Anne Arundel County's trails are among the area's standout features, providing residents with a place to skate, ride their bikes or get in their daily dose of jogging -- without having to worry about traffic.
"Our trails are models for the East Coast, and even the world," said David Dionne, superintendent of trails and greenways for the county, who has visited facilities along the East Coast, as well as in the United Kingdom and Europe.
Perhaps the best known is the Baltimore & Annapolis or B&A; Trail, which spans 13 miles. Open year-round from dawn to dusk, the trail takes pedestrians, equestrians and other travelers from Glen Burnie, past Marley Station mall, to near Annapolis. About one-third of county residents live within a mile of the trail, and many homes border it.
By design, it is easy to access the county's other trails from the B&A;, including the BWI Trail and the Washington-Baltimore-Annapolis Trail. On a bright summer afternoon recently, the B&A; path near Earleigh Heights Ranger Station was filled with joggers, cyclists and families out for a stroll.
Jill Larkin, 48, of Severna Park and Valerie Albee, 49, of Arnold have been walking the trails together two to three times a week for about three years.
"They keep them in very good condition, and I like the woodsy scenery," Larkin said. "And the walking really helps to keep the pounds off."
She isn't the only one on the trail with that goal. Steve Ward, 32, runs three to four miles for exercise nearly every weekday.
"You can't run anywhere else that is really safe; you don't want cars zipping by," Ward said.
The B&A; Trail is particularly popular with runners, Dionne said. Its annual marathon draws people from all over the East Coast and is a qualifying event for the Boston Marathon.
But most of the joggers are locals, just out for a workout.
"I see the same people out here, usually every day. We meet and say hi," Ward said. "The real hard-core people are the ones you see in the winter."
That chance for camaraderie among neighbors is one of the greatest advantages of the trails, Dionne said.
"It builds quality of life. It brings people together face to face, gives them a chance to meet on a human scale, and that's what's missing in communities designed around cars," he said.
The B&A; Trail and other paths in Anne Arundel County have inspired the creation of a civic organization, the Friends of Anne Arundel County Trails. The group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the trails, spearheads beautification projects and coordinates community events.
For instance, the organization is collaborating with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to create a model solar system along the B&A; Trail. The project, which is scheduled to be complete in 2006, will include sculptures of the nine planets. Educational information, some of it provided by NASA, will be available at each site.
The first exhibit, featuring the sun, is under construction at the beginning of the trail, near Harandale Shopping Plaza. Pluto, located near the Earleigh Heights Ranger Station, will be the next planet installed.
Group members have also placed nearly 100 flower beds along the B&A; Trail, which then are adopted by local schools, businesses and other organizations. The group gives out awards annually for the best flower beds.
"Those volunteers have just poured their hearts and energy into the trail," Dionne said. "And it makes even more people want to get involved and get out there."
But it seems the only incentive some people need is the warm summer weather.
Late last month, Lisa and Eric Durham of Millersville took their three children out for a stroll and bike ride. Although Eric said he runs on the trail frequently, Lisa hadn't spent much time on it before.
"I hadn't been out here in a long time. But this inspired me to do it more," she said, gesturing to the tree-lined path. "It's pretty out here. It really is."