As mentioned in last month’s newsletter, my goal this year is to get out and explore. There are a number of sights and activities in Maryland that are unique, so I am working on revisiting ones I haven’t seen in years and exploring new ones for the first time.
In March, I decided to visit Soldier’s Delight near Owings Mills, Maryland. This region is specifically classified as a Natural Environment Area and is unique due to the serpentine barren ecosystem that is present.
These unique ecosystems are caused by the high amounts of toxic heavy metals present in the soil including; magnesium, cobalt, chromium, and nickel. Serpentine soils also tend to be acidic and low in organic matter and clay, which means they don’t hold nutrients or water very well. All of this means that the plants that live in this ecosystem have adapted to these harsh conditions. Some adaptations involve absorbing extra calcium to combat the high magnesium levels while others involve specialized leaf types to reduce water loss or a covering of fine hairs to reflect excess solar radiation.
Even though a band of serpentine bedrock stretches from Alabama to Northern Quebec, the band is widest in Maryland and Pennsylvania and many of the unique microclimates associated with this bedrock have disappeared . When European settlers arrived in the mid-Atlantic, there was an estimated 100,000 acres of serpentine barrens in Maryland alone. Today, only about 2,000 acres of this ecosystem exist in Maryland, most of which is protected within Soldier’s Delight .
It seems that if you’re looking to see these unique plants, the best time to visit is in the summer. Because I went in March, the plants were still mostly dormant so the landscape really lived up to the name “barren”. However, the weather was gorgeous the day I went and the park was very empty. I only crossed paths with one other hiker, so I had the trails practically to myself.
Even though the plant life was still mostly dormant, the changing landscape made for an interesting hike. Some areas were more exposed, like the Oak Savanna. Others were shaded forests full of Virginia Pine and Eastern Red Cedar. The elevation change on the Serpentine Trail made for a good workout.
Because serpentine is associated with chromium, it was used as an indicator for siting chromium mines. Due to the once plentiful serpentine barrens in Maryland and surrounding states, Baltimore was a hub of chrome production in the mid 19th century .
If you want to see one of these mines, be sure to check out the Choate Mine Trail, which is a 1.7 mile loop.
You can park at the Soldier’s Delight Overlook and cross the road to find the trailhead, or you can park at the Visitor’s Center and hike part of the Serpentine Trail to the Overlook.
Click here for a Google Maps location.
If you plan to visit, there are a few things to be aware of. Because the ecosystem here is fragile, bikes and horses are not allowed in the park and all hikers must stay on the trail system. Be aware that the trail crosses creek beds at times so you may get muddy. I went the day after it rained so there were parts of the trail that were actual creek, not just crossings, and parts that were mud pits. There were also parts of the trail that were extremely overgrown, so wearing pants and long sleeves may be helpful if you want to avoid thorns and insect bites. Large sections of the Serpentine Trail were in direct sunlight too, so bring sun protection.
The park itself opens at 9:00 am and closes at sunset. The Visitor’s Center is open on Saturdays and sporadically throughout the week. The bathrooms at the Visitor’s Center are around the back of the building and are open every day from 8:00 am to 7:15 pm.
The Visitor’s Center was open from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm on the day I was visiting, which was a Friday. Inside, there was a water fountain, along with some live animals and other educational displays. However, there was no water fountain outside or in the bathrooms so you may want to bring your own water, just to be on the safe side.
What other sights should I visit this year?