Hike Soldiers Delight
Maryland › Soldiers Delight Parking Area
Added by Peter Hoblitzell
Tucked right into the urban sprawl outside of Baltimore City, Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area contains a strikingly unique serpentine grassland ecosystem. This special habitat plays host to an intriguing community of plants and animals, including some globally rare species.
From Deer Park Road, parking is available at the nature center or the scenic overlook (about 100 yards up the road). I typically park at the overlook as this affords the ability to hike trails on either side of the road, and always finish the hike back at the car. From the parking area you are just about at the highest point in Baltimore County (a seismograph is positioned right behind the nature center for this reason), and the grasslands facilitate excellent views into the hills. The Serpentine Trailhead is just beyond the parking barriers and the informational signs which also contain illustrated trail maps and a history of the area. The Choate Mine Trailhead is just across the street from the overlook. Each trail features its own attractions and both are great.
I generally set my sights on the Choate Mine Trail when I have enough time because that route takes hikers over and off of the "rock island" which is the serpentine grassland. It's almost overwhelming, passing in and out of several starkly contrasting ecosystems, and very few trails offer that kind of change, let alone in Baltimore County! Within the first 5 minutes of hiking, you'll come up on the old Choate Mines, from which the trail gets its name. The mines have since been retired, flooded, and overgrown but they still have some historical intrigue about them, and can make for a good photo op by the creative camera wielder. The mines are not obviously marked so keep your eye out, they'll appear off the right-hand side of the trail. The main path eventually intersects with two others and opens up into an exposed rocky meadow area. Right around this spot is my personal favorite for wildlife watching. The scraggly oaks and brier thickets host a variety of bird species. I like to stray just off trail and find a warm rock to post up on and watch the activity. If you do go off trail anywhere in the park, be sure to tread lightly and carefully. Some of the extremely rare and endangered plant and insect species live among the grasses, and are very fragile (when I worked on a restoration project here I had to sign government documents stating that I would not disclose their exact location!) At the trail junction, I go to the right, and take the longest loop around back to the mines. The trail goes through woods and meadows, by streams, and some vernal ponds depending on the time of year.
On the other side of the road, the Serpentine Trail is perhaps a more scenic introduction to the ecosystem. It gets its name from the rocky ground which allegedly looks like the ridges found on a serpent's back. From the trailhead, go right (away from the nature center). This trail offers less habitat changeover, but makes up for it with more far-reaching views. In this section of the park there is also an ongoing restoration effort to eliminate the Virginia Pine. Prior to development of the surrounding area, the natural environment was void of any trees, with unobstructed views apparently stretching all the way to the Baltimore Harbor. It can be pretty fun to do the hike after a controlled burn. Something is eerie about wandering through the scorched and charred remnants of a forest.
Just downstream from the first water crossing, there is an old, rusted out car. The best way to reach it (without wading) is to cross the stream and circle back around the trees and shrubs growing on the right of the trail (tread carefully). I'm not exactly sure how it got there, but it does have a certain novelty being so out of place. I like to stop by, take a couple photos and check the stream nearby for frogs in the spring and summer.
Near the end of the loop, the nature center is off to the right. It's at least worth a stop around the back of it as the DNR has an impressive aviary featuring a variety of gorgeous raptors in rehabilitation. Keep going past the center and parking lot, the trail parallels the road for the last hundred yards or so and then spills out into the overlook parking area again.
The nature of the land means this is a rather exposed hike. The early morning and late afternoon hours can reward more comfortable temperatures as well as astonishing light shows. The golden grasses and diverse foliage glow remarkably with a lower sun. Do just one trail, or start a little earlier and do them both! In total the park contains about 7 miles of trail, which is definitely all in a days work for many folks. Enjoy!
- Plenty of water
- Light Jacket for cooler months and shaded hours
- Pants recommended (ticks and thorns are abundant)
- Check the calendar for park events such as managed hunts or prescribed burns, which may disrupt a visit:dnr2.maryland.gov/publiclands/Pages/central/soldiersdelight.aspx
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