I was one of five people trekking through the woods at Robinson Neck Preserve, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It was a sunny, shoulder-season day that put all of us in a good mood — bright enough for sunglasses and cool enough for fleece.
About halfway into the hike, the forest around our narrow trail suddenly gave way on both sides to reveal long, lush views of the Slaughter Creek marsh. While each member of our group spends a fair amount of time in lovely outdoor places, we still gave a collective gasp at the sight.
Cattails and grasses, tucked close to the trail, gave way in random clumps to winding swaths of flat water, which glinted silver in the high sun and carved a seemingly endless path between the pines on its shores.
At this point, the trail was no more than a land bridge through the marsh. Bookended by the view, it felt like hovering in the middle of secluded watery bliss. No boat required.
“It’s a pretty glorious sight,” said Steve Kendrot, a fellow hiker and frequent visitor at Robinson Neck.
The Robinson Neck Preserve, formally known as the Frank E. Ewing/Robinson Neck Preserve, is a little-known site for hiking and birding on Taylors Island, MD, about 20 miles northwest of the popular Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Cambridge.
The preserve is owned by the Nature Conservancy and open to the public. Deborah Barber, director of land management for the Conservancy’s Maryland/DC chapter, said that many of the organization’s preserves are open for visitation, but people often don’t know about them.
The Maryland/DC chapter has been improving trails, producing audio tours and hiding geocaches in safe areas on preserve grounds. “It’s a signal to the public that these preserves are open for visitation, exploration and fun,” Barber said. “When someone says thank you for bringing them to a place they’d never visited before, it just makes my day.”
The Robinson Neck Preserve covers 920 acres of pine forest and marsh donated by Frank Ewing to the Nature Conservancy in 1977.
The area was at one time occupied by a family named Robeson, which may be the origin of the name Robinson Neck. A man known locally as “Swamp Robin” lived here until the 1950s. The crumbling foundation of his home remains on the grounds of the preserve. Loblolly pines, once harvested for timber, still command the forest.
The viewshed is free of development, largely because Taylors Island Wildlife Management Area occupies a large piece of the adjacent land.
You won’t get lost here. There’s just one trail — a flat, one-way route of about 1.25 miles, which comes to a dead end in a stunning green ocean of marsh grass. But it packs a lot of punch for a relatively short hike because it moves through a varied landscape.
The trail begins as a grassy road, closed to vehicles. You access it directly from Robinson Neck Road, which is paved but quiet. There’s space to park about five cars near the gate.
Mud at Robinson Neck is nearly inescapable. This first section of the trail can be especially mucky, with no good way to avoid it. Wear boots — knee boots if you have them. Kids will love it, but the soggy ground tells a sobering story: As the sea level rises, water is consuming the land. This stretch of the trail rarely dries out.
“Each year, it’s a little wetter,” said Deborah Landau, a conservation ecologist with the Nature Conservancy.
Signs that mark the preserve’s boundaries were once posted on trees along the marsh, but rising water took down the trees.
“We had to post stakes in the marsh to hold the signs, because the trees were gone,” Landau said.
The trail soon dives into an alley of loblolly pines, only to re-emerge along the Hog Creek marsh with stands of narrow-leafed cattails, persimmon and the white trunks of drowned trees poking up from standing water.
Signs of wildlife are everywhere. During our hike, we spotted otter scat and muskrat burrows while surrounded by the calls of waterfowl.
May is the best time for birdwatching, when migration peaks. Fall brings winged travelers, too, especially warblers and puddle ducks. “It’s exceptional black duck habitat, and that’s one of the reasons we protected it,” Landau said.
Eagles and other raptors are here year-round.
While summer can be uncomfortable for humans because of biting flies and large stands of poison ivy, Landau said it’s a showcase of flowering plants and marsh grasses.
If you’re lucky, you might see some unusual wildlife on the preserve too.
“Last year, I saw a really neat fox step out of the marsh,” Kendrot said. He’d spotted a “cross fox,” with an unusual black stripe down its back, patches of deep orange fur and black legs.
The preserve also offers important habitat for the Delmarva fox squirrel, a large gray subspecies of squirrel that was recently removed from the federal endangered species list. They can be hard to identify, but Kendrot, who knows what to look for, reports seeing them at Robinson Neck fairly often.
More often, he encounters sika deer.
The sika is a spotted deer from East Asia, related to the elk. They have several distinct calls, including an enchanting bugle-like call made by a male in search of a mate. During our hike, Kendrot spotted one bounding through tall grass at the edge of the marsh. Even if you don’t see the sika, you can hear the male’s call on the audio tour.
Eventually, the trail we traveled became a boardwalk, installed with a grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust to carry hikers over wet patches. Be careful after rain, when the boardwalk is very slippery.
Before long, the scenery turns back into woods, and the mood changes again. The floor has a thick mat of pine needles that softens sound and catches fat pine cones where they fall. Wax myrtle supplies some dense patches of green where the understory is largely open and even forms a few playful arches over the trail.
Past the woods, and the striking views of the interior marsh, the trail ends with yet one more scenic payoff — another incarnation of marsh, a huge expanse so dense with low grass that visitors might mistakenly think they view solid land.
Landau explains that most of the vegetation in this wetland meadow is native, like spartina and black needlerush. “Other than some phragmites, it’s really pretty pristine,” she said.
Only those with years of intimacy on the land could hope to pick their way through to the distant treeline near Slaughter Creek Narrows. No one tries. Marveling at the eagles overhead is satisfying and safer. Landau enjoys the sky itself.
“It’s so open. It’s our own bit of blue sky country,” she said.
For Kendrot, it’s a perspective not often found on foot. “There’s no better way to poke into the marsh when you don’t have a boat,” he said.
Getting to the Robinson Neck Preserve
The entrance to the Frank M. Ewing/Robinson Neck Preserve is not well-marked, but easy to find.
From MD Route 50 just south of Cambridge, turn onto Route 16 west toward Taylors Island. Continue for 16 miles to the Taylors Island bridge.
Take the first left after the bridge onto Robinson Neck Road. Go 2.7 miles to a grassy road on the left blocked by a gate. Park near the entrance or along the road shoulder to the left of the gate. Walk down the road for about 0.75 mile and enter the woods.
Want a ‘Naturalist in Your Pocket’?
Many Nature Conservancy preserves in the Chesapeake region are open to the public, from the mountains to the Bay and places in between. For a full list, including downloadable visitor guides, visit www.nature.org. Navigate to the Maryland/DC page and click on “Places We Protect.”
Here you’ll find links to audio tours that can be downloaded to your mobile device. The tours are narrated by naturalists who describe geology, rare species, river hydrology, and native plants and animals at stops along the trail. Many preserves do not have good mobile signals, so download the file you need before making the trip. Geocache links are available from the web page, too.
Please note, dogs are not allowed on the preserves.