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Hundreds head to state parks for First Day Hike

Hundreds head to state parks for First Day Hike
Ellicott City, Md--1/1/15--Vilar Florido and volunteer park ranger Mark Jennys follow a path during a First Day Hike at Patapsco Valley State Park. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

For Jennie Payne and Joe Napier, it was about starting the new year in a healthy way. Vilar Florido wanted to train for more serious backpacking later.

Hiking through the woods at Patapsco Valley State Park on a brisk, sunny first day of 2015, they were among hundreds of Marylanders participating in the growing tradition of First Day Hikes.

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The Maryland Park Service planned 27 hikes at its parks around the state, part of a national movement to get people outside, exercising and enjoying nature as the calendar flipped to 2015.

Rather than "staying on the couch doing nothing," Payne spent her morning at the park as part of a resolution to get out on the trails more often.

A 26-year-old outreach specialist at the Maryland Science Center, Payne said she's "a bit of an environmental nut" who enjoys hiking. "My New Year's resolution, I guess, is to try to get into the habit of hiking more often," she said.

Napier, a 31-year-old computer network administrator, was a little less enthusiastic. "I do like to hike, but not usually [when it's] this cold," he said.

Organizers of First Day Hikes in Maryland and around the country are trying to capitalize on the start of the new year to get people to venture into parks in the winter.

In Maryland, some people search for First Day Hikes and use them to kick off a more active lifestyle, while others stumble upon them when visiting a park, said Barbara Knisely with the Maryland Park Service.

On New Year's Day in 2014, the Maryland Park Service saw 892 hikers participate in the hikes, traversing a total of 1,800 miles — numbers that were expected to grow in 2015.

The state's First Day Hikes ranged from a five-mile excursion at Assateague State Park to a dog-friendly one-mile walk at Sandy Point State Park outside Annapolis and a "bike hike" at Seneca Creek State Park near Gaithersburg.

"We're doing them all the way from Assateague to Garrett County," Knisely said. "Maryland has always participated, and we've done more hikes each year. It's a nice range — there's longer hikes, shorter hikes, some in the morning, some in the afternoon."

The morning hike at Patapsco's Hollofield Area in Ellicott City covered about a mile and a half and focused on beginning hikers who want to hike to improve their health.

Park ranger Alyssa Henn offered tips for hiking (check a trail map, carry a cellphone and water) and led the group through simple leg stretches before setting out past the park's Peaceful Pond, over a couple of modest hills and under power lines back to Hollofield's headquarters building.

For friends Stephanie Dowdy and Karen Palazzo, and their dogs Jack and Dallas, the hike at Patapsco was a way to get some exercise before an afternoon watching the Auburn University football team take on the University of Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl.

"Steph wanted to do a 5K, so I said, 'Let's do a short hike instead,'" said Palazzo, a 54-year-old insurance agent from Damascus.

Florido, a 63-year-old machine shop owner from Severn, said she learned valuable lessons while testing out gear that included a loaded 19-pound backpack

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She found out didn't need to dress in as many layers. Despite the cold weather — 26 degrees when the hike started, 33 degrees by the end — Florido found herself stripping off her jacket before she was finished.

"I needed to test what I was wearing and carrying," said Florido, who hopes to build up endurance to join the Maryland Mountain Club for more strenuous hikes.

The credit for starting the First Day Hikes movement goes to the Blue Hills Reservation, a state park outside Boston, according to the National Association of State Park Directors.

From Massachusetts, the idea caught on around the country. The park directors group and the American Hiking Society began promoting the hikes on a national level four years ago, said Lewis Ledford, executive director of the park directors association.

Last year, Ledford's group tallied participation nationally at more than 27,000 people who hiked 66,000 miles in First Day Hikes.

There's a broad variety in the types of hikes offered, reflecting the diversity of the nation's state parks, Ledford said.

For example, two state parks in Alaska planned to offer guided snowshoe and skiing treks. In North Carolina, ferries took hikers to Hammocks Beach State Park on a barrier island to look for birds.

"What better way to start off the new year than to get out, get physical exercise, get an appreciation of the outdoors?" Ledford said.

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