Patapsco Valley State Park is inaugurating new amenities and ways to continue services this summer.
In the Avalon area near Elkridge, the ever-popular swinging bridge has been repaired and reopened for those who relish its bounce and sway.
The Grist Mill Trail along the river will be paved and reopened by July for hikers, bikers and roller bladers. With the swinging bridge connecting to Orange Grove Road on the other side of the river, it creates a 5-mile paved circuit.
The paved Grist Mill Trail increases handicapped accessibility in the park, which last year became the first in the state to provide it for all types of park facilities. There is even a ramp to the swinging bridge.
"Paving the Grist Mill Trail lets disabled park users get out of the picnic areas and into the more natural areas," says the park manager, Walter Brown. "It's not a token quarter-mile. It's approximately three miles up and back."
Future plans call for physical fitness equipment for the disabled to be installed at intervals along the trail.
"Patapsco is one of the highest-use parks in the state -- a million visitors a year," says Brown. "Because of nearby metro areas and our mild winters lately, there's no such thing as a slow season."
The 15,000 acres of parkland operates under-staffed with 31 rangers -- about one per 500 acres. (This includes 2,000 acres at Soldier's Delight and Morgan Run, each assigned one full-time ranger.) The ratio is similar to Patuxent's one ranger to 450 acres, but Patuxent has a staff for law enforcement, which is included in ranger responsibility at Patapsco.
Summer staff to run Patapsco's numerous education and recreation programs has been cut in half because of budget constraints.
Thin staffing and heavy use, especially by mountain bikers and equestrians, jeopardize the park's 27 miles of marked trails, Brown said.
To save the trails, Brown wants to marshal an army of volunteers.
"We're thinking of an Adopt-A-Park program like Adopt-A-Highway, with a sign giving the name of the organization that is maintaining that trail or stream," he said. "It gives recognition. And everyone likes to see their name in print. We hope to have the sign prototype by the end of May.
"In the heyday [of funding] the emphasis was on no volunteers in normal park work. That changed real fast," he said.
Volunteers can paint blazes on trees, shore up and regrade trails, place water bars and remove dead trees. They can also tend bluebird boxes, clean up streams and conduct nature programs.
"We need to reach out to organizations like trail biking, senior and equestrian groups. Some have already agreed to adopt certain sections of the park."
The Catonsville Arbutus Relay Environmental Committee (CARE) has begun stream cleanup and plantings.
"It's a concrete way of working with the environment," said CARE president June Moody. The cleanup is important, because the streams are the backbone of the Chesapeake Bay, and too many are dead or dying, Moody said.
The advantage of having organizations do this kind of work, Brown said, is that "We don't have the manpower to organize volunteers. Hopefully, one day we'll have thousands of people involved in the program. The trails' future existence depends on volunteers."
So far, the McKeldin Area off Marriottsville Road is the only area curtailed for lack of staff. Thursday through Sunday park-goers can still enjoy its scenic overlook of Liberty Dam or the Medicine Tree Trail of natural history.
When lack of money threatened the Halloween Spook Hike at McKeldin, park staff and their families volunteered many hours at their own expense to create and run the trail for 3,500 souls braving the "haunted" forest.
This year the Hilton Area's camping facilities have been renovated, and Pickall Area's large group pavilions are available by reservation.
The river and pond in Avalon have been stocked with fish. The Cascades Trail leads to a mini-spectacle for those willing to climb its steep inclines.
The park has reluctantly instituted some fees -- $4 per vehicle on weekends and holidays except at Avalon. It charges $4 daily (half price on Wednesday), but daily users can park outside the park and walk in. Summer Fun Passes, good at any state park, are available for $50.
Park information and summer activity schedules can be picked up at Hollofield Park headquarters during working hours or at area entrance stations on fee days. Or call 461-5005.