I had been mountain biking at Fair Hill once many years ago but had never hiked there. I aimed to correct that.
Fair Hill is in northeastern Cecil County, Maryland and is the former playground of William du Pont Jr, a member of the Delaware du Pont family. William Jr. was a distinguished figure in Thoroughbred horse racing circles and turned Fair Hill into a world-class steeplechase course. After his death in 1965, the land was sold to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The DuPont Corporation, a major U.S. chemical company, continues on and is responsible for a product near and dear to the backpacker’s heart: Tyvek.
Mini-review: Lightweight and super-strong, DuPont’s Tyvek makes a great footprint for a tent. Our Tyvek backpacking footprint measures six feet by nine feet, folds up way smaller than a tarp, and weighs a mere 11.5 ounces. We’ve been using it for five years without so much as a tiny tear. Cut-to-size sheets can be bought on the internet for a reasonable price.
I lazily arrived at the North Appleton parking lot at 2:15pm. It should have been sweltering. It was mid-August, and Maryland’s usual oppressive heat and humidity was temporarily in abeyance. The mercury was topping out around 80°F, so I would not suffer for my late start. I shouldered my pack and set off down Black Bridge Road.
Black Bridge Road is a white gravel carriage road that tracks west from the parking area. Two hundred yards down the road, a trail veered off to the left and into a copse of trees. For the next mile, the trail wound, single-track, through dense woods. Asiatic dayflower dotted the brush that lined the trail, and knobbly blusher mushrooms poked up from below. Presently, I emerged from the woods to find a covered bridge spanning Big Elk Creek.
This bridge was built in 1860 and originally called the Strahorn’s Mill Bridge. It survived three major floods which destroyed many other local spans. When du Pont purchased the surrounding land, which became his new equestrian haven, Foxcatcher Farm, the bridge was rechristened. Since then it has been known as the Foxcatcher Farm Bridge.
The trail didn’t cross the bridge, but turned north along the Big Elk Creek. The creek was wide, shallow, and slow-moving, and children played in the water here and there. The trail was wide too, and paved in gravel; it seemed once to have been a carriage road but had fallen into disrepair. Four tenths of a mile later it intersected with a well maintained carriage road at one of several attractive steel bridges across Big Elk Creek. I continued straight across, still following the creek north.
A grassy trail split off the carriage road and I followed it, sticking close to the water as I made my way toward the Mason-Dixon Line and southern Pennsylvania. The trail began to climb as I continued north, moving away from the Big Elk as I did. I was expecting some kind of marker when I crosses the famed demarcation. I was disappointed. However, fifty yards further on a crude sign stood at an intersection letting me know that continuing straight would take me deeper into the Commonwealth. I turned right and looped back south toward Maryland and Fair Hill Natural Resource Management Area.
The Mason Dixon Line divides Maryland from Pennsylvania and (at least from a Civil War perspective) the northern states from the southern. Maryland had been granted land from the Potomac River to the fortieth parallel and east to that parallel’s intersection with the Delaware Arc. Problem is, the fortieth parallel doesn’t intersect the Delaware Arc. In fact, had that boundary remained on the 40th parallel, most of Philadelphia would have been inside Maryland. Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon helped to resolve the ensuing border dispute by surveying this line. The survey concluded in 1767 with the border we know today. One can hike to the Delaware Arc Monument (read here), which is the point at which the Mason Dixon line intersects the Delaware Arc.
Back in The Old Line State, the trail continued to wind through woodlands and along the edges of fields until it intersected with a road. Crossing, I discovered, among the trees at the edge of another wood, the ruins of an old stone barn. The Benge/McCloskey barn (so named after two owners who pre-dated Willam du Pont) stands among Osage orange trees, which produce large, green, inedible fruit that littered the ground around the ruins. The trail wends through the ruins, threading its way through the barn and some smaller out-buildings. All are constructed of quartzite – except for the arches above windows and doors which are of red brick and stand sharply out against the beige stone.
Having poked around the ruins for several minutes, I continued my trek. Suddenly, I heard the flutter of beating wings and something scarlet flashed by my ear, careening into the brush that flanked the trail. As quickly as it was there, the vermillion streak was gone. I scanned the brush for crimson but could see none. I did, however, notice a large moth-like insect sitting on a branch. It was the pastel-est of pinks and covered in black spots. My camera and I inched closer. In a tiny blaze of scarlet, the creature took to flight. This was a spotted lanternfly, an invasive planthopper that has made its way to the Eastern US from China. It’s pretty (when in flight and it’s bright red hindwings are visible), but poses a threat to grape vines and fruit trees. Soon, I was noticing them everywhere. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture makes some recommendations on how to treat them when found. I’ve posted a link at the end of this post.
With the ruins and the lanternfly swarms behind me I traipsed through thick, verdant forest, across small wooden bridges, and across carriage roads. I passed other, smaller, stone ruins and enjoyed a variety of fungi – along with the occasional late-blooming flower- as I made my way through Fair Hill’s rolling, wooded countryside. I was one and a half trail miles south of the Mason-Dixon Line when I passed through a junction I had navigated near the beginning of my hike. A left turn would have resulted in a quick mile back to the trailhead. I went straight, committing to twice that mileage; I was enjoying the weather and the walk.
As I worked my way east, I began to see large hay fields through breaks in the trees. Eventually, the trail delivered me into one such field near Tawes Drive, the road that crosses the Big Elk Creek via the Foxcatcher Farm Bridge. I set out across the field in the mid-afternoon sun. A farmer in a lanternfly-red tractor, pulling a baler, was sweeping to and fro across the open field, scooping up hay which emerged in tidy blocks from the baler. These fields are leased to a Pennsylvania farm operation which mows them twice a year. After a little over a half-mile of field hiking, I found myself back at the trailhead.
This was really pleasant hiking. You’re not going to rack up a lot of elevation at Fair Hill, but there is plenty of diversity on the trails. Woods, creeks, fields, and rustic ruins conspire to make this route fun and interesting. With approximately eighty miles of trail in the area, my five-and-a-half mile jaunt barely stuck a hiker’s toe into the Fair Hill trail water; if my hike was any indication, there are many delightful hikes there. Check the map, though; some of the trails are for equestrian use only. I suppose that is to be expected on land that was once devoted to horse racing. Enjoy hiking there, and if you see spotted lanternflys, you may report them via the link below. Also, don’t eat the oranges. ♦
Special thanks to Emily K., a local historian who helped me get my facts straight on Fair Hill of old.
Spotted Lanternfly Alert: https://bit.ly/3mLBh1v
Date: August 20, 2020
Location: Elkton, MD
Trailhead: 39.714212, -75.822542
Distance: 5.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 330 feet
BIT|Hiker acknowledges the Indigenous peoples who are the original inhabitants of the lands on which we hike. Our research for this post indicated we were on ancestral lands of the Susquehannock.