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.

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“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.