The easiest way to become familiar with local "horse country" acreage is to take a drive through the region in Baltimore County that features eye-pleasing landscapes and vistas that conjure up images of steeplechase riders and the majestic thoroughbreds they mount.
Just follow the signs.
At least, that's what the Maryland State Highway Administration and the Baltimore County Tourism & Promotion office are encouraging now that the Horses and Hounds Scenic Byway signs have been enlarged along the roadways to provide a more visible guide through the 70-mile route that begins in Hunt Valley and ends at Hampton National Historic Site, in Towson.
Actually, there is no real beginning or end in terms of enjoying the diversity and beauty of the drive, in that beginning the trip at the Hampton Mansion and finishing on Shawan Road would be just as much fun as going in the other direction.
Regardless of which starting point is preferred, there's plenty of reward packed into the experience, including passing through areas with wineries, microbreweries, farms and state parks.
For instance, historic thoroughbred training site Sagamore Farm, once owned by Alfred Vanderbilt Jr, the great-great-grandson of shipping and railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, and now owned by Under Armour mogul Kevin Plank, is along the byway.
Moreover, as the Horses and Hounds trail meanders on Shawan Road and along Tufton Avenue, it bisects the 4-mile, 22-jump course of the 120-year-old Maryland Hunt Cup steeplechase race, generally considered to be the most challenging timber race in the world.
Going west from there, the scenic route heads toward Worthington Road near Reisterstown and then pivots toward the east through the bucolic and historic landscapes of My Lady's Manor, Long Green Valley and Cromwell Valley before reaching Hampton Mansion.
Other Maryland Scenic Byways that are partially located in Baltimore County include the Historical National Road (Catonsville area), Mason and Dixon (Monkton), Falls Road (Lutherville-Hunt Valley), Baltimore's Historic Charles Street (Towson-Lutherville) and Star Spangled Banner (Dundalk).
Jordan Fish, of the Baltimore County Tourism & Promotion office, said that the byways program is a partnership between the State Highway Administration, the Maryland Office of Tourism Development and local tourism offices.
The designated routes are touted by the county in a variety of platforms.
"We feature them in some of our advertising, our website, and social media," Fish said. "Horses and Hounds is also featured on displays inside of the new visitors station at Hampton National Historic Site. Our office meets regularly with the SHA, specially about potential ways to expand the program and how to combine the byways with other attractions and assets throughout the county."
The idea is to make the public more aware of the merits of the 18 designated Maryland Scenic Byways.
Those designations, in turn, are compatible with conservation and preservation agendas designed to keep the landscape as pristine as possible.
"We work with tourism directors across the state to come up with those themes," said Terry Maxwell, of the SHA's office of environmental design. "They (byways) are good for economic development."
Elizabeth Buxton, executive director of the Valleys Planning Council, a Towson-based land-preservation organization, is a fan of the Scenic Byways designation, especially the 50,000 acres in northwestern Baltimore County her organization monitors.
"We see the value of these scenic byways," the Rodgers Forge resident said. "And we want to preserve what makes them scenic. The whole point is for people to have an opportunity to drive or cycle these byways and be able to experience these beautiful cultural landscapes."
Besides, the more conservation and preservation initiatives there are, the more that land and its limestone aquifers can be spared development.
"Baltimore County has more preservation easements than any other county in the state," Buxton said.
And while a Maryland Scenic Byways designation does not guarantee land preservation, it is a step in the right direction for vigilant groups such as VPC to protect the countryside's natural look.
"Liz and the VPC are very interested in preserving rural roads," said Maxwell, a Loch Raven High and Towson University grad who lives in Cromwell Valley on the Horses and Hounds byway. "And we try to be as sensitive as we can to keep the rural character of a road when we widen it or build a bridge. But it's a balancing act. We try to work with developers, too."
In that regard, the case of the Hunt Valley Baptist Church comes to mind as the VPC appeals a decision to allow a 30,000-foot facility with parking for 240 cars on a Shawan Road property just west of Interstate 83. Hearings on the appeal of a construction project of what opponents call a megachurch were slated to be held Nov. 16 and Nov. 17 at the Jefferson Building in Towson, according to Buxton.
"Obviously, the VPC is concerned about the proposed church impacting the view shed along the byway," Buxton said, noting that the proposed project would require installation of a large septic system that raises fears of fouling a nearby stream. "We feel the facility is better suited for somewhere inside the URDL (Urban Demarcation Line) where sewer lines are already in place. RC 4 restricts certain types of inappropriate development such as large scale 30,000-square-foot facilities such as what is proposed."