Paul Bender moved to Baltimore three years ago but had never had an opportunity to try his fully equipped mountain bike on city trails.
He chose a good time to do it Saturday.
The sky was resplendently sunny as Bender, a 27-year-old civil engineer who lives in Pikesville, became one of more than 40 bicyclists and hikers who hit the Jones Falls Trail to mark the opening day for the largely interconnected network of trails that wind through the streets, parks and neighborhoods of Baltimore City.
The trek was part of Opening Day for Trails, the nationwide kickoff of the spring trail season for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, an organization dedicated building a network of public trails across the United States.
Baltimore bike trail boosters celebrated the "opening day" of biking season and the newest segment of the Jones Falls Trail on Saturday despite frigid temperatures, gusty winds and swirling snow flurries.
The Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks co-sponsored the event and several others, including a beautification project in Middle Branch Park and a spring flower show at the Howard Peter Rawlings Conservatory in Druid Hill Park, one of the stops for the bikers and hikers.
The Baltimore trail system — known as the Baltimore Greenway Trails Network — is among more than 23,000 miles of rail-trails across the country.
“I’m happy to be able to get outdoors and explore the rails-and-trails system here — I’ve been looking forward to trying this out,” Becker said as he straddled his black Trek Navigator 100 in a parking lot at Cylburn Arboretum, where the three-hour event began.
As the group prepared to head out, Jim Brown, the trail development manager for Rails-to-Trails, caught everyone up on the status of the Baltimore-area network as a whole.
The conservancy spearheads the work of the Baltimore Greenway Trails Coalition, an alliance of about 40 organizations pushing for the completion of a 35-mile loop that would run through more than 50 Baltimore neighborhoods.
The 25 miles in place include the Gwynns Falls, Jones Falls and Herring Run trails; another five designated trails would complete the loop, allowing hikers and cyclists to travel uninterrupted from Leakin Park in the western part of the city to Herring Run Park in the east, from Cylburn Arboretum in the north to Cherry Hill Park in the south.
The completed portion is already part of the East Coast Greenway, a 3,000-mile biking and walking route that links the major cities of the Atlantic coast from Calais, Maine, to Key West, Florida.
Brown said the Baltimore loop could be complete in five years if all goes well.
“If you like what you see today, advocate!” he said. “Now who’s ready for a ride? Who’s ready for a hike?”
About half the group, led by a parks and recreation rider, lit off on bicycles. They made their way along the nine-mile stretch to the Inner Harbor, making stops at Druid Hill Park and the Baltimore Streetcar Museum along the way.
In the park, some visited the conservatory, which was rimmed with tulips and featured a profusion of blossoms inside. Others stopped in at TreeBaltimore’s annual Fruit Tree Fair, where the city organization gave free fig, elderberry, pawpaw and serviceberry trees to hundreds of visitors as part of its long-term mission to expand Baltimore’s tree canopy.
It was a slower journey for the hikers, many of whom said they love the outdoors but had little idea the city had trails that connect so many familiar sites.
Molly Gallant, outdoor programmer for the parks and recreation department, led the tour from the daffodil-covered grounds of the arboretum down a stretch of Greenspring Ave., then south on a paved trail that winds through deeply wooded parkland along the Jones Falls.
Though a few places call for crossing a road, much of the walk has the feel of a hike through a remote forest, with deer visible at times and the sounds of the nearby stream audible.
Hikers also bypassed secluded Rockrose Park with its community garden, made their way through the historic mill houses of Woodberry, and came into Druid Hill Park through the little-known, tree-shrouded Parkdale Ave. entrance on the north end.
The four-mile hike included a look at the Grove of Remembrance, a quiet World War I memorial in the park, encounters with frisbee golfers playing a tournament, and views of the “three sisters,” once-thriving ponds Gallant said were home to seals long ago.
Dianne Guy, a frequent visitor to Cylburn Arboretum, said she hadn’t realized its trails extended into the city and was impressed by the sights.
“I love finding out that there’s so much in my backyard that I didn’t know about,” said Guy, who lives in Medfield.
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Medical student Caro Converse of West Baltimore said she grew up biking some of the local trails with her father, Paul, who was in the bicycling group Saturday, and was happy to see how the network had grown in recent years.
“There’s been so much progress,” said Converse, who was walking the stretch for the first time.