Yesterday's unveiling of the long-awaited Gwynns Falls Trail head near Leakin Park in Southwest Baltimore completes the 15-mile greenway trail and gives hikers and bikers a new gateway to downtown.
Meandering past mallard ducks, an old waterwheel and pristine woodlands, on a journey billed to be 10 degrees cooler than elsewhere in the city because of the Gwynns Falls and the tree canopy, the trail connects more than 30 neighborhoods and 2,000 acres of parkland.
"You'll be able to go from here to Baltimore and really enjoy the beauty of the park," Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin told a group of runners, hikers and bikers gathered at the Park & Ride at the end of Interstate 70 to celebrate. "We're going to continue to use this model to help people around Maryland and around the nation."
Cardin, who has biked the trail many times and was one of its main advocates, said people who travel the trail for the first time won't believe they're in Baltimore.
"They can get the experience of being out in some wild, western part of the state," he said.
The trail, which costs about $15 million and took 10 years to build, with an additional five years of planning before that, starts near Franklintown and follows the Gwynns Falls stream valley through Gwynns Falls Park, Leakin Park, Leon Day Park, Carroll Park and Solo Gibbs Park to the Inner Harbor and the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River. It also passes near Orianda Mansion, the summer home of 19th-century railroad magnate and inventor Thomas Winans.
Lynn Spruill, who lives nearby in West Edmondale in Baltimore County and was hiking the trail yesterday, was excited to see this final piece done because she can ride her bike there from her house.
"I've been waiting for this end to open up," she said. "I'm amazed there's so much greenway in Baltimore."
The ride or walk from the I-70 Park & Ride to the Inner Harbor is 10.6 miles, and 15 miles to Harbor Hospital.
Trail proponents hope that the completion of the trail will encourage more people to use the trail to get downtown.
"We already know there are some people using the trail as a commuter route," said Guy Hager, senior program director at Parks & People, a nonprofit group involved in improving green space. "We'd just like to see more people do it, as well as the evening and weekend, more recreational, use. It provides people access to a natural system that otherwise they wouldn't be able to discover."
He sees the trail as a way to "bring back" neighborhoods while helping to rebuild the city's ecosystem.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings told the crowd of fitness enthusiasts that he had lost about 45 pounds in the past year and praised the role that the trail can play in fighting obesity.
"This is bigger than us," he said. "This is not just about a trail. This is so your daughter will have her father around longer. What I'm saying to you is: This is about quality of life."
Ed Orser, a professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County who has written a book about the Gwynns Falls that will be available this fall, did the research that appears on story panels along the trail.
"In this upper part, you're in one of the most pristine areas you could find anywhere," he said. "There are trees that have been here a couple hundred years."
In contrast, the lower trail traverses industrial sites, he noted.
Along the way, advocates for the trail have fought off I-70, the widening of Franklintown Road, cell towers and a proposal to zigzag water pipes through the park.
"We have to be always on the alert to what's happening next," said Heide Grundmann, vice president of the Gwynns Falls Trail Council. "Now they want to put the Red Line in. The question is: Where is the station? They're talking about a multistory parking garage. We just finish one fight, and there's another one."
The Red Line is a proposed 12-mile east-west transit line that would operate from the Social Security Administration offices in Baltimore County to the Johns Hopkins Bayview campus in Southeast Baltimore, with construction slated to begin as soon as 2012.
Eventually, the Gwynns Falls trail is expected to connect to the future Jones Falls Trail at the Visitor's Center in the Inner Harbor, Hager said. Some want to see it extended to Locust Point, providing access to Fort McHenry, he said.
"This first 15 miles as originally conceived is done, but we don't see it finished," Hager said.