Five reasons to play outside in Howard County this fall

Stop. Unplug. Go outside.

A welcome escape from our increasingly digital world is just that easy.

Reconnecting with nature could mean sinking your fingers into the soil, going “off the grid” deep in the forest or galaxy-gazing. All this and more is right in your backyard in Howard County — from the parks and lakes to working farms and nature-oriented clubs — making it easy to see just what’s so great about the great outdoors.

1. Robinson Nature Center

The newest environmental attraction in Howard County is the Robinson Nature Center.

Opening in early September, the three-level building located off Cedar Lane in west Columbia features exhibit areas, classroom space and a naturesphere — a room with a large dome ceiling that will be used as a planetarium and to show films.

Visitors can learn about local plants and wildlife, the county’s relationship with the Chesapeake Bay, home gardening practices and living “green.”

Run by a small staff of naturalists and a wide range of volunteers, the nature center will offer various educational and interactive programs using the exhibits and the 18 acres of outdoor space surrounding the building.

“The whole idea is that people will be able to step outside the door and be right in touch with the forest,” says John Byrd, director of Howard County’s Department of Recreation and Parks. “If people are in touch with their outdoor surroundings, I think it helps give them a perspective of their place in the community and on the planet ... in protecting and living in harmony with nature.”

2. Howard County Conservancy

A virtual cornucopia of natural splendor is offered by the Howard County Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental education center and land trust based at Mt. Pleasant farm, in Woodstock.

With trails, gardens, farm animals, education programs and social events, the conservancy has something for both longtime nature lovers and beginner environmentalists.

The conservancy’s four miles of trails are open to the public every day from dawn to dusk, but for those who want some help exploring, the conservancy offers a guided hike the second Saturday of each month at 10 a.m.

“That’s a great opportunity for people who want to get to know the property a little bit, who may not feel comfortable coming out on their own,” says Meg Schumacher, executive director of the Howard County Conservancy. The guided hikes always include an educational talk on a specific topic, such as butterflies, frogs or trees.

Education is a major component of the conservancy’s mission. Its native plant garden allows visitors to learn about the plants that grow in the area, and its rain garden demonstrates a way to ensure stormwater runoff does not end up in the Bay.

3. Working farms

Several of Howard County’s working farms welcome participation in the form of pick-your-own veggies and fruits, and community supported agriculture operations.

“Where your food comes from and how healthy it is for you, I think is pretty paramount,” says Marc Moreau, of Gorman Farm in North Laurel.

In addition to selling produce, Gorman Farm offers educational tours for children to learn about the farming cycles and seasons.

“We also have people who just come out and set up an easel for a little bit and ... paint the fields,” Moreau says. “It’s a nice little slice of the country.”

At Larriland Farm, in Woodbine, visitors can harvest their own fruits and vegetables straight from the vine.

Owner Lynn Moore says the experience can be powerful. “It’s just nice being outside,” she says. “There’s a breeze blowing, and the sun is out, and it’s quiet, and you have all the colors and the smells of the fruit.”

Larriland’s crops vary by season. The farm opens with strawberry season in late May and closes in early November after a fall harvest of pumpkins, apples, broccoli and spinach.

In addition to educating its visitors on its naturally grown food, Clark’s Elioak Farm in Ellicott City allows people to connect with its animals.

“We’re probably the most expansive petting farm in the area and the one that has animals all the time in full view,” owner Martha Clark says, adding that some lucky visitors have been able to see some of the farm’s goats and cows give birth. “That’s pretty amazing to watch,” she adds.

Sharp’s at Waterford Farm, near Glenelg, also has animals — cattle, chickens, rabbits, goats, sheep and pigs — for viewing while the farm is open in the spring (April to mid-June) and the fall (mid-September to mid-November). The farm has a 1.5-mile nature trail with signs explaining the features hikers pass, as well as other unmarked trails. In the summer, the farm holds a series of agricultural tours, by appointment only.

“People like to visit it because it’s such a large farm (that) when you’re in the middle of it, you don’t see other houses, hear traffic on the road,” owner Denise Sharp says. “It’s pretty isolated.”

Many area farms have adopted the community supported agriculture trend — in which members receive a share of the farm’s harvest in exchange for payment and/or farm work. Farms include Breezy Willow Farm in West Friendship, Jasmine Farm and Roundabout Hills Farm in Glenwood, Shaw Farm in Columbia, Gorman Farm in North Laurel and Howard County Growers LLP, a cooperative of several farms and growers.

4. Howard County Astronomical League

To allow people to connect with a more distant part of nature, the Howard County Astronomical League (HAL) conducts star parties two times each month — one time when the moon is out and one time when it’s hidden.

During its parties, the astronomy club members teach attendees about what they’re observing — the moon, planets, galaxies and star clusters.

“Nature’s all around us ... half of everything around us is over our heads, and everyone ignores that,” club president Bob Prokop said.

With all the parties held at Alpha Ridge Park, in Marriottsville, Prokop said he finds a lot of the people see the group and decide to join the fun.

“Many of them have never looked up at the sky in their entire life,” he said. “The best thing for me personally is when I hear the ‘wows’ or the ‘oohs’ or the exclamations of surprise. ... I’ve found that the moon is more interesting than anything else to people who have never looked through a telescope.”

Though most of the club’s observing occurs at night, he said some members are starting a new outreach program for solar observing, which requires more expensive equipment to see sunspots and flares.

“Solar observing is going to be a future thing for the club,” Prokop said.

Also in the club’s near future is a long-awaited celestial observatory at Alpha Ridge. The observatory, which the group is partnering with Howard County government to build, will house the group’s prized telescope, a device crafted by former Johns Hopkins University astronomer Paul Watson in the 1930s or 1940s.

The facility will be open by appointment for educational and community groups and is expected to open in late 2011 or spring 2012.

HAL member Joel Goodman says the park is a prime spot for the observatory with its dark night sky and seclusion, making it possible to clearly view the Milky Way on clear, moonless nights.

5. Howard County parks

Whether it’s nature trails, lakes and rivers or gardens you’re after, don’t overlook the county’s parks and public open space.

Howard County’s Department of Recreation and Parks operates more than 30 parks and three community gardens throughout the county, while the Columbia Association maintains 3,500 acres of open space, including three lakes and nearly 100 miles of walking and biking paths.

“Most people probably live a lot closer to a park than they realize,” says Byrd, of the county parks department.

Bob Marietta, Howard Community College’s sustainability manager, calls the county’s parks “fabulous,” especially as you look past the ball fields and playgrounds and venture onto the trails.

“I haven’t found a park in Howard County I don’t love,” he says, touting the physical and mental benefits of making time to spend outdoors. “It makes you more in tune with the world around you.”

Some of the best trails are located in Rockburn Branch Park and Savage Park, according to Byrd.

“The Wincopin trail (in Savage Park) is probably one of the better ... places where people can take a hike and enjoy different habitats and the topography of the area,” he says.

Hiking is one of the most popular activities, Byrd says, because it doesn’t cost any money or require any equipment.

Some of the county’s parks, such as Schooley Mill Park in Highland, allow for horseback riding. Centennial Park, the county’s most popular according to Byrd, offers aquatic recreation through boat rentals and fishing.

The Elkhorn, Long Reach and Westside community gardens rent plots where residents can grow vegetables, fruits, flowers and herbs.

The area’s newest park is Blandair, in east Columbia, which is still in the process of being built. The first phase, which will include three turf fields, a playground, a pavilion and a restroom, is expected to open late this fall, Byrd says.

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