September 2005: Gunpowder Falls State Park


northern Maryland

Gunpowder Falls State Park embraces more than 17,000 acres of property in distinct tracts from the Maryland-Pennsylvania state line to the Chesapeake Bay. Located where rivers tumble down the fall line of the Piedmont Plateau to the flat Coastal Plain, there was plenty of water power here to drive the industry of a young America. Ruins of these mills, including a gunpowder mill which exploded on the Panther Branch on July 7, 1874, can still be seen in the park. Established as a grain mill in 1772, Jerusalem Mill operated until 1961. Restoration began in 1985 and has expanded to include the entire Village of Jerusalem with ten-ant houses, smith shops, and a general store. Since 1995, the Jerusalem Mill has housed the administrative headquarters for all of sprawling Gunpowder Falls State Park. 

The Hereford Area on the Big Gunpowder River preserves 3,620 acres of pristine Maryland woodlands. At Hereford the canine hiker can find any length or type of hike to set tails wagging. The marquee trail among 20 miles of hiking is the 7.1-mile Gunpowder South Trail that includes bites of trail more reminiscent of West Virginia than Baltimore, especially the western segment from Falls Road to Prettyboy Dam. While most of the narrow dirt trails at Hereford are easy on the paw, this waterside path is rocky and requires a fair amount of rock scrambling. Your reward is stunning views of the rugged gorge. Walking along the South Trail, and its companion North Trail on the opposite bank, is generally level as it follows the meanderings of the stream. For hearty climbers, look to the many side trails which can be wedded to the South Trail to form several loops of between one and two miles of length.

Unlike other sections of Gunpowder Falls State Park, the water is not the star at Sweet Air. Only a short segment of the trail system follows the Little Gunpowder Falls, which flows thinly near its headwaters at this point. The attraction at Sweet Air is a patchwork of open fields (still under cultivation) and wooded landscapes on either side of the river. Sweet Air offers more than twelve miles of well-marked rambles on four main trails and several connector branches. The feature hike is the white-blazed Little Gunpowder Trail, serving up a buffet of Sweet Air splendors in the course of its 3.8 miles: upland farm fields, fern-encrusted hillsides and lush riparian forests. Short loops off this trail visit a quiet woodland pond and a small white pine plantation. Look for a cornucopia of trail surfaces - soft dirt, hard pack, wood chip and mowed grass. A total exploration of Sweet Air will include the blue-blazed Boundary Trail which means wading through the Little Gunpowder to walk into Baltimore County. If this proves enjoyable, consider some of the rogue trails at Sweet Air near the water.

The fall line between the Piedmont and coastal plains occurs in the Belair Road section of the park, just west of Route 40. Sloops could come up the Big Gunpowder Falls as far as this point to load shipments from the many mills operating upstream. Today the park's trails run for 8 miles along the Big Gunpowder Falls water chutes. The highlight for canine hikers here is the Sweathouse Branch Wildlands Area that provides some of the best loop trails in the Gunpowder park system. The outside loop links the Wildlands Trail (pink), the Stocksdale Trail (blue) and the Sweathouse Trail (yellow) and covers 5.1 miles. The healthy hill climbs and wide trails give a big feel to this walk as it meanders through differing forest types. These trails are rocky under paw at times. On the east side of U.S. Route 1 the Lost Pond Trail runs in a 3.1-mile long lasso on its way to an abandoned mill pond. The yellow-blazed Sawmill Trail loops off this footpath into the hillside of the gorge to visit the ruins of the 1833 Carroll family sawmill. These trails require several stream crossings and are often muddy. For all-day hikers the Big Gunpowder Trail picks its way through the woods along the entire length of the river on the south bank, eventually reaching the last rapids of the Gunpowder. The narrow dirt trail is blazed white. Unless recent rains have been heavy, the dam-controlled Big Gunpowder Falls is often only deep enough only for splashing. But on Long Green Run, past the Sweathouse Trail, is one of the best canine swimming holes in the Baltimore area. Racing water is funnelled into a deep pool by a whale-shaped rock that serves as a natural diving board for playful dogs.

There are many miles of hiking along the Little Gunpowder Falls on both sides of park headquarters at Jerusalem Mill. Upstream the white-blazed Little Gunpowder Trail is a bouncing ramble through the woods. The return trip on the linear trail can loop into the hillsides on blue-blazed side trails like the Quarry Trail. Caution: This trail requires one crossing of the 4-lane US 1 and although the road is not heavily used at this point the southbound traffic does race downhill around a blind curve like a banked NASCAR track. Downstream (cross the bridge by the Mill to pick up the trail) the route takes in more open fields as it leads to a loop around the Kingsville Athletic Fields. For a quick loop, stop at the Jericho Covered Bridge and return on the yellow-blazed horse trail. 

In the center of the Big Gunpowder Falls, about 1.2 miles east of the parking lot at Belair on Route 1, are the Pot Rocks. Best accessed from the Big Gunpowder Trail, you and the dog can walk out and examine the conical depressions created in the bed rock by swirling waters armed with millions of years worth of grinding cobbles. These unique potholes can be a foot or more deep.

DIRECTIONS TO Gunpowder Falls State Park:
- The park office is in Kingsville on Jerusalem Mill Road off US 1, north of Baltimore.