Although I’ve been aware of the Gwynns Falls Trail for some time, only recently have I begun exploring its contours in earnest. Traveling its 15-mile length is rewarded by a tour through Baltimore’s hidden natural resources and the cradle of the city’s industrial origins.
From the trailhead in historic Franklintown, on the city’s west side, the Gwynns Falls Trail courses through 30 neighborhoods to Cherry Hill Park on the Middle Branch of the Patapsco. The trail makes a core sampling of the city’s history along the way, resulting in an experience that is as enlightening as it is invigorating.
The Gwynns Falls Trail Council has done an admirable job in creating and maintaining a green space that connects several areas of the city, in some respects fulfilling the green space envisioned for Baltimore a century ago by noted landscape designer Frederick Law Olmstead.
The course of the trail is clearly marked and well maintained, with numerous informative signs along the route that provide background and context for each location. A historical marker at the trailhead at the I-70 Park-N-Ride – just inside the Beltway – explains the successful community and political efforts to stop the interstate highway project, which would have torn through Leakin Park and dramatically changed the character of the city.
Other markers illuminate the fauna, flora and natural features of the region, from upland Piedmont forest through broad meadows to the Middle River waterfront. Small signs help in the identification of several tree species – tulip poplar, red oak, sycamore and beech, among them.
Almost immediately after leaving the I-70 Park-N-Ride, an abandoned mill and historic waterwheel greet the traveler to Leakin Park. After two switchbacks, the trail leads to a broad open space – the remains of the Russian-inspired Crimea Estate established in 1856 by industrialist Thomas Winans. An 1857 root cellar and ice house are among the structures still on the property. The Crimea Estate was purchased in the 1940s to create Leakin Park.
Nearby are the trail headquarters and the Carrie Murray Nature Center. The city Department of Recreation and Parks conducts programs to teach visitors about the urban environment, wildlife and plants along the trail. The department also provides canoe, kayak and bike trips.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the waters of the Gywnns Falls were harnessed to power early industrial development. Today, a portion of the Gwynns Falls Trail is atop the filled-in millrace. The valley was lined with mills and factories owned by people whose names still resonate today, including the Ellicott brothers’ mills and the Wilkens brush factory. Through the 1800s the stream valley was a bustling industrial park, with flour mills, leather and broom works, and butchers.
With the emergence of electrical power systems in the late 1880s, companies were no longer dependent on water power and close proximity to the Gwynns Falls. By the turn of the 20th Century, the tract was abandoned. A few shells of stone factory buildings are visible here and there along the trail.
In 1904, the city hired the Olmsted brothers, who previously designed New York’s Central Park and Baltimore’s Roland Park. Olmsted recommended that the city acquire land along the three major stream valleys in the area – Gwynns Falls, Jones Falls and Herring Run – and create a system of tree-lined parks.
In 1917, the city completed Ellicott Driveway atop the millrace north of Frederick Road, creating a scenic drive through the city that immerses the visitor under a lush canopy of towering trees. Although no longer open to motorized traffic, the Ellicott Driveway segment is paved and level, ideal for jogging or pushing a stroller.
South of Wilkens Avenue, the trail courses through the wagon pass under the historic Carrollton Viaduct, marvel built of stone in 1829 as the first bridge of America’s first railroad. An engineering marvel at the time, the bridge is still in use today. The trail passes Carroll Park, location of Mount Clare Mansion, built in 1760 by Charles Carroll.
At street level, the trail continues eastbound around M&T Bank Stadium and through Federal Hill to the Inner Harbor. The trail courses through an industrial stretch of waterfront in South Baltimore, under I-95 on Annapolis Road into Westport. At Waterview Avenue the trail reaches Middle Branch Park, home of the Baltimore Rowing Club. The park observation boardwalks for viewing estuary wildlife.
The trail passes near the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial and the boat launching and fishing piers in Broening Park before traversing the waterfront alongside Harbor Hospital Center. Near the southern trailhead are fishing piers and Cherry Hill – first noted by Captain John Smith in 1608 for is red clay.
Overall, the trail runs a downhill grade from Franklintown through downtown to Cherry Hill. The path is easily manageable by bike or by foot, largely a paved surface with a few stretches of packed gravel or dirt. A few bridges, particularly in the section south of Wilkens Avenue, may present a challenge to some. Taking the route outbound from downtown would present a steady upgrade, with several steep slopes and switchbacks through Leakin Park.
Despite the sketchy reputation of some neighborhoods it passes through, the trail felt perfectly safe on a recent summer afternoon. Cell phone reception was not a problem at any point, and the trail is patrolled by the city police.
A guide and map of the Gwynns Falls Trail in PDF format are here.