Three Great Hikes in Patapsco Valley State Park

Some of these hikes are really popular — so social distancing might be a bit difficult. But if you haven’t been on these hikes, these are three good ones to add to your bucket list!

Patapsco Valley State Park extends along 32 miles of the Patapsco River, encompassing 16,043 acres and eight developed recreational areas. Recreational opportunities include hiking, fishing, camping, canoeing, horseback and mountain bike trails, as well as picnicking for individuals or large groups in the park’s many popular pavilions. The park offers more than 200 miles of trails spread out through the eight recreation areas. Below are three interesting hikes in Howard County — each worth a few hours of your time!

Marriottsville Road to McKeldin Rapids Hike

This hike takes you along the Patapsco River, up some slight elevation gains (nothing strenuous) that offer pretty views of the river below, and then along the river to see the falls and then the rapids that come afterward. You’ll also encounter lots of other hikers and horse riders. It’s a pleasant walk in the woods, along a scenic river, and well worth an afternoon or morning!

Park along Marriottsville Road, either immediately by the railroad tracks or a little away, on the northern/western side of the road, near where “Marriottsville Road 2” and Ridge Road intersect with the main Marriottsville Road (when I was there, there was no indication that this was illegal parking, I was recently informed that the better bet is the larger parking lot by the railroad tracks).

The trail begins across the road and immediately starts slightly up a hill and toward the river — the South Branch Patapsco River. You’ll descend again (both elevation changes are really minor) and the trail parallels the river, which flows gently here. Trails split off to the left, but the main trail curls around a slight hill with lovely glimpses of the river below.

At the top of the hill there are restrooms and a paved road. Listen and you’ll hear the falls. Turn right on the road and follow it to a parking area where it dead ends. There you’ll pick up the path descending to the falls below.

For this hike, I followed the orange (either white or no blazes on the
trail itself) to the yellow/orange- blazed McKeldin Rapids Trail. 

Enjoy the kids, and most likely the dogs, playing on the sandy beach in the water below the falls. The trail continues, heading off along the river. Follow it as it twists around the river bend. Once around the bend, follow the trail until you come to rock face. You have a few choices: you can pick your way carefully along, almost at water level, or you can climb up and pick up a dirt trail, or you can backtrack a bit and find the dirt trail shooting off from the left.

Once over the bare rock face, the trail flattens, until it meets up with the North Branch Patapsco River. That’s where I ended my hike — approximately 2 miles, give or take — and turned around to head back to make it a complete 4 mile hike. Of course the falls and rapids were the stars of the hike. But I encountered several groups of horse riders, and thoroughly enjoyed watching them.

For more details about this hike, check out MidAtlanticDayTrips’ first article about it here.

Getting there: The intersection of Marriottsville Road Number 2 and Marriottsville Road, Marriottsville, MD.


Cascade Falls Trail

In the heart of suburban Ellicott City, this trail is popular and often crowded, but still worth enjoying.

The Cascade Falls Trail, in the Avalon area of the park, is a 2.1 mile out and back trail that runs along a stream with several small and one larger waterfalls. The trail is good for all skill levels — we saw families with very young and very old members enjoying the trail. However, its location, right in the heart of suburban Ellicott City, means you’re unlikely to find much solitude along the trail.

The trail is very diverse — some sections are exceptionally rocky and rugged and other sections are smoother. With its minor ups and downs, the trail is entertaining, and although it claims to have an elevation gain of 272 feet, it’s probably not that significant if you only go down to the falls and back.

From the Landing Road trailhead, the trail heads almost continually down the side of the hill, coming soon to a stream, which you follow the rest of the way to the main waterfalls, which are just 10 feet high, give or take. Beware of mountain bikers, as they’ll come up on you fast and without warning; some are more considerate than others.

Multiple stream crossing, both by bridge and by hopping rocks make it fun. No matter how old you are, you feel young when you hop rocks.

For more details about this hike, check out MidAtlanticDayTrips’ original article about it here.

Know before you go: There are two accesses for this hike — one from within the park, where there is ample parking and the other along Landing Road in Ellicott City, where there is not ample parking.

Getting there: For the trailhead at Landing road: 5095 Landing Road, Elkridge, MD 21075; or the trailhead within the main park area: 8020 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City, MD 21043. Follow the drive left of the river all the way back to the swinging bridge and park in that parking lot.



Old Main Line Rail Trail

The Old Main Line, in the Daniels area of the park, is still an active railroad line owned and operated by CSX Transportation. It runs from Relay (outside Baltimore) west to Point of Rocks, through Ellicott City and, of course, Daniels, Maryland’s very own ghost town. The Old Main Line was once the main line of the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad, one of the oldest, if not THE oldest, rail lines in the United States.
Moorings for the railroad bridges, washed out by the remnants of Hurricane Agnes in 1972, still remain in the river and along the river shores. The trail follows the river pretty closely and is almost entirely flat, an easy walk in the woods. You are, literally, walking on history. Although the Old Main Line Trail travels 7 miles to its end, walking to where the rail trail intersects with the active railroad line and back is only a 5- to 6-mile hike.

The initial 1830 design of the B&O incorporated a number of designs, such as minimizing elevation changes but not smoothing out curves. As the engineering technology and knowledge developed over the next century, bridges and tunnels were constructed to eliminate some of the sharp curves. The unintended but welcome (for us) consequence was that stretches of the original railroad bed was abandoned.

Now serving as a rail trail for bikers and hikers, the Old Main Line Trail is possibly the first rail trail in the U.S. The Old Main Line is still an active rail road, traveling on the opposite shore of the river in the early part of the hike; at one point, the trail actually crosses over the active tracks to continue along the river.

When the original railroad bed was abandoned, artifacts of the railroad were left behind. Unknowingly, we walked over the granite stringers, which helped us navigate a particularly muddy part of the trail. 

The rail artifacts remain because much of the river valley, through which the Old Main Line ran, became part of the Patapsco Valley State Park. In fact, the area along the line contains an uncommonly large range of early 19th century railroad artifacts and structures.

For more details about this hike, check out MidAtlanticDayTrips’ original article about it here.

From the trail you can see what’s left of the former community of
Daniels, now a ghost town filled with memories and mystery.

Know before you go: There is parking for about eight cars. After that fills up, you park illegally (not recommended). For such a beautiful area, it is disappointing there’s not more space for parking legally. Go early.

Newt, our treeing walker coonhound puppy, climbs the steps as if to enter the vanished house.

Getting there: Patapsco Valley State Park – Daniels Area, 2090 Daniels Road, Ellicott City, MD 21043


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

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