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Sizzlin’ Summer

Camping Close to Home

Eight places to sleep outdoors within a 90-minute drive from Baltimore

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The difference between being a “happy camper” or not can be slight and often is a matter of logistics. The preparatory details of assembling gear and provisions, when key aspects overlooked—“Honey, did you pack the kids’ sleeping pads?” or “Where are the headlamps?” or “Oh, no, we forgot the marshmallows!”—can doom the prospects of a cheerily comfortable time outdoors under the open sky. Such failings are compounded if the chosen destination is hours from home, where the solutions may be sitting, packed and ready, on the kitchen table. Proximity to the “base camp” also has the obvious advantage of truncating the anticipatory boredom of getting there. Camping close to home, in short, can increase the happiness quotient of an overnight outdoors adventure.

Fortunately for Baltimoreans, nearby public campsites abound, found in the rocky piedmont to the wooded coastal plain to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. And if key supplies remain forgotten at home, threatening to ruin the good times, reclaiming them is only a matter of a quick sortie back home.

Bear in mind, alcohol is prohibited in all Maryland state parks, so the price of indiscreet partying could be a criminal record; those choosing to risk it should masquerade their drinking vessels and practice moderation so as not to attract attention. Also, camping reservations for Maryland state parks involve per-night service charges of $4.56 when made over the internet at reservations.dnr.state.md.us, $4.61 by calling (888) 432-2267, and $4.51 when made at the park. Campsites have space for setting up tents and parking cars, and generally have picnic tables and fire pits, though firewood must be purchased or collected at the park to avoid the damaging risk of hitchhiker insects on wood brought in from elsewhere. Here are eight possibilities, all within a 90-minute drive of Baltimore.


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Patapsco Valley State Park

8020 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City, (410)461-5005, dnr.state.md.us.
Approximate drive time from Baltimore: 20 minutes
Size: 16,000 acres
Trails: 170 miles
Campsite price per night: $18.49 (plus service charges)

The closest state park with campsites also happens to be one of the gems of Maryland’s public lands. Stretched in segments along 32 miles of the Patapsco River valley, the park’s two camping areas—Hollofield, off Route 40 in Ellicott City, and Hilton, in Catonsville—are perched above the river, with trails leading down to its banks. Hollofield, the bigger of the two, with 73 campsites, doubles as the park’s headquarters and has an extensive trail system, a well-developed overlook for sweeping views of the valley, and a host of amenities. Hilton, with 12 campsites, is a bit off the beaten track compared to Hollofield, with boulder-hopping hiking opportunities on streambed trails. For mountain-bikers, this hilly trail-strewn park is a destination.

 

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Susquehanna State Park

4122 Wilkinson Road, Havre de Grace, (410) 557-7994, dnr.state.md.us.
Approximate drive time from Baltimore: 50 minutes
Size: 2,650 acres
Trails: 15 miles
Campsite price per night: $21.49 (plus service charges)

A quick commute north on I-95 offers a choice of 69 campsites, a host of historic sites, and a trail system that connects rocky hilltops to the Susquehanna riverside under a canopy of trees. Trail ratings hit difficult in spots, but along the river, flat terrain allows for an easy go of it. A working grist mill, a historic mansion, remnants of an old canal, and trestle bridges are among the attractions, along with the usual opportunities for fishing, boating, and mountain biking that Maryland’s parks tend to provide.

 

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Little Bennett Campground

23701 Frederick Road, Clarksburg, (301) 528-3430, montgomeryparks.org.
Approximate drive time from Baltimore: one hour
Size: 3,700 acres
Trails: 20 miles
Campsite price per night: $21 for residents of Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, otherwise $25

Operated by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, Little Bennett’s 91 campsites are on an unexpectedly accessible and large piece of wooded real estate just off I-270 in Montgomery County. Experiencing the wilderness on trails through sloping forests, rolling hills, stream valleys, and wetlands is complemented by visits to historic sites, including a cemetery, a schoolhouse, a mill, and a log house. Call to reserve a campsite.

 

Jug Bay Natural Area of Patuxent River Park

16000 Croom Airport Road, Upper Marlboro, (301) 627-6074, pgparks.com.
Approximate drive time from Baltimore: one hour and 15 minutes
Size: 2,000 acres
Trails: 8 miles
Campsite price per night: $20 for residents of Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, otherwise $24

Hugging the banks of Jug Bay, an unusual freshwater tidal estuary, this Prince George’s County park’s six campsites offer an excellent staging ground for canoe or kayak excursions—and one of the campsites is paddle-in only. Either bring your own canoes or kayaks, or rent them from the park. For the land-bound, the park, which is a bird-watching destination, has boardwalk trails through wetlands, a nature-study area, and a rural-life museum. Call the park office to reserve a campsite.

 

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Elk Neck State Park

4395 Turkey Point Road, North East, (410) 287-5333, dnr.state.md.us.
Approximate drive time from Baltimore: one hour and 15 minutes
Size: 2,200 acres
Trails: 12 miles
Campsite price per night: $21.49 (plus service charges)

With its Upper Chesapeake Bay beaches, bluffs, woods, and marshes, and the landmark Turkey Point Lighthouse, Elk Neck offers Baltimore campers an excellent opportunity to feel like they’re really getting away from home without going far away. Campsites—more than 250 of them on five loops—are abundant, and there’s much to do here, from canoeing and kayaking to hiking and biking to swimming, sunbathing, crabbing, and fishing.

 

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Cedarville State Forest

10201 Bee Oak Road, Brandywine, (301) 888-1410, dnr.state.md.us.
Approximate drive time from Baltimore: one hour and 15 minutes
Size: 3,500 acres
Trails: 20 miles
Campsite price per night: $18.49 (plus service charges)

The landscapes bordering Zekiah Swamp, which meanders from here south before emptying into the Wicomico River, makes for excellent, if occasionally wet hiking through pine forests and old farm fields, and a 4-acre fishing pond may help with dinner. With 27 campsites—including the rather exotic option of equestrian camping—the park offers ample reminders of why the Pisataway Indians chose this area to spend their winters.

 

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Tuckahoe State Park

13070 Crouse Mill Road, Queen Anne, (410) 820-1668, dnr.state.md.us.
Approximate drive time from Baltimore: one hour and 30 minutes
Size: 3,800
Trails: 20 miles
Campsite price per night: $21.49 (plus service charges)

Choose one of Tuckahoe’s 54 wooded campsites, make camp, and then pick your fun. Tuckahoe Creek is dammed up here to create a 60-acre lake, so swimming, fishing, and paddling are favorite activities, along with hiking and biking the park’s trails. Using your campsite as a place to relax before and after setting out on a canoe or kayaking trip down the Tuckahoe Creek, below the dam, is a highly adventurous option here. After it tumbles over the dam, the creek starts out offering a swiftly moving trip through overhanging forests but then opens up into a slowly drifting paddle along tidal marshes. For those inclined to more restful diversions, tour the park’s 500-acre Adkins Arboretum.

 

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Smallwood State Park

2750 Sweden Point Road, Marbury, (301) 743-7613, dnr.state.md.us.
Approximate drive time from Baltimore: one hour and 30 minutes
Size: 630 acres
Trails: 2 miles
Campsite price per night: $27.49 (plus service charges)

With 15 campsites and a mere 2 miles of hiking trails, Smallwood is a bit of an anomalous camping destination. But for boaters with trailerable vessels, the place features the full-service Sweden Point Marina as a base to gunkhole or fish along Mattawoman Creek and the Potomac River, a mile away. The main attraction here is the restored Retreat House, a historic tidewater plantation with a tobacco barn that was once General William Smallwood’s, a Revolutionary War hero who was elected Maryland’s governor in 1785.

 

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