Best Boardwalks In Maryland
SERC may seem an unlikely location for a public boardwalk. One of the least familiar facilities of the Smithsonian Institution, best known for their ecological and conservation research, and its scientists have been at the forefront of the effort to address the environmental challenges facing the Chesapeake watershed.
But SERC’s 2,650-acre campus at the head of the Rhode River, just 20 minutes south of downtown Annapolis, is also a spectacular waterfront park, crisscrossed with more than six miles of forest trails and 14 miles of kayak and canoe routes along both the river and Muddy Creek. All of which is open to the public Monday through Saturday free of charge. That includes two short but delightful boardwalks. Fortunately, an easy stroll along the river allows you to see both of them.
The Educational Boardwalk is just a couple hundred yards up the Java History Trail from the Reed Educational Center. (SERC occupies the site of the former Java Dairy Farm, which supplied milk to the Naval Academy until the 1950s.)
This boardwalk crosses a small marsh and provides good views out across the Rhode toward old Beverly Beach. There’s also a sort of octagonal sitting area where guides can give presentations to small groups. Looking over the handrail, you can watch the narrow slough fill and empty with the tide.
On our visit this week, there was a very low tide and the little marsh was almost dry. Out on the river, an enormous flock of scaup paddled lazily in the mudflats. When the small ducks were alarmed, they scurried across the surface of the water by flapping their wings quickly, but without actually taking off. If you were looking the other way, the noise of their wingtips hitting the water sounded like water running in the bath.
The second boardwalk is probably the most scenic. Continue along the waterfront trail until you come to a sign for Hog Island. Turn left there and it’s only a short walk to the boardwalk.
Hog Island isn’t technically an island, but it’s surrounded by a lovely marsh that serves as a laboratory for SERCs wetland research. The boardwalk leading out to the island has staircases on either side that lead down into salt marsh. But the gates are locked, and the only signs of the scientists’ work are the narrow footpaths they have worn through the phragmites, cordgrass, and cattails.
It was a gray winter day when we visited. Even so, the slight elevation of the boardwalk allows you to appreciate the variegated, flaxen colors of these wetland grasses. Sometimes you’re looking over the top of the marsh, and sometimes the blond grasses rise up and block your view. Either way, it’s a perspective that’s only possible on a boardwalk.
The reason for its success was the old Washington & Chesapeake Beach Railway, a short line that ran from the Seat Pleasant trolley station on the District line almost to the way to the edge of the Bay. In fact, the old Chesapeake Beach train depot near the banks of Fishing Creek still stands, serving as a museum and a reminder of the town’s railroad history.
The Bay-front boardwalk is also still there, but it’s no longer the best boardwalk in town. That honor now goes to the Chesapeake Beach Rail Trail, which, as the name suggests, has been built along the old rail right-of-way.
The boardwalk starts in an anonymous parking lot behind the water park. From there, it rises on high bollards, and runs up the north bank of Fishing Creek, which is still an important port for the working watermen of the Western Shore.
From the deck of the boardwalk, you can gaze out over the town’s fleet of fishing boats — a salty collection of hardworking deadrises docked along the south bank of Fishing Creek. Here and there along the boardwalk there are small kiosks that describe the history of the local oyster industry and the efforts being made to preserve that way of life.
But the real beauty of this boardwalk comes farther upstream.
Here, the boardwalk crosses the creek, and turns west to follow the old railroad right-of-way. In some places, the trail runs along the raised railroad bed; in others, it’s a high boardwalk. But the whole way, the views out over the creek and into the marsh on either side of the boardwalk are lovely, even in the winter.
And, even in the winter, there is still some birdlife: ducks in the sloughs, great heron in the trees, eagles circling overhead, marsh wrens and marsh sparrows flitting about in the cordgrass.
The trail ends on a short railroad tressle bridge that doesn’t quite cross the creek again. Off to the left, where the creek and the marsh widen, you can glimpse a few homes on the forested hillside, their docks reaching across the marsh grass to deep water. And just across the creek, the raised right-of-way disappears into a thicket of longleaf pine.
From the floating dock at the end of the line, you get a panoramic view of the wide, marshy bay. Mount Calvert, an 18th Century plantation house, sits atop the forested bluff on the far bank.
There are also two short boardwalks that jut out from the south side of the right-of-way. Both meander through head-high marsh grasses, and as you walk on them you feel almost like you’re in a canoe or a kayak. One of these little boardwalks has a bird blind at the end overlooking a beaver lodge and a patch of open water.
But the best boardwalk at Jug Bay — and one of the best in Maryland — is the marsh-side trail that begins near the visitors center.
This is an excellent vantage point to take in the variety of vegatation in a Maryland wetland. In the summer, you can clearly make out which areas are dominated by cordgrass, and those that are mostly wild rice or lillies. At different points along the boardwalk, you get a closeup look at each of these populations.
The marsh at Jug Bay changes dramatically with the seasons. When we were there this week, the tide was still unusually low and the mudflats were exposed right up to the boardwalk.
Areas of cordgrass looked like they had been ransacked by winter storms. The wild rice, which is thick and silken-looking in the spring and summer, is nonexistent in the winter. And the water lilies, with their bold yellow buds, were long gone, too, though their thick rhyzomes were poking up out of the mud in places.
In some ways, this expanded view makes winter is the best time to walk the boardwalk, also each season has its charms. In winter, you can see farther an the bottow of the marsh is clearly visible. On our most recent visit, because of the low tide, we chanced upon a dead beaver half-buried in the mud.
Spring brings the fresh green grasses and the migratory birds back to the marsh. In May, the high banks of the bay are flush in mountain laurel. And in the fall, the flaxen meadows of the marsh are framed by the gold and red foliage of the surrounding hills.
One last piece of advice: Don’t leave Jug Bay without stopping at the big wood observatory that looms over the boardwalk. Built on the edge of the escarpment that boarders the wetland, this may be the best marsh view in Maryland.
In Patuxent River Park, adjacent to the Jackson’s Landing boat launch, a short, inobtrusive path leads down to the mouth of Black Walnut Creek. Here, between two steep ridges, beaver dams have created what may be Maryland’s most intimate wetland.
The boardwalk isn’t very long, but it makes up for that by being so low that it almost seems to float on the dark, oak-stained water. One leg of the boardwalk follows the creek back through its narrow valley and the boardwalk is shaded by white oak, beech, and the eponymous black walnut trees.
Every time we’ve been there, we’ve seen hummingbirds, kingfishers, and blackback heron. On the banks, there are signs of racoons, possum, and the inevitable beaver.
The other leg of the boardwalk follows the length of the beaver dam out into the riverside marsh. There’s always the gurgle of water flowing through gaps in the dam that await repair by the industrious beavers.
And if you walk to the end of the boardwalk, there’s another little observation deck where you can look out over the cattails and cordgrass to the dark waters of the Patuxent. The Black Walnut Creek boardwalk is the kind of place that you could visit in 15 minutes, but you’ll probably want to spend the day.
There are, of course, other places where you can see bald cypress, including the affore mentioned Black Walnut Creek boardwalk and the delightful boardwalk on Roosevelt Island — which is technically within the D.C. city limits. But the Battle Creek swamp is another story.
First of all, there aren’t just a few cypress trees here; there are hundreds of them. Most of them are close to a hundred years old and over 90-feet tall. A few are probably twice that age. But what makes the swamp and the boardwalk so magical are the thousands of cypress knees jutting up from the tannin-stained waters. It looks like something out of a fairytale.
The cypress swamp is also a fabulous destination for birders, especially during the spring and autumn migrations,. In particular, the patient birder will almost inevitably spot bright yellow prothonotary warblers flitting from tree to tree.
And although the shade in the swamp makes it difficult to get good photographs, in real life, this may be the most beautiful boardwalk of all.
Dennis is a travel, science, and business writer who has traveled all his life. The son of an Air Force pilot, he was born in England and lived in ten states growing up. Much of his youth was spent in Hawaii and Southeast Asia, where he traveled widely, including extended visits to New Delhi, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vientiane, and old Rangoon.
Visiting a Marsh Without Getting Your Feet Wet
Summary Wetlands are beautiful and some of the best places to see wildlife in a natural setting. That's why they're so popular. But wetland landscapes are also fragile and are easily damaged when thousands of people trample through the marshes and the mud to see the views. That's the beauty of a boardwalk. A good boardwalk still gives you access to the beautiful scenery and the birds and beavers and plants that make visiting marshlands so fulfilling, but it also allows you to sort of float above the marsh, almost like you were flying. And the best boardwalks should have high marks on all those factors.