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Free park-ing: Exploring the gratis parts of Maryland's National Park system

Maryland residents often take the history and beauty gracing the state for granted, but there’s always a new way to view the area that takes into account just how special a place it is to explore.

Take Baltimore, for instance. “It’s the birthplace of the national anthem and the American railroad; jazz legends and historic authors like Edgar Allan Poe called Baltimore home,” says Sam Rogers, executive vice president of Visit Baltimore. “Historic experiences throughout the city and state abound.”

While Rogers might sound like a devoted O’s fan at Camden Yards, he’s not kidding. Large swaths of Charm City are included in the National Park Service’s Baltimore National Heritage Area. And if you want to explore some of its four dozed historic districts on your own, you can do it for free.

From scenic forests to war-related monuments and battlefields, Maryland has many special areas that operate under the auspices of the Park Service. To find more information about Baltimore’s historic districts, contact the Baltimore Heritage Area Association (100 Light St., 12th Floor; 410-878-6411). You can also take guided tours (which charge a nominal fee).

Just off Beltway exit 27, you’ll find the Hampton National Historic Site (535 Hampton Lane, Towson; 410-823-1309). When completed in 1790, the Georgian mansion was the largest private residence in the United States. Capt. Charles Ridgely, a former governor of Maryland, and six generations of his family lived there until the estate was donated to the National Park Service in 1948. More than 350 slaves lived there, too, making Hampton a focal point in African-American history.

The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument, established in March 2013. Tubman, who escaped in 1849, jeopardized her own life to return to liberate an estimated 300 to 400 people. Still in development, the area will join a state park in the area in 2015.

But let’s say you’re into nature and the great outdoors. The state’s National Park areas dish plenty of that, too, all within an easy day trip from any place in the state.

The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (301-582-0813) is also free of charge. It begins in Washington D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood and ends in Cumberland, nearly 185 miles away. Designated a national park in 1971, much of the old canal is popular with bikers, hikers and lovers of the outdoors. Built to connect the Ohio River to the Chesapeake Bay, the canal today is still lined with historic structures that include lockhouses, aqueducts and pumphouses.

“What a great path: biking hiking, lots of history associated with it,” Mullin says. “Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas was a great hiker and instrumental in getting protection for the C&O Canal.” The trail, which is very welcoming of novice hikers, offers great scenic vistas.

The C&O ends in Cumberland, Md.; roughly an hour’s trip from the trail’s end,  or from Baltimore and Washington you’ll find Catoctin Mountain Park. The 5,800-acre spread is popular with campers and home to more than 1,000 native plant and animal species. It has also made an incredible comeback since logging nearly destroyed the area in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

While many military-related sites in Maryland charge a fee, you can visit Fort Washington for gratis weekend afternoon tours. Its lighthouse is still in use today. The fort itself, which dates to 1824, was built to defend the river approach to the nation's capital. It also has the unusual distinction of never having a shot fired at it. (13551 Fort Washington Rd., Fort Washington, Md.; 301-763-4600).

Not quite free, but very close to it, is another battlefield site that’s revered in the national narrative: The Antietam National Battlefield (5831 Dunker Church Rd., Sharpsburg, Md.; 301-432-5124) commemorates the bloodiest one-day battle in American history, a Civil War conflict fought on Sept. 17, 1862. The first invasion of the North by Confederate General Robert E. Lee, the 12-hour battle resulted in more than 23,000 casualties.

Mullin says that with family still in the area, he has returned to visit Antietam and the C&O Canal. They still move him. “It’s fascinating to see those areas again,” he says, “look at what’s changed—and what remains timeless.”

—By Lou Carlozo, Brand Publishing Writer


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