Runners' top 12 trails

Wyman Park-Stoney Run trail between Meadow and West Cold Spring is a nice respite from city streets.
Wyman Park-Stoney Run trail between Meadow and West Cold Spring is a nice respite from city streets. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

Do you feel the nip in the air?

Runners do. For them, the advent of fall means more than changing leaves and back to school. Cooler weather and coming races (the Baltimore Running Festival is October 13) make autumn the ideal time to run in the great outdoors.

Baltimore is full of places to run, from stately neighborhoods to waterside paths. But for some runners, nothing beats the off-road experience.

"Even if you start off easy, it's fun to explore," says Chris Cucuzella, a member of the Baltimore Road Runners Club, a trail running group.

Here, 12 great trails endorsed by the enthusiastic members of local running clubs.

Gunpowder Falls State ParkSweet Air and Central Area Trails

Location: Northern Baltimore and southern Harford counties

Where to park: For the Sweet Air trails, park in a lot along the Little Gunpowder in Harford County. For the Central Area trails, the most accessible lot is off U.S. 1 near the Gunpowder Lodge.

Length of run: Both sections of the park have numerous routes, which can vary from short runs to more than 15 miles.

Trail characteristics: The Gunpowder trails are often shady and provide views of the water. Part of the Sweet Air trail goes through a shallow section of the Little Gunpowder River. Runners should expect to get their feet wet, according Chris Cucuzella, who says, "It's midshin deep, but not high-adventure epic."

Why runners like it: The setting is "worth driving a few more minutes," says Cucuzella. Plus, well-marked trails make for easy planning.

More information: http://www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/central/gunpowder.asp

Gunpowder Falls State ParkTorrey C. Brown Trail, aka the Northern Central Railroad (NCR) Trail

Location: Northern Baltimore County

Where to park: There are eight parking lots along the trail; John Roemer of the Baltimore Road Runners Club says he prefers the Paper Mill Road lot.

Length of run: The trail's Maryland portion is 20 miles.

Trail characteristics: The NCR trail is about 10 feet wide, flat and mostly shady, with a crushed-stone surface. It runs along the original path of the Northern Central Railroad into Pennsylvania, where the railroad's tracks still exist in spots. It is busier than some trails in the region; runners share the space with bikers, hikers and even horseback riders. According to Roemer, the trail is busier south of Sparks.

Why runners like it: Roemer says he likes running the NCR trail because of its many amenities (including bathrooms and drinking water) and because it is "scenic, safe, well-marked and cool in summer."

More information: http://www.dnr.state.md.us/greenways/ncrt_trail.html or http://www.ncrtrailsnails.com/

Druid Lake Park, Jones Falls Trail

Location: Northern Baltimore City

Where to park: Near the Woodberry light rail station, where the Jones Falls Trail enters the park (3465 Seneca Ave.) or near Penn Station (1515 N. Charles St.).

Length of run: The trail is 4.25 miles long, extending from Penn Station to Clipper Mill.

Trail characteristics: Park trails are paved and offer a variety of views, from wooded areas to the downtown skyline. The trail runs for almost three miles within the park, including a 1.5-mile loop around Druid Lake. Be warned, though: Druid Hill Park gets busy, so watch out for the dogs and kids.

Why runners like it: "It's like a rural experience in the middle of the city," says Roemer of the Baltimore Road Runners Club.

More information: bcrp.baltimorecity.gov/Facilities/JonesFallsTrail.aspx

Loch Raven Reservoir

Location: Baltimore County

Where to park: Pull-off area at the intersection of Dulaney Valley Road and Seminary Avenue.

Length of run: Between two and 10 miles on the main path; side paths add more mileage

Trail characteristics: Often hilly, with a rocky path, Loch Raven's trails are sometimes rough, but they come with shade and, in places, a great view of the reservoir. Loch Raven has some wide paths, for those who run in groups, and some narrower, more secluded options for the solitary runner.

Why runners like it: According to Cucuzella, "there are really cool views," that change with the seasons. "In the winter, you can climb on a ridge and look down over the reservoir. But in the summer, the shade is worth the lack of view."

More information: http://www.baltimorecountymd.gov/Agencies/environment/watersheds/lrmain.html

MA & PA Heritage Trail

Location: Harford County

Where to park: At the intersection of Williams and West Ellendale streets in Bel Air or at Annie's Playground in Edgeley Grove Park, 864 Smith Lane, Fallston.

Length of run: From the trailhead at Williams Street and back is about 4 miles; Williams Street to Annie's Playground and back is about 8 miles.

Trail characteristics: Brad Viers, manager of Charm City Run in Bel Air, says the MA & PA trail has a well-maintained paved or crushed-gravel surface and is wide enough for 10 runners at certain points. "There are a few large hills," he says, "but most are gradual inclines." Though the Bel Air portion of the trail is shady, in Fallston the trail crosses open fields and can be hot in the summer.

Why runners like it: Aside from its convenience — the trailhead is in downtown Bel Air — the MA & PA boasts a few boardwalks over marshland that Viers describes as "very cool."

More information: mapatrail.org/

Middle Patuxent Environmental Area

Location: Howard County

Where to park: On Trotter Road in Clarksville.

Length of run: There are three trails that can be combined a variety of ways; most runs are five to eight miles.

Trail characteristics: Howard County Striders member Donnie Chapman says the trail is "mostly smooth and easy running with a few challenging hills." The trails are shady, with some sections that run along the Patuxent River.

Why runners like it: Chapman says the trail is "good for beginners" and anyone looking for an easy run in a pretty, natural setting.

More information: howardcountymd.gov/DisplayPrimary.aspx?id=2298

Patapsco Valley State Park

Location: Howard and Baltimore counties

Where to park: Numerous lots in both counties.

Length of run: With 170 miles of trails (including 70 that are maintained), runs may range from brief to very long.

Trail characteristics: Trails vary within the park: Some are paved, while others are rougher and rockier. Howard County Striders' Chapman describes some of the runs as "rocky, steep and challenging," but also mentions that some parts of the park offer easier options. The park straddles the Patapsco River; on some summer runs, Chapman runs through shallow portions of the river. Other runs cross a pedestrian suspension bridge traversing the river.

Why runners like it: Chapman appreciates the park for its challenging course, its river views and features like the suspension bridge. Plus, the park is filled with family-friendly amenities, including bathrooms and playgrounds.

More information: dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/central/patapsco.asp

Quiet Waters Park

Location: Annapolis

Where to park: Multiple lots within the park

Length of run: There are six miles of trails within the park.

Trail characteristics: Quiet Waters' trails are paved and flat, sunny in parts and shady in others. The trails loop through the park; some spots offer views of the Chesapeake Bay.

Why runners like it: Noelle Tarr, marketing director at Fleet Feet Sports in Annapolis, describes Quiet Waters as "cute and quaint." Though the trails are heavily trafficked (with people and dogs), the setting is relaxing.

More information: http://www.aacounty.org/recparks/parks/quietwaters/

Robert E. Lee Park

Location: On the northern border between Baltimore City and Baltimore County

Where to park: Near the Falls Road light rail station (6101A Falls Road, Baltimore).

Length of run: There are multiple trails through the park; runs can range from half a mile to several miles.

Trail characteristics: Robert E. Lee's trails are diverse, according to Cucuzella. "They're mostly shady," he says, "but there's some sun. Overall, the footing is pretty good. One trail skirts the side of Lake Roland — but running the other side of the lake is like bushwhacking sometimes." The park also has a popular enclosed dog park.

Why runners like it: "The city location is great," says Cucuzella. He also likes the scenic view of the lake and the diversity of the trails.

More information: baltimorecountymd.gov/Agencies/recreation/programdivision/naturearea/relpark/index.htm

Stony Run

Location: Baltimore City

Where to park: On the street in Roland Park or near the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus.

Length of run: Two miles; runners often combine the trail with longer runs around the adjacent neighborhoods

Trail characteristics: The Stony Run Trail is riddled with history; it was part of Frederick Law Olmsted's 1904 park plan for the city. Running north from Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus to Roland Park, Stony Run is a dirt path running along a stream. The path is well-maintained and shady, with views of the water.

Why runners like it: Though runners can sometimes hear traffic, the path is a shady, pretty, convenient alternative to running on the street. John Roemer calls it "a great respite from pounding the roads."

More information: dnr.state.md.us/greenways/counties/baltimorecity.html

Susquehanna State Park

Location: Harford County

Where to park: Multiple parking lots near Havre de Grace.

Length of run: The park has about 15 miles of trails, with numerous options for loops.

Trail characteristics: Brad Viers describes the Susquehanna trails as "technical, with more rocks, roots, elevation and single-track trails than other trails in Harford County." Except for a few portions through open fields, most of the trails are shaded, with some views of the Susquehanna River.

Why runners like it: Viers enjoys the tough runs at Susquehanna State Park, as well as the history. The park is home to the Rock Run Historic Area, which includes the operational 200-year-old Rock Run Grist Mill and the Carter-Archer Mansion.

More information: dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/central/susquehanna.asp

Wincopin Trails

Location: Howard County

Where to park: Lot at 9299 Vollmerhausen Road, Jessup.

Length of run: The trails total 3.73 miles, but Donnie Chapman runs them in loops, for total distances of five to eight miles.

Trail characteristics: Wincopin is "moderately rocky and challenging," says Chapman. "Along the river, there are sections that are dead flat, but there are also tough climbs and hills. You can see the water in some sections, and it's mostly shaded."

Why runners like it: Chapman likes Wincopin for its challenging course and for its convenience; the trails are close to Columbia.

More information: howardcountymd.gov/Departments.aspx?id=4294969943

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