The NCR Trail/Heritage Rail Trail County Park
By Kurt Jacobson
City residents need connections to recreation and history for their sanity and education. Those lucky people living in Baltimore or York, Pennsylvania have one of the best sources in the NCR Trail/Heritage Rail Trail County Park. Built in 1832 the Northern Central Railway operated for 140 years until hurricane Agnes destroyed miles of tracks.
It ran from Baltimore to York and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania picking up passengers and freight at 46 stops. Tunneling through forests of hardwood trees this scenic train followed the crystal clear Gunpowder River for several miles. A whole lot has changed for the better since the NCR’s demise.
Maryland Park Service manages the NCR Trail a.k.a. Torrey C. Brown Rail Trail. When the NCR opened in 1984 from Ashland to Monkton, MD- a 7.2-mile stretch was available to hikers, bicyclists, horseback riders and cross country skiing.
Currently at 19.5 miles in length, before it crosses into Pennsylvania, visitors get up close and personal with nature and history.
The NCR gives us a glance back in time when railroads ruled the landscape of America. Vacationers and goods flowed on this route from Baltimore to points north. President Abraham Lincoln rode the NCR on his way to deliver the Gettysburg Address and later, sadly, in his funeral procession.
The Heritage Rail Trail continues some 21 miles north to York, but I won’t be covering it in this story.
Hitting the trail
Most visitors start at the NCR’s southern end parking lot just off Paper Mill/Ashland road. This lot, like others, fills up on prime weekends in warm weather. There are no facilities here other than a drinking fountain for humans and dogs.
The trail is flat and wide with a crushed gravel surface. On hot summer days, it is cooler in this forested trail than the city. Access to the Gunpowder River offers overheated runners and bikers a place to cool down if needed.
Labor Day Weekend Monday we arrived at the Ashland road parking lot around 8:45. All but one or two parking spots were left. I wanted to take some photos of the trail and the enthusiasts inhabiting it on this beautiful September day.
I spoke with Lisa who had just completed a 20-mile solo bike ride who said: “I like the NCR Trail because it’s shaded and no too busy in the morning.” She like others, know there is less heat and people on the trail if you come early or late. While the trail wasn’t very crowded there were runners, walkers and bike riders passing the entrance from the parking lot every minute or so while I was shooting photos.
Walking the pup
We started up the trail with our four-month-old German Shepherd pup Sophie to see who was using the trail and why. A great way to get people to agree to be interviewed is bringing a cute puppy along. Betty Davies was out for her morning walk, without her dog Mojo, who declined his morning exercise.
Betty was happy to tell me her reasons for walking the trail. Betty said “I live just off the trail and walk it often. It’s a lifeline and a big part of my life.” Betty is a pet painter and draws inspiration from other dog owners walking fido on the trail.
The NCR is not only fun and educational; it is also a safe place for families to bring their young children for a walk, bike ride or river-tubing. We saw a few families cueing up to start their bike rides with kids on small bikes or in colorful bike trailers.
They know the value of getting children outside and away from electronic recreation to see their world first hand. Mile markers and placards along the trail make the trip more interesting. Wildlife is seen on the trail often and kids thrive on that connection.
At the old station in Monkton
At Monkton station was a park service staff person showing off a corn snake. Petting this pretty bi-colored snake was encouraged. The restored Monkton train station-circa 1898, has been turned into a visitor’s center and museum.
Though only open a few days per year it’s worth a stop to see what an old-time small-town train station looked like. Monkton also has restrooms making the old station a popular stop.
Next to the Monkton station is a building housing the Monkton Bike Rental shop. Jim White the owner has operated this popular shop for 24 years. Jim also rents out tubes for floating the river at this location.
Jim told me, “I’ve had people from all over the world rent from me. I remember a guy that came in and said he had rented here ten years before and was back for another visit.” For rates and hours to rent tubes and bikes see “if you go” at the end.
Monkton is my favorite parking area to cue up for the trail. There used to be a café serving ice cream, sandwiches, drinks and coffee, but has closed.
The Friends of the NCR Trail are usually set up on the weekends at Monkton and are good sources of information on the trail and its history. Friends of the NCR Trail have done much to improve the trail and signage over the years. Be sure and thank them if they are there on your visit.
Where to get a cold one
Just up the road from Monkton at 2029 Monkton road, is Millstone Cellars. Here they crank out “American farmhouse cider” and more. On weekends they are open in this historic gristmill for music on Fridays 6-10 p.m with a happy hour from 6-8.
On Saturdays and Sundays, they offer free tours and tastings of their ciders and mead (ancient honey liquor) in this massive three-story stone building.
Ciders and Meads
On our visit, we tasted several types of their craft ciders, mead, and cider/mead blend while our bartender Anders poured and explained each brew. The mill is a great place to hang out for a cold cider after a day on the NCR Trail. Visitors can purchase cider and mead to take home if desired, and yes we did!
Several points of interest are further north, like the Sparks Bank Nature Center. This is only open on Sundays 11-6 from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend.
Historical markers tell of old hotels that stood or are still standing along the trail. One of my favorite points of interest is the historical marker pointing out two homes just off the trail at Freeland (mile marker 18.6). These homes were ordered as a kit from the Sears catalog, delivered by train, and built at this site over one hundred years ago.
All along the NCR Trail locals and far-flung visitors alike delight in nature, exercise and recreation throughout the year. If you love to combine history with exercise in the great outdoors Pick a part of this historic trail and get going.
Maryland State Parks- website
For parking lot and history information.
Millstone American Farmhouse Cider- for Hours and product information.
Monkton Bike Rental- Bike and tube rental rates plus hours of operation.