Running in Baltimore’s Urban Oasis

Patapsco Valley State Park is a world unto its own, just a few short miles from one of the nation’s largest population centers.

To be surrounded by the buildings, traffic and noise that is the center of Baltimore (population: 614,000), you’d never guess that a mere 15-minute drive can deliver you to trail running paradise. But that is indeed the case and seven days a week, trail runners from all over the region flock to nearby Patapsco Valley State Park. Its easy accessibility is just one of many attributes local runners mention when waxing poetic about the park, and for good reason.

A winter’s run in the park | Photo: Ellie McManuels

With more than 200 miles of trails, Patapsco Valley runs along 32 miles of the Patapsco River, spreading out over 16,000 acres. Within its boundaries, the park features eight developed recreational areas, each with its own unique characteristics. There is something for everyone here, and that includes trail runners of every ability.

Michael Strzelecki, a 53-year old energy industry analyst from nearby Catonsville, Maryland, is among the park’s biggest fans. An ultrarunner who has been at it since 1986, he’s probably covered most of the park’s trails at one time or another. Along with his son, he’s also been instrumental in creating a sense of community among the park’s trail runners. “We would see all these different groups running in the park and we wanted to provide a platform for them to connect and become a common voice,” he says. “So we created a Facebook group (Patapsco Trail Junkies).”

Runners turn to the group for updated information on trail conditions, races, group runs and more. All share a passion for what the park has to offer and are fiercely devoted to its upkeep. “The beauty of Patapsco is that it’s in the midst of a large population center, yet it remains beautiful and not beaten down,” says Strzelecki. “You’ve got this diverse community of trail users who all appreciate the wilderness in their backyards.”

Cascade Falls | Photo: Brandx1982, Panoramio

Katrina McGowan, a 33-year old nurse from Baltimore, is one of those frequent users. Growing up on the Howard County side of the park, McGowan has run the trails here since high school. “I immediately fell in love with these trails,” she says. “Now as an adult, I love that in a short drive I can access so many options.”

McGowan has taken full advantage of those options, too, training for a variety of ultras, all the way up to 100-milers. “Getting in my 100-mile training, I’d hit the trails without a very strategic plan,” she says. “That’s the nice part of this park: You can take any loop and make the run your own… Someone is always creating new trails out there, which means there are perpetually new options to explore.”

Venturing out into different areas of the park means the opportunity to see the region’s history, as well. Thanks to the Patapsco River, the surrounding communities rose around then-prosperous mills. Today, ruins of old mill worker homes dot the landscape, as does the Thomas Viaduct, the world’s largest multiple arched stone railroad bridge, completed in 1835. Several historic dams played a role in both commerce and the Civil War and runners can spot them while taking on challenging singletrack.

Despite the fact that the park is in the midst of a large urban community, it’s also a good place to spot wildlife. “We see coyotes, foxes and deer fairly regularly,” says Strzelecki. “There have even been some bear sightings in the past year.”

Ruins located roughly halfway along the Ridge Trail | Photo: Trail Run Project user Deneesan Sanford

Patapsco’s trails also serve as racing grounds for local runners. Ryan Foster, 36, a P.E. teacher from nearby Crofton, Maryland, is both a frequent user of the park and a race director. “A few years back, some friends and I decided that it was time to make our talk about holding a 50K here a reality,” he says. “Now we’re heading into our third year of hosting the Patapsco 50K.”

The race was an immediate hit, drawing runners from all over the country and the world. “We’ve had runners from Canada, South America and this year, the U.K. as well,” Foster says. “I’m humbled by the number of people willing to travel to it.”

Last year’s Patapsco Trail Fest drew runners and mountain bikers alike. Photo: Double V Imaging

With the success of the 50K under his belt, Foster joined forces with the mountain biking community last year to launch Patapsco Trail Fest. Lasting a full weekend, the event offers mountain bike races, kids activities, camping, hiking and a variety of race distances for trail runners. “We had the idea of creating a unifying event for all of the park’s users and it worked incredibly well,” he says.

Even better, the mountain bikers led Foster and his race directing partners to a new set of trails they had built. “This is a remote area of the park we didn’t even know existed,” he says. “Most of the runners got to try singletrack they’d never seen before.”

The give and take among the park’s disparate users is another feature locals appreciate. “There was a time in the ’90s when there were lots of newer, more casual mountain bikers on the trails who didn’t really understand trail etiquette,” says Strzelecki. “But now, everyone is respectful of one another and works together to maintain the trails.”

Behind the scenes, there’s also the Friends of Patapsco Valley State Park (FPVSP), a nonprofit group founded in 1997 to fund the park’s preservation. This devoted crew of volunteers helps enhance the grounds and facilities and serves as an umbrella organization for local businesses and individuals invested in the park’s ongoing health.

For his part, Strzelecki remains enamored of all that Patapsco has to offer, even after all these years. “Many trail runners need to make a long drive to access trails,” he says. “But within a very short drive here, we can be on whatever type of trail we want.”

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