Get Out and Explore: Patuxent Wildlife Refuge

On a gorgeous day in mid-September, I ventured across the bridge to the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge. When I lived on the Western Shore, during my first few years in Maryland, I think I visited this Refuge once because a friend was working there. However, as I wound my way down Scarlet Tanager Loop to the Visitor’s Center, the view was lovely and completely unfamiliar.

Photo credit: Lou Fegans via Google Maps

The Patuxent Wildlife Refuge, located outside of Laurel, MD, might be a bit out of the way for those of us living on the Eastern Shore, but it is well worth the drive. The Refuge consists of 13,000 acres of wilderness, just minutes from the chaos of I-295. Within the Refuge, there are two Visitors Centers, one for the primary South Tract and one for the North Tract.

According to reviews on Google, the North Tract is the quieter, less visited area. However, judging by the complete lack of people using the South Tract when I arrived, I can’t imagine the Refuge ever being “busy”. In fact, as a friend and I walked the trails, we eventually picked up sticks to wave around in front of our faces to pick up the many, many spiderwebs that crossed the trail. This, of course, only occurred to us after I sidestepped a web, only to run face first into another. After the panicked flailing that occurred to remove the spider dangling from my head, I decided I was not interested in doing that again. Look, I respect the role of spiders in ecosystems, but that doesn’t mean I want them on me. All this is to highlight that, even though we didn’t get to the Refuge until 9:30 am, we were the first and only people on the trail that morning. We did not see anyone else on the trails, except for a single person utilizing the Cash Lake Fishing Area.

We started at the Visitor’s Center and followed the Cash Lake Trail to the Valley Trail to the Fire Road Trail back to the Visitor’s Center. The Cash Lake Trail was lovely as we walked along both the edge of Lake Redington and Cash Lake. At one point, we traveled via a floating bridge over Cash Lake and were rewarded with some lovely close up views of blooming American white water lilies (Nymphaea odorata).

Once we passed from the Cash Lake trail to the Valley Trail, we entered a quiet forested area. It was here that I got to see ghost pipe (Monotropa uniflora) for the first time in person! These strange plants do not have chlorophyll and therefore don’t require sunlight to grow. Rather, they are parasitic and feed off of fungi that have symbiotic relationships with trees. There were also many different types of mushrooms growing out of the leaf litter on the forest floor and fallen trees.

Ghost pipe
An unknown species of fungus

The forest continued on the Fire Road Trail, as did the absurd number of spider webs crossing the trail. Even though the trail was mostly dry everywhere else, we did have to do a bit of wading in one section on this part of the trail. I was surprised by this as it hadn’t rained for at least 24 hours before we were out there. Other than this one spot, the trail was mostly clear (except for spiderwebs) and easy to navigate.

The waterlogged path on Fire Road Trail

At the end of our hike, we decided to head inside and check out the Visitor’s Center. Outside the Center was a lovely pollinator garden with some of my favorites, blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum). Inside the Center, they had a surprising number of museum quality exhibits focusing on different endangered species that can be found on National Wildlife Refuges across the US. They also had a kid’s discovery center with a variety of parent-led activities available in the mornings from Tuesday through Saturday. However, the absolute best part of the Center was the Monarch hatching and releasing. We got to see Monarch caterpillars at various stages of growth and we were able to sign up to assist with releasing the adult butterflies.

Monarch catepillars seen through a magnifying lense
Monarch chrysalises, some empty, some still in use

Now, I am fully aware that these Monarch’s don’t need my help. They are perfectly capable of fluttering away all by themselves. However, having the opportunity to be handed a butterfly, having it rest a moment on you, and then allowing it to take flight at its leisure is certainly a Disney princess kind of experience. In addition, the butterflies are tagged with stickers so that researchers can track where they end up once they leave the Refuge.

Sometimes, the butterflies don't want to leave. It's a long flutter to Mexico, so I can't really blame them.

In fact, the whole thing reminded me of my own work with Phillips Wharf. Currently in my care is Rex the Horseshoe Crab. He does not need to be in captivity as he is perfectly healthy and requires no specialized care or rehabilitation. However, in captivity, he is part of our Fishmobile menagerie and is one of the last tanks people see when they experience the Fishmobile. The number of people who exclaim, “I’ve never seen a live horseshoe crab before!” is so ridiculously high that Rex is serving an important role. People get to meet a live horseshoe crab and learn about how cool and harmless they are, even though they look pretty intimidating at first glance. He serves as an animal ambassador, giving people the opportunity to meet him, experience his species, and hopefully get them to care and appreciate these animals. Releasing these Monarch butterflies does the exact same thing and even though I felt superfluous in the release process, I understood exactly what the Refuge was hoping to accomplish. And I enjoyed feeling like a Disney princess too.

I’m not sure that the Refuge is still releasing Monarchs in October, as those that are still alive at this point are likely beginning their migration to Mexico. However, they have been doing this for a number of years and will likely continue this program in the future if you want to check it out next year. Even without the Monarch release, I definitely recommend a trip to the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge. Whether you are interested in fishing, hiking, hunting, or bringing the kids to the Center to explore the activities and displays, this is a great spot to get out and explore!

The trails at the South Tract Visitor's Center

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