Fair Hill Natural Resource Management Area: Rivers and Ruins II

I had a plan. Was my plan exhaustively researched? Of course not! Lisa, the research department of our hiking duo, was away on business, and I was trying to explore some new trails that weren’t too far from home. I picked Elk Neck State Park at the northern tip of the Chesapeake Bay. In my defense, I had picked a trailhead, and a route – a series of trails that would net me around seven miles. What I hadn’t done was check the Elk Neck State Park website for trail closures. A ranger gave me the bad news when I pulled into the lot at the park office. A significant section of the park’s trails had been closed due to destruction caused by a recent tornado. How about that. Not a typical occurrence in the mid-Atlantic region. To make matters worse, the closures cut the park’s trail system in half, leaving me with only a couple miles of trail open to play on. So, this will not be a post about Elk Neck State Park … but thanks for listening.

Disappointed, I turned my Subaru Crosstrek north and headed for the closest hiking spot I could think of: Fair Hill Natural Resource Management Area. Thirty minutes later, I pulled into Fair Hill Lot #5 off of Appleton Road. I was cranky – you know, that type of slow-burn, anger/frustration mix that comes when you don’t get your way and it’s nobody’s fault but your own? I slung on my daypack and galumphed down the tidy gravel path. My bad mood began to melt away.

Fair Hill never disappoints. It’s not particularly rugged or challenging, but it is a heck of a place for a splendid romp through fields and woods, across rivers and creeks, and alongside the ruins of mills, barns and other relics of yesteryear, when it was the equestrian haven of William du Pont Jr, a member of the Delaware du Pont family. A tenth of a mile into my hike, the trail passed through a gate of sorts. I turned left, and a wide gravel path stretched out as far as my eyes could see. I followed it south as it rolled over gentle hills, a light grey ribbon left carelessly on the Maryland countryside.

Eventually, after a delightful stroll down a gravel carriage road, I passed through a wood-and-metal gate and wiggled my way through the woods for a half-mile before joining the remains of Jackson Hall School Road. There, the trail ran straight for a few hundred yards to Big Elk Creek. Halfway to the creek, I diverted onto a spaghetti-noodle trail that slipped back into the woods, winding past unidentified, stone ruins and over small, wooden bridges before crossing back over Jackson Hall School Road and delivering me to the banks of the Big Elk.

The creek ran clear and shallow as I followed it upstream, where I again passed through a gate at a carriage road; the same road I left when I passed through the earlier gate. To my left, an attractive bridge spanned the creek; ahead, the trail continued upstream. For the next three-quarters of a mile, I traipsed the banks of Big Elk Creek before coming to the ruins of a long-forgotten mill.

Scott’s Mill sat, crumbling and overgrown, alongside another of Fair Hill’s well maintained carriage roads. The three-story structure is sans roof, but its four walls remain mostly intact. From mdcoveredbridges.com:

The grist mill was active in the early 1800s and operated for nearly 100 years. There
were actually two mills here, both owned by David Scott. The three-story stone
grist mill was on the north side of the road and its walls are clearly visible. A saw
mill operated to the south, though only its stone foundation remains in the woods.
The mill complex was a massive structure and operated 24 hours a day (in two
shifts) at its peak. Scott’s Mills made flour, feed, lumber, cider, fertilizer.

I spent some time exploring the ruins, even tramping into the surrounding woods to see the derelict building from a different angle. Then I visited the nearby bridge across Big Elk Creek before heading, on the carriage road, away from the water.

The wide, gravel path continued to follow the creek for a mile before veering off into the woods again. Along the way, the sun-dappled trail took me past wildflowers, while the creek splashed and bubbled to the west. I passed several junctions – one blazed with a blue diamond, another in yellow. A large stand fireweed flanked the trail, it’s blooms gone, cottony seed pods taking flight in the afternoon breeze. There were more bridges as well, some more run down than the handsome steel spans I had seen south of Scott’s Mill. When the trail did turn east, it shrank to a delightful single track, a pleasant change from the wide bridalway along the water.

Back in the woods, I traipsed over little wooden bridges and up gentle hills under a canopy of beech, maple and oak. After a time, a large field of grass came into view, the afternoon sun bathing the seedheads in a soft amber light. Amber waves of grain. Spacious skies. The only thing missing were majestic, purple mountains. No wonder they call Maryland, “American in Miniature”.

With over six miles behind me, I emerged from the woods and stepped once again onto Fair Hill’s pristine carriageways. Evening was but a quarter-hour away as I started south – again on that ribbon of gravel that had taken me almost to the Big Elk Creek at the start of this hike. I rambled easily through the expansive fields as the sun sank lower. At the stroke of six, I turned my back on the sun and headed east on the connecter to Lot #5.

I had now covered a little more than twelve of Fair Hill’s eighty miles of trails and was already looking forward to my next hike there. As I said in my first Fair Hill post (read here), this is not a hiking destination to work your quads, though it is a treasure trove of interesting and delightful hikes. As I finished this jaunt, I realized that I hadn’t given a thought to my scrapped hike at Elk Neck State Park for hours. I will keep my eye on the trails at Elk Neck, and, when they reopen, I’ll get there and let you know how they rate. Until then, my north eastern Maryland hiking go-to will remain Fair Hill Natural Resource Management Area. If you like rivers and ruins, bridges and bridal paths, Fair Hill is a good resource … naturally. ♦

Date: September 19, 2020
Location: Elkton, MD
Trailhead: 39.688250, -75.816209
Distance: 6.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 304 feet
Difficulty: Moderate

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 Nentego (Nanticoke).

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