Connor Plasse and his pal Robbie Grammer hit the North Central Railroad Trail yesterday afternoon and headed north, two 8-year-olds aboard their bikes on a quest for serious adventure.
"There's this waterfall up here," Connor said. "With poisonous snakes!"
"Maybe copperheads!" Robbie said.
They pedaled off, leaving Connor's father, Scott Plasse, to follow and contemplate the fortune of living near one of the great destinations of Maryland autumn weekends - this broad path of hard-packed gravel, winding 20 miles along the Gunpowder River to the Pennsylvania line and beyond.
"You can come up here for a couple of hours and just get lost in nature," said Plasse, 40, who works for a North Carolina Internet company from his home in Monkton, within sight of the trail. "You see beaver and blue herons. There's fox and raccoons."
But on sunny weekend days in the fall and spring, when the trail gets jammed with bikers ringing their bells and weaving to avoid collisions, the trail's popularity can be a challenge. "I've tried to take the dog for a walk and just given up," Plasse said.
It's the same on the Baltimore area's other major bike trail, the Baltimore and Annapolis Trail, a paved 10-foot-wide path running south from Glen Burnie for 14 miles, ending near U.S. 50-301. Its allure was boosted last year with the completion of a 10-mile loop around Baltimore-Washington International Airport that is linked to the trail.
"Sometimes you look up the trail and down the trail, and you just see one continuous stream of people - bikers, walkers, in-line skaters, you name it," said Ranger David DeVault, who patrols the B&A; and BWI trails for the Anne Arundel Department of Recreation and Parks. He also leads nature walks and recently introduced some people to the fruit of the paw-paw trees in Severna Park.
The Baltimore and Annapolis, which opened in 1990, and the North Central, completed in 1989, are ranked by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy as the seventh and eighth most heavily used of the hundreds of converted railroad trails across the country. According to the Washington nonprofit group, both of the central Maryland trails have about 1 million visitors per year.
Success is breeding imitation. The Gwynns Falls Trail opened last year with a 4.5-mile stretch through Leakin Park in West Baltimore, the first installment in a planned 14-mile trail that would pass the Middle Branch and end at the Inner Harbor. And in Harford County, two sections totaling more than four miles of the Ma and Pa Heritage Trail have opened in the past year, with a middle section completing the 7-mile path scheduled to open next year.
The local trails are part of a national movement toward a green alternative to the interstate highway system. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy counts 11,000 miles of bike trails on former railroad rights of way, with no end in sight because 2,000 miles of track are abandoned every year.
In about a decade, if planners have their way, bicyclists will be able to cross the country on linked trails from California to Lewes, Del., or travel the East Coast on greenways from Canada to Key West. The systems will cross in Maryland near BWI, said Harvey Muller, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the Maryland Department of Transportation.
Muller said Maryland has opened about 100 miles of bike trails since 1991 and has more than that in the works. Use has climbed steadily in the six years since he took the job.
"Personally I think the bike-trail traffic has hit an all-time peak," he said. "It has just mushroomed."
The appeal of the trails is not hard to understand. John and Amy Wells took up bicycling when stationed in Germany with the U.S. Air Force in the early 1980s. But when they moved to the Baltimore area in 1984, they found U.S. roads and drivers less accommodating and gave it up.
A few years ago, they discovered the local trails. Now they ride every weekend, and they can tell about the guy who rides the B&A; with a parrot on his shoulder and give advice on how to pass a horse without getting kicked.
Two weeks ago they rode for nine hours to York, Pa. and back on the North Central and its Pennsylvania companion, the York County Heritage Trail. But yesterday morning, atop the Raleigh Ace 12-speeds they bought in England in 1983, they had time only for the BWI loop.
The BWI trail takes a rider along highways and past businesses such as Airport Auto Body and BWI Florist. It eventually climbs through a meadow of wildflowers to a hill with a spectacular view of runways and aircraft.
A spur links it to the B&A;, and the asphalt heads south along the edges of back yards where dogs yap and decks where the less energetic relax with their Sunday newspapers. Remnants of railroad equipment are reminders that trains rumbled along the route for 81 years, with passenger service ending in 1952 and freight in 1968.
John Baer and Linda Harder of Towson are regulars on the North Central, but the crowding has begun to bother them. Yesterday, they decided to try the Gwynns Falls Trail in Baltimore.
Theirs was one of four cars in the parking lot at the trailhead off Franklintown Road as they and their children, 6-year-old Lindsay and 5-year-old Jack, rode four miles through deep woods.
"Lots of nature and not many people," Baer said. "You can't believe you're in an urban area."