When people talk about disparities in Baltimore, the leafy streets and robust turn-of-the-century homes in Roland Park are often cited as an indicator of the city's walled off areas of wealth. Given that the neighborhood—one of the first planned garden suburbs in the country—was a leader in discriminatory housing practices, and many of the homes currently listed on Zillow are going for north of half a million dollars, this is not entirely wrong.
But the twisting roads through the wooded hills of the northern neighborhood offer something everyone in the city can enjoy: an escape into nature.
This is by design. Landscape architects John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., whose father is best known as the designer of Central Park, laid out the neighborhood of Roland Park to embrace the topography of the hills just to the east of the Jones Falls, following design principles set by Olmsted Sr. His idea of the "genius of place" called for working with the landscape, and respecting the unique features of the site, even the aspects that could be seen as problematic.
So instead of grading the land and creating a grid, there are curving roads that meander along hilltops and through valleys, not offering a direct path anywhere. This design enhanced what was existing to create the "picturesque": a naturalistic landscape of rugged terrain, rocky outcroppings, and lush vegetation that lend an air of wildness and mystery.
The result offers picturesque streets, terrific sightlines, and some striking vistas, but it doesn't make it easy to get from point A to point B. And at the time the Roland Park Company launched in 1891, cars were a rarity, meaning almost everyone traveled by horse, streetcar, or their own two feet.
That's why the Olmsteds laid out a series of 18 narrow footpaths that cut between stately mansions and through the woods to create more direct routes for pedestrians. These paths still exist today—though some have been incorporated into more recently added driveways—and are open to the public. The paved paths are marked by charming wooden signs, handrails, and the occasional lamppost, and are maintained by the Roland Park Roads and Maintenance Corporation. And while many are mere block-long shortcuts that connect streets, there are several longer paths that provide a great behind-the-scenes tour of the rugged terrain of Roland Park and an up-close look at some of the neighborhood's ornate architecture.
Olmsted Sr. believed that natural landscapes were psychologically and physically soothing, able to "refresh and delight the eye, and through the eye, the mind and the spirit," and he and his sons designed landscapes with that in mind. Walking along the paths, you'll sometimes feel like you're in the back woods, and other times like you're walking in a garden, with hostas, honeysuckle, ivy, roses, and other plants lining the route.
It's a great walk in the city—and feels far removed from urban living.
Lauren Schiszik is the Vice President of the Friends of Maryland's Olmsted Parks and Landscapes (FMOPL), which offers guided tours of Roland Park's footpaths and many other programs.
Time for a Walk
Unless you're planning on doing some serious walking, take a car or bike so you can easily move between the paths. The best paths for long walks are in the western portion of Roland Park bounded by Cold Spring Lane, Falls Road, Roland Avenue, and Northern Parkway. You'll want to check out the footpath map available on Roland Park's website, rolandpark.org, to get your bearings (rolandpark.org/community-resources/maps-paths).
Start at Indian Lane, east of where it intersects with Edgevale Road. There's a small bridge over a stream that marks the start of Squirrel Path. Fittingly, several of the eponymous creatures were present during a mid-afternoon visit.
Walk up the hill and be sure to look left for some terrific views toward TV Hill. You'll reach an intersection where walkers can turn right to go up a small hill to a cul-de-sac on Midvale Road, continuing straight on Squirrel, or taking a man-made dirt path on the left down toward Griswold Lane, home to several quaint cottages and an apartment building.
Continue straight on Squirrel. You'll reach a driveway leading from a stone garage—this is technically still part of the path. Keep walking straight across Elmwood Road to reach Laurel Path, another climb into the deep woods.
After a short walk, you'll hit a fork. Both paths are worth exploring. Continue straight, and the pavement underneath your feet soon turns to dirt as you get up close with the backyards of several houses. The path to the right at the fork leads to a cul-de-sac on Longwood Road, where the houses are a dizzying mix of styles.
Double back to the Squirrel Path, and once you come to the intersection in the woods, turn left to head up the stairs to the Midvale Road cul-de-sac. While ogling the architecture, walk a few blocks and you'll hit Briar Path wedged in between the front yard gardens of two homes.
When you get to St. Johns Road, to your right you'll see an enormous cluster of Rhododendrons, brilliant with their pink flowers. Briar Path continues on ahead, but head toward the blossoms and, at yet another cul-de-sac—this one with a grand Tudor Revival house—you'll find Hilltop Path, which takes you past a newly planted (private) fruit orchard practically to the front door of a stone house.
Your two choices are to go left or right. Go left, down a flight of stairs leading to Beechdale Road. Take another left on that street and you'll catch up with the end of Briar. It's worth climbing back up the hill, going down St. Johns again and taking the right at the stone house, if only to satisfy your inner completionist—but also because the right gets you back to Indian Lane, right by the start of the Squirrel Path where you began your Olmstedian ramble.
Drive, bike, or walk toward Baltimore Country Club, where you'll find Sunset Path, which starts just across the street from an enormous Tudor Revival that served as the Girls' Latin School. The path runs in between the club's property and a house named Rusty Rocks, the former residence of Edward Bouton, the founder and president of the Roland Park Company.
Once you go between two houses on Boulder Lane, there's a vista that peers out toward the Jones Falls, and the tree-filled hills across the way toward Cylburn Arboretum. There's no expressway, no Falls Road—just lush green. And if you follow the suggestion of the path's name and arrive around dinner, the waves of yellow will show through the leaves brilliantly, and for a brief instant it will feel like you're somewhere else entirely.
(Weigel and Schiszik)