Irvine Nature Center
This non-profit center in Owings Mills offers hiking trails, an outdoor-themed playground and many staff-run events. It’s member supported, but it’s also free for everyone to come and visit. Twice a year, they host a family campout. Irvine also offers camps for children and adult-only evening events that focus on food, drink and nature.
Cromwell Valley Park
When there’s money for Program Open Space, oh, the things it can do. Drive down Cromwell Bridge Road, past the Beltway interchange and the sign for the Big Screen Store, and it’s not hard to imagine what this 426-acre valley park could have become. And yet, it didn’t. Cromwell Valley park has miles of hiking trails and is popular with dog walkers and bikers. Geocaching is a new pastime here as well. Deep in the park, there are apple trees, left over from when it was a park. Cromwell also offers a nature camp, by lottery, many nature programs and the twice-yearly campouts. Free, but membership is encouraged.
Robert E. Lee Park
This Mount Washington park has undergone a huge overhaul since the county took over management from the city a few years ago. And it’s only getting better as county personnel continue to manage the park for invasive species and make other improvements, including a children’s play area and boat rentals. In the future, rangers will also lead nature walks to discuss the park’s serpentine Robert E. Lee Park re-opened in 2011. You can access the park easily by light-rail - a rarity. Many people park along Falls Road and enter the park from there, but the better bet is to pull in near the Falls Road MTA station and follow the signs to the parking lot. Robert E. Lee is popular with runners. For kids, there are a lot of logs to walk along, and beautiful views of Lake Roland. There is a popular dog park as well. The park also offers nature programs and a limited camp schedule. Free.
Marshy Point Nature Center
Looking for seclusion? You may be the only one here at this nature center along two creeks in Eastern Baltimore County. The nature center offers camps, canoeing trips, activities for kids and terrific indoor exhibits. You may get to meet Blossom, the resident possum. Free, but membership is encouraged.
This Owings Mills park is a bit hard to define. The Department of Natural Resources calls it a Natural Environment Area - not quite a state park, not quite a nature center, but a great place to visit nonetheless. Technically, the area is part of Patapsco Valley State Park, and its center is staffed only sporadically. But, there are seven miles of trails well marked, and the habitat is quite beautiful. Free, but a free for activities, including the marvelous Owl Prowl.
Rocky Point State Park
Don’t feel like driving to Bethany? Can’t afford hotel rates in Ocean City? Rocky Point may be the answer to your beach conundrums. For $14, a family of four (kids are free) can enjoy a beach day. This park on the Chesapeake in Essex does get crowded, and water quality is generally good.
Oregon Ridge Nature Center
Lots of kids activities here. My daughter and her friends were big fans of the Frog Frenzy Night Hike, where we went into the woods after dark to hear the first spring peepers. Oregon Ridge also features many concerts, a great playground and some nice climbing opportunities. Check the website for scheduled events, like the fall Honeyfest and tubing trips.
Middle Branch Paddle
Here’s a rare chance to get out on the water in one of the most strangely beautiful spots in Baltimore: The Post-Industrial Middle Branch of the Patapsco River. Gone are most of the shipwrecks and rusting hulls of boats. In their place is placid, if somewhat smelly, river water. Molly Gallant of the city’s parks department runs a tour every Friday evening from the Baltimore Rowing Club at Middle Branch Park. There are only 10 boats, so reserve early. Older children are welcome. 443-984-4058; or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Inner Harbor Paddle
Molly Gallant is also organizing a few Inner Harbor paddles. They are Sunday, Aug. 11 and Sunday, Sept. 8. The cost is $15, and it’s limited to 20 participants. The groyp is leaving from the Living Classrooms Foundation at 803 S. Caroline St.
Kinder Farm Park, Anne Arundel County
Farm parks are rare in the area, so pack a picnic and head about 20 miles south of Baltimore to enjoy this one. The farm features picnic areas, fishing, and lots of scheduled activities, but the biggest draw are the animals - pigs, chickens and goats among them. You may be one of the lucky ones to visit after one of the sows has given birth. The park also has a great playground.
Audrey Carroll Audubon Sanctuary
Open Space couldn’t do it alone. Marylanders owe a depth of gratitude to the private landowners who are willing to sacrifice profit for preservation. One example of that is the Audrey Carroll Audubon Sanctuary, which the Carroll family donated to the organization. The central Maryland chapter makes good use of the property, organizing monthly nature walks, butterfly tagging events and other family-friendly activities. About 45 minutes from Baltimore in Mt. Airy, it’s a beautiful property any time of year, but spectacular in the fall.
Southern Maryland trip: Head down Route 2 and stop at the Battle Creek Cypress Swamp in Calvert County. Then plan for lunch and play at the Calvert Marine Museum, which offers boat rides, a lighthouse to climb, and ray and otter exhibitions. Then continue sot=uth to Point Lookout State Park for late-afternoon hiking and unparalleled views of the Potomac and the Chesapeake. Stay overnight and come back in the morning for fishing, or join in one of the many soccer games.
Eastern Shore trip: Cross the bridge and follow the signs to the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center, which is a sanctuary for waterfowl. For more birds and hikes, check out Pickering Creek Audubon Center, which is between Easton and Kent Island. Continue down Route 50 with your bike for a ride on the Oxford-Bellevue ferry and some cycling. Come back home, or stay overnight and explore Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and its many eagles in the morning. Drive along Elliott Island Road and grab lunch in Vienna, then push on towards Salisbury and the beautiful hamlet of Whitehaven, which also has a small ferry that will take you across the Wicomico River and into the wilds of Princess Anne for a great bike ride.
Northern trip: There are not too many spots on the East Coast that are more beautiful than Lancaster County. Where the farms meet the river, rocky outcroppings give way to gorgeous wildflowers. One of the best ways to experience the area is through a farm stay, where children wake up and do chores, then have breakfast, and spend the whole day outside if they wish hanging out with animals. Visit http://www.afarmstay.com to find a farm that suits your needs. My family and I are regulars at the Old Fogie Farm in Maytown. But the Rocky Acre Farm is also very nice, with a stream for fishing and pony rides. And Verdant View offers beautiful views of the Strasburg Railway and good background in the ways of the Mennonites and Old Order Amish. When you’re not at the farm, opportunities for getting outside abound. Take an Amish buggy ride, walk along the Susquehanna in Marietta, visit Shenk’s Ferry wildlife preserve near the Holtwood Dam or bike along one of the many paths in this green-minded county.