Administered by the National Park Service, Greenbelt Park, 6565 Greenbelt Road, Greenbelt, Maryland 20770-3207; telephone (301) 344-3948
Write-up assembled by Donn Ahearn
About the ParkGreenbelt Park is one of the largest natural sanctuaries located within the metropolitan Washington area. The mixed evergreen-deciduous forest provides a refreshing escape from the city, available to even the most casual of walkers.
Greenbelt's 1,100 acres provide facilities for camping, hiking, cycling, picnicking and a variety of other outdoor pursuits, just 12 miles from downtown Washington and 23 miles from Baltimore. The park is easily reached using the major access routes to both cities.
The land that is now Greenbelt Park was roamed before colonial times by the Algonquin Indians and other tribes with whom they competed for the area's natural resources. The arrival of European colonists drastically tipped the balance of nature that the Native Americans had for the most part maintained. Most if not all of the trees fell to open up farmland for the new settlers; the native wildlife and the Indians retreated. For 150 years, farming was the dominant use of the land. The settlers, however, did not give back to the land as much as they took from it. Farming gradually ceased as soil quality declined and erosion scarred the land.
Since the early 1900s, the area has been recovering from this overuse. Its current cover of mixed deciduous and evergreen woods is mute testimony to the land's ability to come back. Within a few decades, a small-scale replica of the original hardwood forest will have fully returned. The pines that now cover large parcels will have disappeared -- an important step toward an eastern climax forest.
Greenbelt Park was established on land acquired in 1950 by the National Park Service in conjunction with the purchase of the right of way for the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. Since that time, development has sprung up on all sides; the Park is now completely surrounded by such modern artifacts as major traffic arteries, housing developments and mid-rise apartments. Yet it remains a place of escape -- a place where on many days raccoon, squirrel and red fox outnumber people, and where quiet retreats can always be found.
About the area......Greenbelt Park is not a place for hard-core hiking and backpacking, and should not be approached in that light. There are bigger, wilder and more imposing places available for those pursuits. (Besides, you can't backpack here.) Greenbelt is for those who wish to escape the city without leaving the city, and who appreciate the substantial peace and quiet even a small parcel of woods can provide.
Greenbelt's campground is open year-round. The Park's accessibility to both Baltimore and Washington makes it a perfect choice for people who want to get in a camping escape while still touring Washington's monuments and museums, Baltimore's Aquarium, Old Annapolis, the Chesapeake Bay and other nearby tourist sights. The campground and the trails can be surprisingly quiet places, even in season. In most places along the trails, the noise of the surrounding traffic -- Greenbelt Park is completely surrounded by major road arteries -- is reduced to a low-frequency hiss, mildly upsetting to anyone looking for a wilderness experience, but quite a refreshing change of pace for one who has just been in all that traffic on one's way to the Park.
Greenbelt's woods are well worth the visit. Many oaks and tuliptrees (also called tulip poplar, although they are not true poplars, but members of the magnolia family) grow to majestic size. A few spots have the convincing appearance of virgin forest. The Park's overall prospect is that of a forest in transition from pioneer stages of succession to full maturity. The gentleness of the trails -- the Park's location on the Coastal Plain means no stiff, long climbs -- invites close and leisurely observation. Plan on taking longer to finish a walk than its distance might otherwise suggest. In this busy day and age, places like Greenbelt grow more important with each year that passes; it's worth taking the time to appreciate them.
The Park's wildlife includes the aforementioned raccoon, squirrel and red fox. White-tailed deer may be seen from time to time. The gray fox, present in some nearby areas, may or may not be here; the opossum and cottontail rabbit almost certainly are. Birds include blue jay, cardinal, and bobwhite among others.
Trails worth hiking?There are four main trails in Greenbelt Park. The longest, the 6-mile Perimeter Trail, is open to horseback riders as well as hikers, although I've never met a horse on it. (Horses are not available in the Park, by the way; bring your own.) This trail passes many of the most impressive trees in the Park.
The 1.2-mile Azalea Trail passes the Park's three picnic areas on its roughly circular route; it showcases plant communities found near streams and hillsides.
An opportunity to learn about the area on a self-guided trail is found on the 1.4-mile Dogwood Trail, although I haven't found the self-guiding brochures in the trailhead dispenser on my last couple of visits. This trail's parking lot provides the best access to the Perimeter Trail for hikers, and traverses some of the pure pine forest that is being gradually replaced by the returning deciduous forest community.
Finally, the 0.8-mile Blueberry Trail provides a quick escape into the woods for those staying at the campground. It passes abandoned farmland, mature forest, and stream-bottom marsh.
Permits and CampingNot Required, and there is no entry fee. The Park's campground (174 sites) is open all year; tents, RV's, and trailers up to 30 feet long are accommodated. Restrooms, tables, water and fireplaces are provided, but there are no utility hookups. Camping is limited to 7 days from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and to 14 days for the year. Camping is first-come, first-served, although groups may reserve space. A fee is charged for camping.
HuntingDefinitely not allowed. In fact, all animals -- and all natural features, plants, flowers and rocks -- must be left undisturbed.
Mountain BikingNot allowed, except on hard-surfaced roads. Greenbelt is a pleasant place for road cycling, and attracts many cyclists due to the relative absence of cars compared to surrounding roadways.
CampfiresLegal in campsites only. Use the fireplaces provided.
AccessBoth Interstate 95 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway provide access from either Baltimore or Washington. The Parkway can be driven to its interchange with Greenbelt Road (Route 193); head west on Greenbelt Road to the Park entrance, which will be on the left. Interstate 95 can be taken to Exit 23 (Kenilworth Avenue); go south on Kenilworth to Greenbelt Road and east on Greenbelt Road to the Park entrance on the right.
The MapHere is a TRAIL MAP (246K) of Greenbelt Park.