Baltimore is a city of contradictions.
Its neighborhoods are dense, filled with two-and three-story rowhouses that are neat and tidy in some neighborhoods, blighted and dilapidated in others. Gorgeous architecture peeks out from narrow alleyways. Old mills find new lives as art studios and restaurants but keep their rustic look, confusing passers-by who think that the city is still the manufacturing hub it once was.
But there is a different Baltimore, one filled with waterfalls and yellow-crowned night herons, falling leaves and old oak trees, foxtail grasses and rushing streams. This is the Baltimore many residents, including natives, have never seen. In this Baltimore, it’s quiet, even serene, and a visitor could be forgiven for wondering where the city got its reputation for danger and mayhem.
Both natives and newcomers can discover this part of town on the Jones Falls Trail. This nine-mile trail begins near Cylburn Arboretum in the northern Baltimore neighborhood of Pimlico, about a half-mile from the famous racetrack. It meanders through leafy expanses before reconnecting with city roads and depositing riders at the Inner Harbor. It’s open for walkers and bikers, though it seems most of the people using it are on two wheels — they can cover more ground that way.
The ride is a rare opportunity to see a city as it could be: Shops and restaurants fully integrated with green space, a place where one can hop on a bike in the morning and, depending on how fast one rides, be at the Inner Harbor in an hour having a deli sandwich and watching the yachts go by.
The Jones Falls Trail is part of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails Network of trails and landmarks in the region. A recent addition to the network, the trail isn’t quite done — the part near Cylburn still needs guardrails in some places — but it’s already attracting walkers and bikers.
Molly Gallant, outdoor recreation programmer for Baltimore City Parks and Recreation, has been bringing many city residents and employees to the trail. A longtime outdoor education specialist, Gallant knows all of the nooks and best views along the way. More importantly, she also has a patch kit for a tire and a pump, which comes in handy on many trips (including this one, thanks to a bike that had seen better days). She agreed to take me along for my first biking trip along the trail.
We parked at Cylburn, then snaked through a neighborhood to the left to reach the trailhead.
The trail is downhill for the first mile or so, then bikers must cross Coldspring Lane, a busy Baltimore street, before getting back into the woods. But this part is one of the best stretches, where urban landscapes and green space mix. First up is an expanse of native grasses and lush greenery — next to an expressway that never stops rumbling. Then, a mile or so down the road, the trail runs through Rock Rose, a neighborhood near Woodberry that has a large community garden.
We rode past Clipper Mill, a refurbished industrial area that now houses the famous farm-to-table restaurant Woodberry Kitchen as well as several artists’ studios and new residences. At the end of the road, we turned left, and again we were in the wilderness of the Jones Falls.
Around us, through the hills, are narrow trails. Gallant explained they are popular with mountain bikers who are always looking for urban areas to explore.
The next mile or so puts the hill in Druid Hill. It’s a steady climb up, but what a reward. Druid Hill is one of the oldest landscaped public parks in the United States. This 745-acre park includes a reservoir, many hiking trails and paths, and gorgeous architecture with a Moorish influence.
Druid Hill Park is hardly a secret. It’s popular from sunrise to sunset with runners, walkers and bikers. The Maryland Zoo, which sits in the park and is also a Gateway site, is a major state tourist attraction; it logged 400,000 visitors last year.
Far less well-known is the Howard Peters Rawlings Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. This gem of a building houses an orchid room, a fragrant tropical house and beautiful blooming flowers and plants. Best of all, it has a bathroom, and it’s free. There are bike racks outside and the staff is warm and welcoming. Be sure to leave a small donation.
The Conservatory, which celebrated its 125th anniversary this year, relies on donations and some funding from the city to keep afloat. It is named for Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s father, Howard “Pete” Rawlings, the first African-American to become chair of the Maryland House of Delegates’ powerful Appropriations Committee. Rawlings represented the city from 1979 until the year he died, in 2003.
The park has more hidden gems. There is a boat house, hidden through the trees and only accessible through the zoo. And on the other side is a disc golf course.
After Druid Hill Park, the trail becomes road for part of the way, on East Drive and Wyman Park Drive, with Jones Falls Trail markers pointing out the right direction. In a few minutes, riders turning onto Falls Road can hear rushing water and see a trickle in the woods. That trickle, it soon becomes clear, is a 10-foot, man-made waterfall, the Round Falls.
Round Falls is Gallant’s favorite part of the trail because, she said, everyone she brings there is surprised to see it. Even lifelong, third-generation Baltimoreans can’t believe there’s a waterfall in the middle of their city.
“It really is hidden,” Gallant said. “So many people have gone over the bridge over there and never actually seen it.”
Gallant said the area around the falls is habitat for yellow-crowned night herons.
A little farther down Falls Road is the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, where children can climb on and learn about Baltimore’s trolley past. Baltimore Cycle Works, which bills itself as the city’s only worker-owned and democratically operated bike shop, is also here.
Its staff serves commuters, many of whom leave their cycles at nearby Penn Station and take the train to DC, as well as trailgoers. Service was fast, friendly, and affordable when we came in around lunchtime to buy two new tire tubes.
There is an awkward part of the trail around Penn Station that requires biking on sidewalks until the trail reconnects with the Fallsway near Guilford Avenue. But after that, riders are rewarded with a bike boulevard — a wide lane separated by curbs and brick barriers. That ends near The Baltimore Sun building where the city’s largest farmer’s market takes place every Sunday under an overpass of the Jones Falls Expressway. For the next six blocks to the harbor, it’s city streets and sidewalks.
The markers for the trail continue through the heart of downtown and bikers connect with the Inner Harbor near the National Aquarium.
And the best part? Parking, which can run as high as $8 an hour at the Inner Harbor, is free on a bike. That leaves more money to spend at the expensive restaurants. But after a nine-mile ride, it’s well deserved.