Baltimore – Washington Area’s Best Urban Oases

When the urban jungle becomes too much for us, we naturally seek an oasis of peace and calm amidst the asphalt and pandemonium. I’ve found eight surprising urban oases offering us the promise of lovely vistas, green relief, or a pleasant walk. These are all near or in Washington DC and Baltimore. Check them out below!

1.  Baltimore & Annapolis Trail The B&A Rail Trail is a local favorite, although it can get quite crowded with dog walkers, joggers, and bikers. The B&A Trail runs for just over 13 miles between Glen Burnie and Annapolis, following the old Baltimore and Annapolis Railroad. Although the “park” is only 60 feet wide, many parts of it are wooded and it is relaxing to get away from the roads and the more suburban scenery of strip malls and shopping centers. Even with such a narrow park, there is wildlife. On an early spring day we saw a lot of birds and the ubiquitous grey squirrels. There were also deer and we noticed fox prints in mud along the trail.

2. Patapsco River Valley State Park Strung like pearls from northern Howard County into the city of Baltimore, Patapsco offers valleys of hidden surprises, from the Grist Mill Trail and its swinging bridges to Maryland’s own ghost town, Daniels. There’s mountain biking, hiking, and water tubing, as well as a variety of picnic areas to make spending an afternoon pleasurable and refreshing.

3. Brookside Gardens An oasis in the midst of cluttered suburbia, pretty much anytime in spring or summer, the gardens are lovely, but Brookside is a standout for its variety of azaleas, making early to mid-spring the best time to vist. The grounds of Brookside Gardens are designed around three formal gardens leading to a Wedding Gazebo, an Azalea Walk on the brow of the hill, plantings around the entrance, and the Conservatory.

4. The U.S. National Arboretum is a garden, a park, and a research institution, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Its 446 acres include world-famous collections, such as its azalea, bonsai, and Asian plant collections. It is green and lush and colorful. There are wooded walks and expansive meadows and quite a bit in between.

5. C&O Canal Towpath in Montgomery County, but really, all the way in to its terminus in DC itself. The C&O Canal Towpath stretches 184 miles from Washington DC all the way up to Western Maryland. Whether you want some pleasant and near-flat bike riding, want to stretch your legs or walk your dog — the towpath is a go-to destination. Nearer to Washington DC, and through Montgomery County — one of Maryland’s most crowded and urban counties — the towpath offers moments of solitude and respite from the urban jungle. When the concrete makes your eyes sore, and the incessant noise of civilization makes your ears ache, then go to the towpath. Enjoy green trees, sweeping views of the Potomac River, and listen for the birds singing in the trees. You’ll see evidence of muskrat and beaver, herons and ducks galore, and probably also deer. Over the Potomac River itself, don’t be surprised if  you spot a bald eagle. Although Great Falls has plenty of parking, it also is one of the most visited sections, so instead check out Swains Lock, drive up to Brunswick or the Monocacy Aqueduct areas, or one of the several other less crowded access areas.

6. Columbia’s Four Lakes Just 20 minutes outside of Baltimore is the planned community of Columbia, MD. James Rouse, the visionary who founded Columbia, incorporated winding, tree-lined roads and lakes in his planning, making this community a pleasant one to live in and the lakes a pleasant destination for walks and strolls. The four lakes: Centennial, Elkhorn, Kittaquamundi, and Wilde Lake, all offer quite different experiences.

The lakes all have paths that offer changing views and a chance to enjoy seeing beaver, deer, herons, ducks and geese, as well as a variety of other birds. Wilde Lake, ironically, is the least wild, since you’re strolling below homes right at the lake’s shore, but the houses are all lovely; my favorite time to stroll this lake is at dusk, because of the lighting. Centennial is Columbia’s largest lake; the path takes you through quite densely wooded areas, although large sections of the path are not shaded (so a no-go on a hot summer day — this is one of my favorite two lakes to visit for the first-thing-on-a-Saturday-morning-let’s-take-the-beagles walks). Elkhorn is interesting in all seasons and at all times of the day. One evening around dusk last summer we watched four or five beaver play and romp. The lake is home to the largest snapping turtle I’ve ever seen. And I don’t think we’ve ever visited the lake without seeing at least one grey or green heron.

7. Baltimore’s Waterfront Promenade Built around Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, the waterfront promenade doesn’t offer solitude as much as it offers a chance to re-connect with Baltimore’s working harbor past — that, and some magnificent views of the water! As you stroll along its five + miles, you’ll travel through Baltimore’s historic neighborhoods as well: Canton and Fells Point among them. Grab a coffee or grab lunch in Fells Point, or visit one of the historic light ships or lighthouses — the promenade offers a brief interlude of relaxation away from the major hustle and bustle of Baltimore’s city life. Travel in one direction on foot, then take a water taxi through the harbor back to your starting point!

8. Mount Vernon Trail, north of Reagan National Airport, offers sweeping views of the Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Kennedy Center, and other easily recognizable, patriotic buildings and monuments, from across the Potomac River, which the trail closely follows. Easily accessible from DC, you’ll want to check out the Lyndon B. Johnson Memorial Grove or Roosevelt Island on this get-away from the urban hustle and bustle of downtown DC.

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