Patapsco Valley State Park and a Rant: Part 1

The park is a perfect place to tire out kids and beagles.

The benefit to living near a state park like Patapsco Valley State Park is being able to grab a beagle or two and go for a walk in the woods whenever it’s convenient. I am very grateful to have, by chance, bought a home near a park that offers so much. This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Next week I’ll run Part 2.

Many a weekend morning we’ve leashed up the dogs and headed to the nearby Avalon/Orange Grove area, where the Bloede Dam creates a pleasing rumble.

Ironically, the Bloede Dam is a bit of an eyesore, and even poses a drowning hazard, having caused several deaths over the past years.

Patapsco Electric and Manufacturing of Ellicott City brought fame to the Patapsco River corridor in 1906 when it constructed the world’s first underwater hydroelectric plant. Named Bloede’s Dam after the company’s president, Victor Gustav Bloede, it was state of the art at the time, but only operated a couple decades and stopped providing power in 1924. Part of the reason why it became unfeasible to continue operations was the large amount of silt and debris ending up in the river from the denuded hillsides. Since then it’s served no function, and in fact, impedes the migration of some fish, and is therefore being considered for demolition.

Although the sound it makes is pleasant and it’s historical, the dam and its supporting structures are ugly. In my world, if it serves no function and can’t be repurposed, if it’s ugly (and it is), and if it hurts the wildlife or environment, then it should go. For now though, I enjoy the sound it makes, and I know I’ll miss that when/if it finally is removed.

I go to Patapsco a couple times a month during the warmer months, usually to the Avalon/Orange Grove areas and the Grist Mill Trail — a paved path that is heavily used by bicyclists, joggers, and dog walkers. I was at the park most recently a week ago, when my husband and I decided to go biking, trying out our new bikes. As usual, we were on the Grist Mill Trail, which is accessible from two sides — one the formal entrance to the park in Elkridge, going under the railroad viaduct and Interstate 95, which is how we entered this time.

This area has some interesting history (okay, interesting to me — but I love this sort of stuff). According to the Patapsco Heritage Greenway organization (PHG), which works to preserve the history of the Patapsco Valley, from the early 1700s to the 1860s, the river valley was heavily industrialized, served by the port of Elk Ridge Landing — the site of modern day Elkridge. I tried to imagine ships and the hustle and bustle of a port, but I couldn’t do it. I wonder if the ships were just river barges. Was Patapsco even deep enough for an ocean-going ship?

Early development in the valley centered on tobacco and the production of iron in the vicinity of present day Elkridge. During the colonial era, both of these commodities were exported from Elk Ridge Landing to Britain and the East Indies. However, by the early to mid-1800s, the port had silted up (due to land erosion as a result of the iron forges in the area) and as a result, a highway and railroad system was developed largely to get products from there to Baltimore’s markets and harbor.

The rapidly falling water — the same stretch that makes for a nice tube ride on a lazy summer afternoon — along the Patapsco River provided an abundance of power for a wide variety of mills. However, in 1868, a devastating flood hit the Patapsco Valley and eliminated almost all of its industries. If you think about it, this flood started the Patapsco River Valley to begin its unwilling conversion from industrial mills and factories to the forested state park we have today. The possibility of additional floods, the invention of the steam engine, and the generally poor national economic situation at the time prevented many mills and their associated communities from rebuilding along the Patapsco. Like Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia, which I wrote about last fall (check out, the environmental devastation has been slow to be reversed.

The Grist Mill Trail is sandwiched between the river and an active rail road. Along the trail are remnants of the foundations of an old mill on high ground between the B&O Railroad tracks and the river. In fact, throughout the park are the ruins of old brick and stone homes and other structures. The flood associated with Hurricane Agnes (remember that one? a major event of my childhood!) swept away almost all of the remaining evidence of earlier mill sites from the valley. Two well maintained swinging bridges also characterize this section of the park. There also is an old stone arched bridge carrying a road to no-where crossing over what was probably an old stream or mill water race.

Back to the remaining foundation wall, which is all that remains of the Orange Grove community and a flour mill established in 1856 on the Baltimore County side of the river. One of the largest mills in the mid-Atlantic region, it returned to operation after the 1868 flood, and continued operating until a fire devastated it in May 1905. A small community lived in 12 mill homes on the Howard County side of the river, connected by a swinging bridge to the mill that provided their livelihoods. Orange Grove flour, which was marketed as “Patapsco Superlative Patent Flour,” was widely popular in both Europe and the United States. The rebuilt swinging bridge and the Orange Grove picnic area is all that remains of this once vibrant community.

That we have the park to enjoy at all is thanks to the state. Although the 1868 flood ironically started the environmental restoration of the valley, it wasn’t until the early 1900s, when the State of Maryland established a forest and parks system largely to reestablish the forest in the Patapsco Valley, that restoration was really able to take hold. That beginning has resulted in the present day Patapsco Valley State Park, which now covers over 15,000 forested acres. I love learning this sort of history about an area and am grateful for the PHG for its work in preserving it.

When we go “just” to walk the dogs, we usually access the park from Ilchester Road in Ellicott City — there are a couple of parking spots at the bottom of the hill near where the old Simkins/Thistle Mill — an old abandoned  factory — used to be (it was razed this past fall) and you can cross into the park on a swinging bridge that has been known to frighten the dogs, although my beagles are hardly the bravest members of the canine kingdom. Despite this, it’s a pleasant walk and sometimes we see heron and other birds, and see tracks from deer and fox. Every once in a while we’re treated to the roar of a train going by on the rails on the hillside above. I hope that the land the old factory was on will become part of the park. For more information about the Simkins/Thistle Mill, click here. Also, please note that parking is hard to come by on this side of the park.

The falls in the McKelden Area.

There are a variety of trails, including some accessed from Hilltop Road that connects Ellicott City and Catonsville, that are enjoyable hikes into the hollows formed by the creeks flowing into the Patapsco. Some of the hikes offer some pleasant views. Walking along some of the trails that follow creeks feeding into the river, especially in the fall, are enjoyable hikes. Keep alert, although about the wildest thing you’ll see are mountain bikers!

The path on the opposite side of the river is less well traveled and can be accessed from the park’s main entrance and leads up to a better view of the dam. Unfortunately, however, it seems to have more litter, although on the face of it, that doesn’t make sense. 

In fact, that’s the downside to the Avalon/Orange Grove area of the park in general — the litter. It seems worse in this stretch than in the other sections of the park. It’s a shame that this little gem hidden in a largely suburban area is treated so casually and scornfully. From soccer balls to discarded t-shirts to the ubiquitous soda cans and chips bags, you can find it all during a stroll through that park. Although some of the garbage may be in the park due to wind storms and flooding — much has simply been left behind by others enjoying the park. A shame!

The Avalon/Orange Grove section of the park is heavily used: the hikers, the bikers, the dog walkers, people tubing, people fishing, people picnicking… there is no solitude there. And that is fine — if only everyone would clean up and bring out the garbage they bring in. There. I’ve ranted. So, what can I do about it? Find out in next week’s blog (hence, Part 2)!

When we have more time on our hands, we may head over to the less populated (but still popular) McKeldon Area for the McKeldon Rapids trail, which takes you along the river as it twists and turns a bit, and is quite lovely in all seasons. I don’t believe I’ve yet completed the trail — the first few times we got distracted and detoured from the trail to others, and more recently because debris, presumably from Hurricane Sandy, still covers the trail in places.There’s always next time…

Last year in early March my friend and I were feeling adventurous on a warm Saturday and decided to go check out a trail that led to some old house ruins in the northern McKeldon area, off of Raincliff Road near Rt 32. There was a parking area and some mown grass seemed to indicate a trail, but it soon petered out into a series of deer paths that scattered through the dense thickets and brush.

On we went — we believed we were headed in the right direction, but we became hopelessly lost, and it was only because my friend had enterprisingly brought her GPS phone (and knew how to use it) that we were able to find our way to the river and the railroad tracks, and walked along these until we reached some steps leading up into the woods. We went up those and quickly found the house ruins — a stone structure with heavy wooden beams that have largely disintegrated into a pile of rubble in the center. The floor over a dug-out basement had collapsed inward. Really not much to see, unfortunately.

For haunted house lovers I can hold out no hope: it didn’t look haunted, it didn’t feel haunted, there were no weird sounds or odd things lurking in the periphery of our sight — although I’m not sensitive to those sorts of things and I’d probably pee in my pants if I ever did really encounter a ghost (actually, I think I might have once — but that’s a story for another blog, and at the time I hopped back into the car and drove away quick, without even taking a photo of the house, which is what I’d originally stopped for). I hoped this particular house had been well loved and well lived in while it was whole — it was small, but it must have been cozy and pretty cute, and in a lovely setting perched on the top of a little hill.

Going back to our car we blazed our own trail, using the sun to guide us. We knew we couldn’t get too lost — the river and rail road were behind us, the main road a mile to our left. But what should have been a two-mile walk there and back we believe to have taken us more than five miles, through brush and brier patches, stumbling over broken logs and hidden creeks and up and down some steep hills. Sore and tired, we greeted our car with joy. Only the dogs really had fun on that walk in the woods.

An old stone house in the Avalon/Orange part of the park.

To be honest, I don’t know the other parts of the park very well — the ones nearer Baltimore. I look forward to exploring those. Patapsco Valley State Park is an odd, odd park. It’s more like a series of smaller parks, strung together like beads on a string. The park follows the river for 32 miles, from Carroll County through Howard, touching on Baltimore County and Baltimore City as well.

Getting there: Depends where “there” is. I recommend getting trail guides in advance from the Maryland DNR website: These tell you what’s where and roughly, how to get there.

Hours: Dawn to dusk.

Dogs: Bring them and tire them out! A tired dog is a happy dog!

Eats: Lots of picnic areas in both Avalon and McKeldon areas. Probably in other parts as well. Cart in and cart out — so bring a bag to carry your own trash out with you.

Website: Patapsco State Park:; Patapsco Heritage Greenway

For other hikes in the Patapsco Valley State Park, check out the following articles:

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