Thirty years ago, a group of scientists and preservationists pooled their resources to save a pristine forest abutting the Chesapeake Bay from a future of golf courses, marinas and subdivisions.
The result is Parkers Creek Preserve, a 3,500-acre wonder in Calvert County on Maryland’s Western Shore. Just off MD Route 2/4, this expanse includes 22 miles of public hiking trails meandering through forested uplands and fragile marshes, past tall cordgrass and scrubby marsh flowers. There are majestic views of the ancient shoreline cliffs, which frame the winding creek as it spills across a narrow beach into the open Chesapeake Bay.
And it’s all just a few miles from Prince Frederick’s busy Starbucks and multiple shopping centers. And, with only a few thousand recorded visitors each year, chances are you’ll have this wilderness — located just an hour from Baltimore and Washington, DC — mostly to yourself.
Had Parkers Creek been developed, “it would have been the most valuable property in Calvert County,” said Pam Shilling, community relations coordinator for the American Chestnut Land Trust, which manages the preserve. “It’s just remarkable to me that they stepped in just in time.”
I first saw Parkers Creek from the air, in a small plane. As we took off from Annapolis and winged over the Chesapeake, I spotted a creek laid out like a long holiday ribbon, winding back and forth, bright blue against a backdrop of green. The shape of the creek, surrounded by so much forest, made the land distinct from the more developed portions of the Western Shore.
In fact, the combined efforts of citizens and state and county leaders have preserved the majority of the Parkers Creek watershed — a notable accomplishment within the Bay region. That feat has made the preserve valuable to the scientists who study it and the wildlife that enjoys its largely undisturbed ecosystem. According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, 70 percent of the watershed is still forested, despite encompassing half of the town of Prince Frederick, mostly because of the preservation efforts at Parkers Creek.
Long before European settlement, American Indians used this land for hunting camps. The creek later took its name from William Parker, one of the founders of Anne Arundel County. In 1651, the King of England granted Parker 600 acres, which became known as Parker’s Cliffs. William Parker returned to England and left the land to his nephew, George Calvert. After the Civil War, several African-American farmers bought small plots of land here; their main crop was tobacco.
In 1937, Flippo and Annie Gravatt came to Parkers Creek to found Scientists’ Cliffs, a summer retreat for researchers from the DC area. The Gravatts were both foresters at the U.S. Department of Agriculture specializing in the American chestnut tree, which has been decimated by disease. They thought the land at Parkers Creek could become a preserve to help regenerate the trees. Their own log cabin in the community was built from chestnut trees that had succumbed to the blight.
Scientists’ Cliffs was a close-knit community. The homes were mostly log cabins surrounded by walking trails. Activities focused on hiking, fossil hunting and lectures about science and paleontology.
The cliffs, part of a larger formation along the Bay’s Western Shore, are famous for their fossils. The sharks teeth, bone fragments and occasional whale or dolphin skeletons found here are remnants of the Miocene era, 17 million years ago. These animals died, sank to the sea floor and were covered by layers of sediment that preserved their skeletons. After millions of years of wave movements, the fossils are being exposed and washing up on the beaches. The cliffs at Parkers Creek are not open to the public for fossil hunting, though, because they provide habitat for the endangered tiger beetle.
Over time, Scientists’ Cliffs became a more permanent home for the scientists and for others. Calvert County, post-World War II, was morphing from a tobacco farming county into a desirable suburb. When Greg Bowen, executive director of the American Chestnut Land Trust and a former county planner, was a child here in the 1960s, the county had 15,000 residents and a single traffic light. Today, more than 90,000 people live in the county.
When the Gravatts died, developers were circling the land around Scientists’ Cliffs. Eventually, the land was subdivided, and a real estate agent began marketing the property.
But a bold group of homeowners couldn’t let their land go. In 1986, they formed the American Chestnut Land Trust, choosing the name because the state’s largest chestnut tree still grew in the Parkers Creek watershed. The next year, they bought their first 400 acres.
Over time, the trust purchased more land, and the state purchased additional parcels that became the Parkers Creek Wildlife Management Area. County land preservation programs made contributions and private landowners entered into conservation agreements. Today, with help from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Program Open Space and Rural Legacy Programs, and assistance from The Nature Conservancy, the trust has come to manage 3,200 acres, about a third of which they own outright. It is the county’s only Important Bird Area, a designation by the National Audubon Society.
Even the real estate agent was captivated; Margaret “Peg” Niland went from working for the development firm that was marketing Parkers Creek to becoming the American Chestnut Land Trust’s first director.
“An idea like this, to preserve all this land, had to come from a community where you could come together and think great thoughts,” Bowen said. Because of what they did, he said, “you can walk right from Prince Frederick Town Center to the Bay. You get to experience wild lands not too far from home.”
I made the trek to Southern Maryland with my daughter, Maya, to explore the Parkers Creek Preserve for myself. The preserve has three trailheads: The main one is off Dares Beach Road, along Double Oak Road, where the trust keeps its office and maintains an active demonstration farm where volunteers grow vegetables and donate their harvest to local food pantries. A second trailhead is at Scientists’ Cliffs. The third is off Main Street in Prince Frederick at St. John Vianney Church.
I decided to start with a hike on the Old Parkers Creek Road Trail, which begins on the trailhead at Double Oak Road. After a tour of the farm and its beautiful gardens, Shilling led us down a forested canopy path for about 1.5 miles until we reached a raft to pull across the creek. This wooden raft on a pulley was a highlight for my daughter, who delighted in pulling us back and forth as I tried to identify the many different wetland plants. We went across a couple of times, then walked back on a slightly different path.
Unlike the popular Calvert Cliffs State Park, which we visited the next day, Parkers Creek was quiet. The only other people we saw on the trail was a team of Department of Natural Resources biologists conducting a stream survey. We enjoyed the quiet mixed with different bird sounds, and spotted several snakes.
Maryland has been called “America in miniature”; if that’s true, then Parkers Creek may be Maryland in miniature. In a two-hour hike, the terrain changes from forested uplands to wetlands, from the wide Chesapeake to a narrow creek. It’s a walk through ecosystems, which we could enjoy undisturbed.
We returned to the car and drove to Solomons Island for a quick dinner and to check into our hotel. We then drove 20 minutes back north to meet Bowen at Warrior’s Rest, a preserve property next to Scientists’ Cliffs, for our evening paddle.
Access to Parkers Creek via Warrior's Rest is permitted only through guided trips, which the trust offers a couple of times a month in the spring, summer and fall. The timing depends on the tides, so the trips often take place in the morning or evening. (Intrepid paddlers may access the creek from the Chesapeake, though it is not for beginners.)
The trust’s website describes the canoe trips as “challenging.” I wasn’t sure what that meant; I’m a decent but not exceptional paddler. My 11-year-old enjoys adventure but, living in a Baltimore suburb, paddling a canoe is not something she does often.
What they mean by challenging, Shilling said, is that Parkers Creek is not a sit-and-float kind of trip. You will move.
I understood that immediately. After proceeding through two locked gates, the three of us carried our canoes from their storage area across a couple of hundred yards to the beach. It was high tide, and the wind was blowing fiercely.
Parkers Creek paddles start at the mouth of the creek, where it enters the Bay, and then proceed up the creek. Sometimes, Bowen said, they launch from the beach into the Bay and paddle 500 or so feet to the creek’s mouth. The wind and tides would have made that difficult, so Bowen helped me past a bulkhead where I could launch into calmer waters. Then he and Maya paddled over to join me.
The creek felt just as I hoped it would: peaceful and more placid the farther we went, the contrast to the energetic Bay more apparent with each stroke. The twists came gradually, but they were large enough that I couldn’t see around the next bend. Herons swooped overhead. The light changed. Marsh plants reflected in the water. A small island came into view. For whatever reason — it could have been the bug spray we slathered on — the mosquitoes didn’t bother us on the water. (They had been aggressive when we were getting out of our cars.)
After about 50 minutes, we turned around. The paddling was vigorous because of the wind, but didn’t seem that difficult until we neared the Bay again and the wind was whipping. As we carried the boats back to storage, Maya asked if she could run on the beach. I watched her in the waves, with the majestic cliffs in the background and no one else around. A picture of summer joy.
We owe much to scientists and preservationists, I thought to myself. They have enhanced our understanding of our world, especially nature. And we owe them for this paradise, too — this piece of lovely coast and marsh that could have so easily been lost but is now here forever, for us and our children.
For information about trails, guided paddles, volunteer opportunities and more, visit the American Chestnut Land Trust website or call 410-414-3400. Information about Parkers Creek Wildlife Management Area, which is part of the preserve, is available from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources website.
Note: As originally posted, this article incorrectly implied that paddle access to the creek was only available via guided trips. Anyone can paddle the creek by approaching it from the Bay, but launch access from Warrior's Rest is restricted to guided paddles. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.