Soldiers Delight Natural Environmental Area: In Search of the Chromium Serpent

“Chromium Serpent” would be a great name for a heavy-metal rock band. In this context, however, it refers to a combination of geologic properties that I had no idea were sitting just outside Baltimore in Owings Mills, Maryland. Chromium mines? Oak savannas? Serpentine barrens? This is the stuff of fantasy novels – except it all can be found in one place in the middle of the Old Line State. Guess what else is there? Hiking trails!

Soldiers Delight got its name 327 years ago from a British provincial military unit called the King’s American Rangers. They apparently found strolling around the area delightful. I must agree, although I personally would not recommend hiking the trails in bright red, woolen uniforms. I had passed over this hiking resource numerous times, imagining that it was just a walk around some Maryland countryside with no real points of interest. It was, to some degree, but it was also an amazingly diverse and surprisingly delightful hike.

I hit the trail at 2:00pm in bright sunshine and mild temperatures. A few yards down the Serpentine Trail, I passed up the main loop to take a detour down a short spur to an overlook. The trail emptied into a clearing with a rustic-looking cabin. Beyond was a view of the surrounding countryside.

I retraced my steps to the junction and continued down the Serpentine Trail. For a time, the trail wound through beautiful woods, open and free from tangled underbrush. Less than a half-mile into my hike, I stepped out of these woods and onto the serpentine barrens. What, exactly, are serpentine barrens? From the Maryland Department of Natural Resources:

“Want to walk on the bottom of the ocean through a sea of prairie-like grassland and oak savanna in western Baltimore County? Go to Soldiers Delight – the largest remaining serpentine ecosystem in the eastern United States. Serpentine ecosystems are underlain by serpentinite, an oceanic rock which produces shallow soils, susceptible to erosion, with very high levels of magnesium and very low levels of essential nutrients.”

Although the word “barrens” does not appear in that description it is often used to describe Soldiers Delight and any area of land where trees, particularly timber trees, are sparse. The trees that make up the oak savannas (primarily post and blackjack) are small and gnarled. As I gazed around the gently rolling countryside, I was reminded of the heath barrens at Dolly Sods (read here). The Sods are a high altitude plateau and more indicative of tundra than any topography typically found in West Virginia – or even the mid-Atlantic. What I was seeing was acres of grassland punctuated by stands of pine or hardwood. Scrubby bushes dotted the landscape and wildflowers were everywhere. I hiked on, passing through areas of thick vegetation, before emerging once again into open fields of grass.

I was descending, and by the time I had hiked a mile I had lost almost two-hundred feet. I crossed the Chimney Branch and began to climb. The trail was scattered with small gravel, but was otherwise smooth and free from obstruction. Little bluestem and Indian grass grew shoulder-height over the undulating barrens and shimmered in the afternoon sun. Soon, I was back into oak savanna, winding my way through twisted saplings on sun-dappled trail. I had hiked two and a quarter miles when I came to a parking lot on Deer Park Road.

I had started my trek at the Soldiers Delight Visitor and Education Center. This small lot seemed to be a more common place for the general public to access the trails. A large kiosk welcomed visitors and there was another agreeable view over the land through which I had just hiked.

A historical marker stood at the edge of the gravel lot and divulged some jaw-dropping information on chromium. From that marker:

“Chrome was first discovered in the United States in Baltimore County circa 1808. Isaac Tyson, Jr. operated chromite mines at Soldiers Delight and in other serpentine barrens and from 1828 to 1850 his mines produced almost all the world’s chromium. “

Okay, maybe your jaw didn’t actually drop, but I was pretty gobsmacked to learn that my home state had produced almost all of the world’s chromium. Chromium is what gives stainless steel its anti-tarnishing properties, and, of course, is extremely reflective when polished. Where would Kenickie’s 1948 Ford De Luxe Convertible have been without Baltimore’s chromium mines? You know that ain’t no shit ….

When I left the parking area, it was on the Choate Mine Trail headed east. I plunged back into the same gnarly woods from which I had emerged on the other side of the road. As before, the woods soon gave way to barrens where butterflies flitted among the tall grass to my side. A common buckeye roosted near the turf, blending into the khaki tangle, while a clouded yellow flashed in the sunlight. I took a left turn and the landscape changed again.

I had turned onto the Red Run Stream Valley Trail, and, as my path cozied up to it’s namesake, my surroundings morphed from grassy barrens to hardwood forest. Ferns dotted the hillside and the creek purled beside me. As I continued, Japanese stiltgrass appeared – then multiplied – until the trail was a thin, brown thread woven into a supple, green quilt. After a sublime quarter-mile along Red Run, the trail turned sharply south and climbed out of the creek valley.

Soon I was back in the serpentine barrens and surrounded by thick, wiry greenbrier, its purple berries reminiscent of grapes in a vineyard. I was the Dolfield Trail. The ground below became soggy as I approached another branch of Red Run, and the grass closed in around me. Again, I had flashbacks to the Dolly Sods – to date one of the wettest hikes I’ve ever taken. I sloshed through the muck, twice crossing the creek which was now a seeping channel through shoulder-high brush. Slowly, the ground solidified and I was once again on hard, gravel trail. The landscape in Soldiers Delight Natural Environmental Area changed faster than a thirteen-year-old’s mood. I arrived at a four-way intersection.

To my right, a connector led back to the Red Run Stream Valley Trail; ahead and to the left was the Choate Mine Trail. I bore left towards the mine and Deer Park Road. A wooded quarter-mile later I was at Choate Mine. I had been excited by the prospect of seeing a chromium mine, forgetting that I had gotten myself amped up before, only to be disappointed when an exciting mineshaft was, as all mines are, just a hole in the ground. Mines are way cooler on TV. Choate Mine was fenced in for safety, but one could peer down the shaft where narrow tracks for the minecarts disappeared into the mysterious abyss. I don’t know what I was expecting – perhaps a magical tunnel sparkling with flecks of shiny chrome. It wasn’t quite that spectacular, but I found it interesting nonetheless.

Leaving the mine, I again crossed Deer Park Road at the parking lot and stepped back onto the Serpentine Trail where I finished the loop and found myself back at the visitor center within moments.

There are seven miles of trail at Soldiers Delight Natural Environmental Area. I tramped almost six of them, my route a big bow tie knotted at Deer Park Road. I had come with low expectations and was leaving highly impressed. This natural preserve had treated me to geology I had never seen (or even heard of) and an ever-changing landscape that was like several hikes rolled into one. Soldiers Delight is fifteen miles northeast of downtown Baltimore and just east of Liberty Reservoir – another great hiking destination (read here). So if you’re into chromium, serpentine barrens, or oak savannas, or just want a great hike through interesting countryside, head out to Owings Mills and be delighted by Soldier’s Delight! ♦

Date: September 30, 2020
Location: Owings Mills, MD
Trailhead: 39.410682, -76.838160
Distance: 5.7 miles
Elevation Gain: 385 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 Piscataway, Nentego, and Susquehannock.

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