Patapsco Valley State Park – Pickall Area: Art on the Trail

Amid the urban sprawl that surrounds the city of Baltimore is Patapsco Valley State Park. Slicing through suburbia from Liberty Reservoir to where it empties into the Chesapeake Bay, the Patapsco River passes through the quaint town of Ellicot City before widening dramatically between South Baltimore and Brooklyn. (Yes, there is a Brooklyn in Maryland.) Fort McHenry sits on the Patapsco, still symbolically guarding Baltimore’s Inner Harbor from invasion. The Patapsco does extend north of the reservoir for several miles, but the twenty-seven miles that stretch south to Brooklyn are nearly all surrounded by parks. Patapsco Valley State Park is the largest, flanking twenty miles of the river’s meandering path.

I arrived at the parking area at quarter to four that afternoon. I looked for the trailhead to no avail. Consulting my map, I discovered that the parking was on the west bank of the Patapsco, while the trailhead was on the east. To reach the trail, one must cross a relatively narrow bridge on a busy road. Rush hour was starting, and the crossing was a little uncomfortable. Once across, the trail was right there between a wooden signpost and a shiny silver guardrail.

The hubbub of Baltimore’s exurbia faded quickly once on the trail. My path quickly became a narrow thread that wove its way among thick grasses and tangled brush along the forested banks of the river. Massive trees reached out over the water, their low-slung branches forming pleasant vignettes through which to view the river. Given the location, I was pleasantly surprised at the absence of trash. It was a bright, sunny afternoon; the sun splashed across the Pickall Trail and sparkled on the Patapsco. I hadn’t expected much from this hike – being so close to Baltimore and surrounded by sprawl – but I was finding my assumptions to be in error. This hike was perfectly delightful. Then, up ahead, a massive, grey monolith loomed through the trees.

The monoliths supported Interstate 70, which towered over the Patapsco River Valley, the vehicle deck perched nearly one hundred feet above on great concrete abutments. The bases of these enormous columns were adorned with colorful and impressive graffiti. In general, I don’t condone spray-painting public property, but these tags were quite beautiful and, more importantly, not on rocks or trees. It infuriates me to see the natural world vandalized, but as I passed the abutments, I gazed at the swirling artwork as if it were in a museum, marveling at the use of color and line and judging each on its aesthetic merit. I stroked my chin and tilted my head looking for deeper meaning in the lines and angles of the unframed works. If I sound irreverent, I am, but I am quite serious in my appreciation for the beauty before me. I moved reverently from the westbound wing of the Banksy Museum of Modern Art to the eastbound wing. There I contemplated more splashy designs before heading for the gift shop on down the trail.

Beyond the elevated highway was more single track trail. Across the river, deer grazed serenely on the floodplain between the water and the tracks of the Western Maryland Railroad. The main line of the Western Maryland Railroad ran between Baltimore and Hagerstown and was a precursor to the more well known Baltimore and Ohio line, parts of which still operate today. In places the river ran slow, and, on that warm windless afternoon, the water was clear and glassy. A little over two miles from the trailhead, I came to a small creek emptying into the Patapsco.

This was the Cedar Branch. I crossed and pushed up the other bank. Ahead was a great tract of dirt. Yellow earth movers sat haphazardly around the expanse, and concrete pipe sections, five feet in diameter, sat stacked to one side. The only things growing out of this barren swath were utility poles and Porta Pots. Denim-clad men with their bright yellow helmets leaned on the machinery, looking grumpy. Hiking through a construction site was not what I signed up for … and I probably wasn’t supposed to be traipsing through there anyway.

I backtracked. Mere steps before the Cedar Branch, the trail had split. I retraced my steps to that junction and veered off onto heretofore untrodden (by me) trail. I started to climb away from the river. I was now on the Bestivus Trail. I don’t make this stuff up, folks. A little online checking revealed that the name of this trail is sometimes “Festivus” and sometimes “Bestivus” – that’s sometimes confusing for the rest of us.

The Festivus/Bestivus Trail climbed up the side of the valley, accounting for much of the 290 feet of elevation on this hike. The trail wound through tall hardwoods over rocky terrain. As I gained the ridge I passed clusters of late-blooming white wood aster, its stark, white petals spread wide against the dry duff on the forest floor. I ranged over gentle spurs and draws as I made my way back north toward Interstate 70. A quarter-mile south of the highway I rejoined the Pickall Trail. From there I followed the trail back past the hall of urban artwork and along the riverbank back to the trailhead.

Patapsco Valley State Park has six main areas. The Pickall, which I have passed over a number of times, is one of the smaller areas and is jammed in tightly among dense residential neighborhoods and intersected by a major interstate highway. In the last couple of years, I have been making an effort to thoroughly explore this park. I stepped onto the Pickall Trail with pretty low expectations. The trail smacked me down. I was shown, in no uncertain terms, that PVSP could deliver a delightful hiking experience even in its less remote areas. I humbly beg your pardon, Pickall Area. Had I not been stopped by the construction south of the Cedar Branch, I could have continued down the Patapsco for another mile and a half and turned this into a seven to ten mile loop. Passing under the interstate was not the mar on my hike it might have been; the height of the deck removed the traffic and the road noise far enough that it was not obtrusive. Additionally, the free exhibition of artwork was pleasing. So, if you’re in the Baltimore area and you’ve passed over this area of Patapsco Valley State Park, you should all pick Pickall. Enjoy the trail … and the art. ♦


Date: September 23, 2020
Location: Windsor Mill, MD
Trailhead: 39.310319, -76.792325
Distance: 4.1 miles
Elevation Gain: 302 feet
Difficulty: Easy/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 Piscataway, Nentego (Nanticoke) and Susquehannock.

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