland Mine was. A cutaway view shows the mine’s underground chambers in 1940, when the mine closed, and the above-ground structures as they appeared in 1967. Long horizontal passageways pierce the bedrock at depths of 50 feet, 100 feet, 135 feet, and 200 feet. That is what’s below you when you walk the Gold Mine Loop.

Openings to the mines throughout the park have been sealed for obvious safety reasons. In some places bat gates, grates that allow bats to fly in and out, have been installed. But minor openings remain, some resulting from structural failures. However enticing, these places are dangerous. They can, have, and do collapse. In the unlikely event that you ever happen upon one, don’t try to enter it!

The Topographical View

One of the tools Lindsay used to locate evidence of mining was the MD iMap Topography Viewer, a nifty web application you can access yourself. It is basically a high-resolution map of Maryland that shows topographical features in great detail. The data was last updated in February 2019, so it’s pretty current. I zoomed in on the area where the Maryland Gold Mine was located and made a copy of the image on my screen. I added the three red letters to the image below to help point out some features.

The Potomac River is the flat area running from top to bottom on the left. “A” shows the location of Great Falls Tavern, the visitor center for this section of the C&O Canal National Historical Park. (Buildings are only faintly visible.) The long linear feature running past the tavern is the canal itself. You can discern individual locks and other structures, including the stop gate across the canal and the adjacent levee, both built for flood control, in the lower part of the image.

“B” marks a distinct feature unrelated to mining: the turnaround for a trolley that connected Great Falls to nearby Bethesda in the early 20th century. The trolley tracks are gone, but a trail now follows the trolley route through the woods.

The “M” toward the lower right of the image marks the site of the Maryland Mine gold processing facility (depicted on the Geological Survey Bulletin 1286 cover), near the intersection of MacArthur Boulevard and Falls Road, which are faintly visible. The areas to the right and upper right are now neighborhoods, some built atop old gold mines.

Look below the “M” and in other areas throughout the hilly, undeveloped land between MacArthur Boulevard and the canal, and you can pick out countless disturbances in the landscape—gashes, lines, pits, mounds—topographical evidence of the mining operations that once took place here and that are only vaguely apparent from the trails in the woods.

Call up the topography viewer and play around with it yourself. It’s fascinating! Take a look at your own neighborhood. You may see features you never realized existed.

The Gold Mine Loop is one of my favorite places to walk. Since Jessica Lindsay’s talk, I’m eager to get back into the woods. I’ll look around now with greater interest, curious about just what it is I am seeing and what lies beneath.

David Romanowski, 2020

Exciting Changes to Trail and Towpath

At least once a year, Sue and I drive an hour and half west to Hancock, Maryland, to bike the Western Maryland Rail Trail. It’s never crowded, even on a lovely late summer weekend, and is nicely shaded and scenic. On the way home we often stop to visit one of the more remote sections of the 185-mile-long C&O Canal. Our most recent trip brought us two exciting surprises: a new addition to the rail trail and a newly restored—and rewatered—canal aqueduct at Williamsport.

The Western Maryland Rail Trail Extension

When I wrote about the Western Maryland Rail Trail on this blog four years ago, I knew of plans to extend the 22-mile trail another 14 miles. The new section would cross the Potomac River between Maryland and West Virginia in six places and traverse three tunnels. One of them, the Indigo Tunnel, is about 0.8 miles long, fully two tenths of a mile longer than the Big Savage Tunnel, the longest on the Great Allegheny Passage rail trail in Pennsylvania. Once completed, the extension will be truly spectacular.

Before Sue and I headed out, we were surprised to discover that the first 4 miles of the trail extension had just been completed. The ribbon cutting took place on June 1, 2019.

Rather than parking as usual in Hancock, the midpoint of the trail, we drove to the parking lot in Pearre (PA-ree), near the west end of the trail, so we’d be right near where the new extension picks up. I brought bike lights with us, expecting we might need them in the Indigo Tunnel. I was wrong; we never got to go through it.

The brief announcement we read about the extension didn’t mention that those 4 new miles are divided into two segments. Connecting them is a 2.25-mile detour on the C&O Canal towpath, which closely parallels the entire trail. The detour bypasses the Indigo Tunnel, which the National Park Service has closed to protect colonies of bats living in it. Three of the eight bat species found there are threatened or endangered.

Nonetheless, it was a delightful ride. The extension passes Lock 56 and the Sideling Hill Creek Aqueduct on the canal before diverting you onto the canal towpath itself just short of the Indigo Tunnel. You pass Lock 57 and the remains of its lockhouse and then rejoin the paved rail trail near the other end of the tunnel. The trail runs for another 2 miles and dead ends at an abandoned rail bridge over the Potomac. This last segment passes the tiny town of Little Orleans, home of Bill’s Place (“Beer-Bar-Bait-Boats and Good Food”), well known to towpath through-hikers and bikers.

While we didn’t see a bear crossing the Western Maryland Rail Trail this time, the new miles on the trail extension were scenic, smooth, and delightful.

The Restored Conocoheague Aqueduct

Williamsport is an interesting site on the C&O Canal. The town itself appears to be thriving, with many shops and eateries, and it is one of the few places where the canal is still filled with water and continually maintained. You can visit several historical structures within just a short distance here. Beside the Cushwa Basin along Conocoheague Creek is the Cushwa Warehouse, which now houses a National Park Service visitor center. Nearby is an old trolley barn power station, which now has exhibits on the canal. Along the canal are two unique bridges, a working lock and a lockhouse, and the newly reopened Conocoheague Aqueduct.

At 196 feet long, the triple-arch Conocoheague Aqueduct is the second longest of the C&O Canal’s 11 aqueducts (the Monocacy Aqueduct is 516 feet long) and the only one now fully restored. The aqueduct was once the site of a rather spectacular accident. In 1920 a canal boat passing through the aqueduct struck the upstream wall and broke through, plunging into the creek below and causing the canal to be shut down for over four months while the breach was being repaired.

A 2½-year restoration has returned the aqueduct to an operational state. A ribbon-cutting ceremony marking its reopening took place on August 8, 2019, just three days before we visited. The structure is still being assessed for leaks, but Park Service tour boats are now traversing it. This is now the only place in North America where you can ride a boat across a historical aqueduct and then through a working canal lock. For C&O Canal lovers, it’s quite an exciting development.

The railroad lift bridge now carries people rather than trains.

A short distance from the aqueduct are two other unique structures. Where a railroad track crosses the canal, a lift bridge was built to raise that section of track when canal boats had to pass. No longer functional, it now serves as a footbridge over the canal. Just beyond it is a rare example of a Bollman Bridge, named for the civil engineer who pioneered cast iron bridges in the late 1800s. It is the only Bollman Bridge on the canal and one of only a few still standing. (Two others are in Savage, Maryland, and on the Great Allegheny Passage rail trail near Meyersdale, Pennsylvania.)

Stop by the visitor center and pick up the walking tour brochure, which maps out a mile-and-a-half route connecting all these features.

Restored Canal Locks at Great Falls

Over the past couple of years, multiple repair and restoration projects have been taking place along the C&O Canal. Sections of towpath are being resurfaced and flood damage repaired. Locks in Georgetown and at Great Falls in Maryland are being rebuilt or restored. The canal bed is being repaired in several places so the 22-mile section from Violet’s Lock to Georgetown can be rewatered again. Several of these projects are nearing completion.

At Great Falls, three of the four locks closest to Great Falls Tavern, the park visitor center, are being restored to working order. Locks 17, 18, and 19 now have newly constructed wooden gates meticulously crafted to replicate the deteriorated original ones. As I walked by recently, I saw water beginning to flow through the locks again for the first time in many years.

A Park Service worker turns a lock key to adjust a sluice valve in the gate, which controls the flow of water when the gates are closed.

Even as these major projects were wrapping up, recent floods damaged other sections of the towpath and filled parts of the canal bed with rubble and debris. The canal will always be a maintenance challenge. But I’m glad to see so much money and effort finally being applied to restoring critical parts of it.

David Romanowski, 2019

In Bethesda, We’ve Seen a Thing or Two

If you live in a place long enough—and I’ve lived in Bethesda now for 30 years—you are bound to experience many unusual, even amazing things.

A few days ago, what seemed like just another summer storm unleashed a deluge of historic proportions. Between 3 and 4 inches of rain fell on Bethesda within an hour; some nearby areas received more than 5 inches. Roads turned into rivers and cars became boats. And, of course, it happened during the morning rush.

A month earlier, another unexpectedly strong storm peppered us with gumball-sized hail before flattening an 18-foot section of fence in our yard, ripping out nails, tearing apart a 2×4 stringer, and snapping a 4×4 post.

Hurricanes have pummeled us. Earthquakes have rattled us. Violent storms have slammed us. Tornados have struck not far from home. The Potomac River has reached historic flood levels time and again.

Here are a few of the natural events we’ve experienced since I moved to Bethesda in 1989.

The Microburst

A microburst is a localized column of sinking air within a thunderstorm that plummets to the ground and spreads out in all directions at speeds that can reach or even exceed 100 miles per hour—equivalent to an EF-1 tornado. The microburst phenomenon first gained widespread attention in 1985, when one caused a Delta Air Lines flight to crash on its approach to Dallas / Fort Worth International Airport.

On June 14, 1989, as I headed to the subway after work in Washington, D.C., the sky darkened and what at first seemed like a typical late-afternoon thunderstorm let loose. The wind began blowing so hard that the rain seemed to fall sideways. I got soaked. When I emerged from the subway in Bethesda half an hour later, the sky was blue and the sun was shining—and there was devastation all around. Mature trees had been toppled. Powerlines were lying across streets.

Later identified as a microburst, winds exceeding 80 miles per hour had ripped through Bethesda and Northwest Washington, blowing down thousands of trees and limbs and knocking out power to 150,000 homes. It was the worst damage the area had seen in nearly a century. Our power was out for three days, others’ for much longer.

The Blizzard and Flood of 1996

In early January, one of the worst East Coast snow storms on record hit the Washington region. On January 8, the snow on our back deck measured 22 inches deep. The weather station nearby measured 25 inches, making this our 4th biggest snowfall ever. Two days later a couple more inches fell. Two days after that, another half a foot. A week later, the temperature shot up, and that nearly 3 feet of accumulated snow began to melt—fast. Within a week it was gone.

Nearly 15,000 square miles of snowmelt, from as far away as West Virginia and southern Pennsylvania suddenly drained into the Potomac River. The river level at nearby Little Falls crested at more than 19 feet above flood stage—the 5th highest level ever recorded and the worst flood since Hurricane Agnes in 1972. Sue and I went down to nearby Lock 5 on the C&O Canal; it was underwater (see photo above). The river extended like a vast lake from where we stood all the way to the Virginia shore. The extensive damage to the 185-mile-long canal would take years to repair.

If that wasn’t enough, about nine months later, Hurricane Fran unleased another deluge on the region, causing the 7th highest river level at Little Falls, at just under 18 feet.

The Return of Brood X

The buzz of cicadas is an iconic seasonal sound around here. You can hear a few of them sawing away throughout the summer months. But every 13 or 17 years, a huge population of cicadas called a brood arrives like some science fiction nightmare.

Billions of these fat, ugly insects, up to 2 inches long, emerge from pencil-wide holes in the earth, where they have been feeding all those years. They crawl up anything they can find nearby: trees, walls, fences, even you if you stand still long enough. Then, like something out of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a cicada’s body splits open and a new insect emerges, winged and red-eyed, and then flies away, its hollow carcass still clinging to the wall or tree.

The cicadas lumber clumsily through the air, smacking into doors, walls, windows, you. I’ve resorted to batting them away with a racquetball racquet. They settle into trees and bushes and commence with their shrill buzzing.

The notorious Brood X (how creepy does that sound?) last emerged in 2004. (The X stands for 10—there are 15 known broods of periodic cicadas in eastern North America.) They began appearing in our yard on May 13. By May 22, their buzz-saw din was so piercing that at times I had to wear earplugs when I went outside.

For about five weeks, the cicadas did what cicadas do: make an ungodly racket, mate, and lay eggs. Then in a disgusting finale, they all died. Suddenly, driveways, sidewalks, and streets were littered with billions of big crunchy insect bodies.

Beware: Brood X will return again in 2022.

Earthquake!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011, was my weekly work-at-home day. I was sitting outside at our patio table with my laptop, when, just after 1:50 p.m., the boards of the deck beneath me began to shake. I had experienced minor tremors before, both in New England and Bethesda. So I quickly concluded that this was one too. But this one was different. The shaking got stronger and just kept going.

I stood up, one hand on the table to steady myself. I wish I had had the presence of mind to step down off the deck to feel what it was like on the ground. But I expected the shaking to stop at any moment. Instead, it went on and on. It must have continued for at least 40 seconds before it finally stopped.

In Washington, D.C., plaster rained down from the vaulted ceiling of Union Station, carved stone pinnacles and gargoyles crashed to the ground around Washington National Cathedral, and mortar shook loose from between the stones of the Washington Monument, panicking the tourists inside the swaying structure. Amazingly, no one was killed or seriously injured. Eight years later, damage to the cathedral is still being repaired.

The earthquake’s magnitude measured 5.8 on the seismic scale. That may not seem like a big deal to a Californian, but it was the strongest earthquake east of the Rocky Mountains since 1944, and the strongest ever recorded to emanate from the seismic zone of central Virginia. From its epicenter northwest of Richmond, the earthquake was felt as far south as Georgia, as far north as Maine and Canada, and as far west as Chicago. It may have been the most widely felt earthquake in U.S. history.

The Derecho

In the Washington area, 2012 would smash the record for the warmest year of all time, and the summer of 2012 would be the third hottest ever. By the end of June, we were already entering our hottest 11-day stretch ever recorded. On June 29 the temperature hit 104°. And then things unexpectedly got even worse.

Before the night of June 29–30, 2012, hardly anyone other than a meteorologist had ever heard of an especially violent kind of storm called a derecho. Strong summer storms are not uncommon around here. But no one—not even the meteorologists—had expected the powerful, fast-moving storm front that slammed like a tsunami into Washington that night.

The storm front formed in the Midwest on that tropically hot day and moved eastward, picking up speed like a bowling ball rolling downhill. As it raced toward the Mid-Atlantic, the front covered an astonishing 600 miles in just 10 hours. Instead of dissipating when it hit the Appalachian Mountains as weather watchers expected, it washed over them as though they were merely speed bumps. The derecho bowled onward and into a sleeping Washington.

I got up that night to see what was going on. The trees in our back yard were whipping around wildly. I thought they would surely snap. But the thing I remember most was the sky. The lightning flashes were constant—stroboscopic. I had never seen anything like it. I went back to bed and pulled the pillow over my head. At some point the power went out.

The storm front passed quickly but left a wash of destruction. Wind gusts of 70 to 80 miles per hour blew down trees and powerlines over a vast area, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without electricity during a record heat wave. Sue and I managed by staying during the day in the air-conditioned comfort of the museum where I worked and returning home at night. We closed up the house in the morning, opened all the windows in the evening to let in the modestly cooler night air, and slept downstairs on our sleep sofa. Our power was finally restored on the 4th of July after 5 days and 5 nights of record-breaking heat, the daily highs averaging nearly 100°.

Wild Weather Extremes

Here in the Mid-Atlantic, we have southern summers and northern winters and incomparably beautiful springs. But the seasons can vary a great deal from year to year. We have had bearable summers with many pleasant days and scorching summers with weeks in the 90s and 100s. We have had mild winters with barely any snow and others that rival New England winters. We never know from year to year what we’re going to get.

We often don’t get snow until January, but in 1989 it snowed on Thanksgiving. Sue and I took advantage of the lack of crowds and visited the Washington Monument and the National Zoo. On Thanksgiving 2007, the temperature topped 70°, and we went bicycling on our new bikes.

A week before Christmas 2009, we were buried under 2 feet of snow, our biggest December snowfall ever. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in 2015, temperatures topped 70°. We rode our bikes on the National Mall on Christmas morning wearing shorts and tee shirts.

In 1994 our thermometer dropped as low as -8º in January. In other years it has reached the low 70s in early January. My bicycle commuting season usually ended in late November or early December and began again in March. But some years I biked to work all the way into January, and others I began bike commuting again in mid-February.

We’ve seen many local weather records tied or set. We experienced the 4th biggest snowfall on record (1996), the 6th biggest (2003), the 8th biggest (2009), and the earliest since 1979, on October 29, 2011. We took pictures of snow on cherry blossoms on April 7, 2007.

We’ve lived through the snowiest winter on record in 2010, in which more snow fell than in the past five winters combined. That year also tied with 1980 for the hottest summer on record. The year 2012 smashed the record for our warmest year. We experienced the hottest July (2010), the warmest February and March (2012), the warmest December (2015), the warmest February again, a new record (2017), and the wettest year (2018).

We lost power due to hurricanes or summer or winter storms for one to five days in January 1999 (ice storm), August 2003 (Hurricane Isabel), July 2010 (violent thunderstorm), January 2011 (heavy snowfall), August 2011 (Hurricane Irene), and June 2012 (derecho).

So yes, to paraphrase those wacky Farmers Insurance TV commercials (in which actor J.K. Simmons recounts stories of “unbelievable but true insurance claims”), here in Bethesda we’ve seen a thing or two. And who knows what we’ll see next.

David Romanowski, 2019

A Southern Swamp in Maryland

Standing in this eerie forest on a sultry summer day, you can easily imagine yourself in another time and place, like somewhere along the swampy coast of South Carolina. It’s not hard to envision Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox” of Revolutionary War fame, charging past on his horse as he eludes his pursuers, British troops unaccustomed to American swamps and unnerved by their reptilian inhabitants.

But this is Maryland, about an hour’s drive southeast of Washington, D.C. This is Battle Creek Cypress Swamp, one of the northernmost stands of bald cypress trees in North America. Swamps like this were once more widespread here. Today only a few small patches can be found in Maryland and Delaware. More extensive cypress swamps extend along the coastal Southeast and Gulf of Mexico to Texas, and up the Mississippi River basin as far as southern Indiana and Illinois.

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Although some trees here may be hundreds of years old, this is not pristine virgin forest. Cypress wood is prized for its resistance to decay, so this stand has been repeatedly logged and reduced in size since colonial times. The Nature Conservancy acquired the remaining 100 acres in 1957 to establish this preserve.

A distinctive feature of the bald cypress is its unique cone-shaped root structures known as knees, which surround the trunk and protrude upward through the mud and dark water. The knees can grow several feet high and may help provide oxygen to the tree. Along with the woody buttresses extending from the trunk, knees may also help stabilize the tree. Whatever their purpose, they certainly make navigating by boat or on foot through bald cypress swamps problematic. Another unusual characteristic of the bald cypress is that, although coniferous, its feather-like leaves turn brown and fall off in autumn.

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You can access the 0.4-mile swamp boardwalk loop trail from a small visitor center. The trail is so short that, when you get back to the start, it’s worth turning around and walking it again in the other direction. There is also a spur that leads to a 0.3-mile trail through a native arboretum and meadow, which we didn’t know about at the time so we didn’t walk through there.

The preserve is on a country road a few miles south of Prince Frederick. Opening hours vary (as late as 1:00 p.m. on Sunday), and it is closed on county holidays. Beware: Sue and I drove an hour and half to get here one Saturday recently and were dismayed to find that the gate to the parking lot was closed well after the 10:00 a.m. opening time. There was no indication on their website or voicemail that the preserve would be closed that day.

We decided to drive about 20 miles south to the charming bayside town of Solomons to poke around for a while. When we returned to the preserve a couple of hours later, the gate was still closed. Having planned our day around a visit here, we decided to park on the grass by the gate and walk in. The visitor center was closed, but we were able to circle around it and access the boardwalk loop trail. We ran into a volunteer there who told us that the person who was supposed to unlock the gate hadn’t shown up. He had contacted someone to let them know. The gate was still closed when we left.

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But despite that snafu, I’d still highly recommend a visit here. For a few minutes and a short distance, you can immerse yourself in an environment that is truly rare this far north. You won’t spot an alligator here, or a terrified Redcoat knee deep in muck, but at Battle Creek Cypress Swamp it’s not hard to imagine.

David Romanowski, 2019