The northern edge of
the Chesapeake: Elk Neck

A rambling by Tom Knapp,
May 1994

Any forest hike carries with it the unmistakable aroma of green and growing things. More unusual, particularly in an inland area like my home in Lancaster County, Pa., is the scent of water and the tang of salt in the air.

Those odors combine for a breathy outdoors experience in Maryland's Elk Neck State Park, just a short jaunt south for local nature lovers. Located on a peninsula jutting sharply into the Chesapeake Bay, the park provides an array of outdoor opportunities such as fishing, swimming, camping and boating. For hiking enthusiasts there are five well-marked trails leading to a lighthouse and cliff overlooking the bay, a beaver pond, beaches and a showcase of natural scenery.

The park occupies a little more than 2,200 acres at the north end of the bay. It is bisected by a private housing development, which separates the northern trails and camping sites from Turkey Point, a popular area at the peninsula's tip.

Turkey Point trail is a pleasant stroll for casual walkers, stretching only a mile to the point and the Turkey Point lighthouse. En route, hikers will pass through thick woods and large, grassy meadows perfect for spotting deer in the morning or evening hours. The bay is often visible through the trees, and narrow side paths provide better views from the cliffs or, at lower elevations, permit access to the water for fishing or beachcombing. The trail divides midway to the point, branching out in a circle that leads to the lighthouse either way.

The forest here is young -- the area was mostly farmland in the early 1900s -- and is made up largely of black cherry and black locust trees. The eastern leg is broad and level for easy walking. The narrow western branch is slightly more challenging with some slopes and twists, but it still presents no problems for most walkers. At a casual pace, it takes less than 30 minutes to reach the lighthouse and a scenic view of the bay.

The squat, white lighthouse overlooks the Chesapeake from a bluff 50 feet over the water. The point is a good spot for bird- and boat-watching, and some people tote lunches for a picnic over the bay. On a recent Sunday, a wedding was held on the cliff. People are warned to keep back from the cliff's edge, however, since erosion has made the ground there unreliable.

Four other trails wind their way through the northern portion of the park. One, called the nature trail, is a 3 1/2-mile circular walk and comes with a booklet describing local flora and fauna. The booklet is available at the nearby camp registration office. Three other trails meander through the forest, and none is more than two miles from beginning to end. All but one trail are listed by park officials as an "easy" walk for hikers.

Highlights of the northern trails include beaches on both the bay and Elk River, marshland, blueberry thickets and a beaver pond, where the work of resident beavers is usually visible even if the animals are not. The park is a good bird-watching site, particularly for small hawks and warblers during the fall migration and waterfowl over the bay.

Located in the coastal plain region, naturalists say the area has characteristics similar to the Piedmont. Tree enthusiasts will find the northern area forested with chestnut, white and red oaks, mountain laurels, tulip poplars, sycamores and American beeches. The oldest standing trees are estimated to be 150 to 200 years old. Beneath the tree canopy, the forest is thick with American holly, red maple and hackberry.

For anyone coming from my neck of the woods, Elk Neck is easy to find. Just get on Route 272 and head south. If you can follow its turns and perambulations (the highway doesn't always stay on the same road), you'll be there without problem. Route 272 dead-ends about 50 miles south of Lancaster in one of Elk Neck's parking lots.

Elk Neck State Park is just a few miles south of Elk Neck Demonstration Forest, state-owned land set aside for scientists to experiment with tree hybrids. A benefit of more than 3,100 acres of protected forest is another good area for outdoor activities, which are encouraged by a 9-mile network of hiking and horseback trails among woods dominated by Virginia pine. The forest, unlike the park, is open gameland, so it's not the best site for an outing during hunting season.

Seven miles north of the park is North East, Md., a tiny village sprinkled with decoy and antiques shops, the Upper Bay Museum and a nice-sized community park.

[ by Tom Knapp ]