5 Ways to Spend Your Weekend Outdoors in Maryland
When it comes to wilderness, the state of Maryland punches way above its weight class. Maryland offers outdoor lovers an astonishing variety of experiences within half a day’s drive.
If you want to look at it in technical terms, the US Geological Survey says the state has five physiographic regions and eight subdivisions, ranging from Atlantic coastal shelf to Appalachian plateaus, all packed within just 250 miles east-to-west.
Put in terms of what you can do, that means everything from gorgeous mountain hiking to beautiful Atlantic beaches, all within about four hours of one another by car.
We know the state well. It’s our home – home to our Go Ape headquarters in a converted glass factory in historic Frederick, and to one of our first treetop adventure courses in Rock Creek Regional Park. Maryland is where more Go Ape staffers spend their days than any other state, so we’ve broken in a lot of boots and used a lot of sunscreen on its trails and waterways over the years.
Here are five of our favorite outdoor activities in the Old Line State.
Bike the C&O Canal
There’s no better way to see the full variety of what the state has to offer than biking most of it, along the historic Chesapeake & Ohio canal towpath.
Running from Cumberland in the Potomac Highlands to Georgetown in nearby Washington, DC, the path covers 184.5 miles of wilderness. Much of the old canal is gone, now dry and reclaimed by white oak and spruce forest, but the towpath is maintained as a hiking and biking trail.
Most of it is hard-packed dirt, so it’s smooth riding in dry weather and slippery work after heavy rains. But the scenery will be spectacular, from the densely forested Green Ridge State Forest to the stunning rocky vistas of the Potomac River Gorge
It’s dotted with National Park Service-maintained hiker/biker campsites, so you can tackle the path over a weekend and sleep along the trail. There’s no reservation required, but if you’re leaving a car, you will need to get a permit for that from the park service.
Rock Climb at Carderock and the Mather Gorge
Maryland has a thriving rock climbing scene, featuring both outstanding indoor climbing gyms and some of the best outdoor routes on the east coast.
Beginners can learn the basics at Earthtreks in Columbia, the largest climbing gym east of the Mississippi. But the sport is meant for the outdoors, and there are several gorgeous climbs within an easy drive of the place.
Carderock Recreation Area features cliffs of mica-schist up to 60 feet, with more than 100 established routes. Nearby Mather Gorge’s 100-foot Greek Wall is better for more experienced climbers, and features a forked crack that lets you practice entirely different styles.
Marylanders stick to top-roping, since this type of schist is breakable under the stresses of traditional climbing. If you don’t want to put in the effort of all that equipment, the lower sections at Carderock offer a huge variety of bouldering problems.
And the scenery is just spectacular. It can be hard to believe you’re half an hour from the noise of downtown Washington, DC, when you’re sixty feet above the roaring Potomac, watching kayakers negotiate the rapids.
Just one tip – don’t wander too far off trail here. The rangers take that very seriously, for reasons ranging from habitat protection to the fact that you’re a short hike from CIA headquarters.
Tackle the Whitewater in Mather Gorge
Or, you could see that beauty from another angle.
The Potomac River forms the Maryland-Virginia border, but the waters belong to the Old Line state. And what spectacular waters they are.
The river narrows at Mather Gorge, tumbling fast over jagged rocks as it cuts through cliffs sixty feet tall on either side, most of it protected park land.
The gorge offers class II and III rapids between those stunning, tree-lined cliffs, near beautiful Great Falls. Local outfitters like Potomac Paddle Sports offer guided rafting trips for those new to the sport. Experienced kayakers may want to get in on organized trips offered by the Potomac Whitewater Racing Center, home of more than 50 national team athletes, a world champion and several Olympic medalists.
Canoe or Kayak the Chesapeake Bay
Flatwater paddlers will find the state offers a lot to them as well. The state has nearly 17,000 miles of river, but we’re partial to the paddling in the Chesapeake Bay.
One of the North American continent’s largest estuaries, the Chesapeake is home to ocean life like bottlenose dolphins and manta rays, but its waters are calm and suitable for beginners. Eagle and Peregrine Falcon populations along the bay’s edge have been recovering in recent years, and it’s not unusual to see deer roaming freely on some of the islands that dot the bay.
There are safe and legal spots for paddlers to put in all over the bay’s rivers, but we’re fans of using the Little Choptank River as a base of operations, for its lack of big boat traffic and for the lilies that line stretches of its banks.
Hike Calvert Cliffs, and Explore Geological History
It’s simply impossible to pick a single trail hikers should see in Maryland. There are dozens of gorgeous walks, from the 40-miles stretch of the Appalachian Trail along the backbone of South Mountain to the loop around scenic Gunpowder Falls northeast of Baltimore.
But if we have to pick one, we’ll go with the 13 miles of trail through Calvert Cliffs.
This stretch offers breathtaking scenery overlooking the bay, and the unique opportunity to legally collect fossils that date to the Miocene age.
The fossils come from the beautiful cliffs themselves – 24 miles of clay, diatomaceous earth and sandstone cliffs along the bay in Calvert County. It’s not legal to approach the cliffs themselves – they’re unstable and prone to collapses – but from the beach beneath, hikers can sort through fallen earth to find evidence of sea life 6 to 20 million years old.
Those with kids will also want to note the recycled tire playground not far from the park entrance off the H.G. Truman Parkway – a great opportunity to tire kids out and teach them the value of reuse.