On a quest to broaden my biking horizons, I set off for the Fair Hill NRMA in Elkton, Maryland. It must’ve been my quixotic desire for adventure that led me to choose the Red Trail, 2.5 miles described in the Trail Map as, “ideal for novice mountain bikers.” My secondhand Giant Rincon is equipped with thick, rugged tires. I’d never so much as hopped a curb in the suburbs, but I assumed, with the blissful optimism of a novice, that my shock-less, rigid-framed bike and I were up for the challenge.
The managed forests, meadows, and trails at Fair Hill NRMA hold quiet, rural beauty. Originally Nanticoke and Lenni-Lenape territory, Europeans and Scots-Irish colonized Fair Hill. William DuPont Jr. bought the land in 1926. The DuPonts used the area for aristocratic fetishes like fox hunting as well as more forgivable equestrian hobbies. In 1974, Maryland DNR purchased the property. Fair Hill is still horse country. Traveling along Rt. 273, you’ll see horses at pasture as well as at work drawing buggies for the local Amish community. Many Fair Hill biking paths are also equestrian trails. Horses have the right of way.
I included the area’s covered bridges and historical curiosities into my afternoon’s plan. My morning was reserved for amateur hour in the woods.
I hefted my bike off the rack in Parking Lot #4, deposited my $3 fee for Maryland Residents ($5 requested from out-of-state visitors) in the featured box, stuck the parking slip on my dashboard, and set off towards the Red Trail.
Note: There are portable toilets in all Fair Hill parking lots. Bring your own water.
If you are a true mountain biker, and can competently bunny-hop your full squish ’til you’re gassed (a little Mountain Bike slang), The Red Trail offers a short, fun loop. The main obstacles are logs, creek crossings, and horse poop.
A few bone-rattling minutes down the path, I diagnosed myself with Cyclist’s Dissonance. In my imagination, I’m the kind of novice mountain biker who growls, “BRING IT ON,” through mud-spattered teeth. In practice, I laugh-shrieked to a halt when I encountered any obstacle more menacing than a tree root. My vintage trail bike is not a mountain bike. “Novice:” a generous adjective for my skill level.
Still, I had a blast. By the end of the trail, I stopped shouldering my bike and tiptoeing like a grammie over Grammies Run Creek. I rode through 5 inches of water like a wild woman! Did I immediately hit a rock on the opposite bank and fall in the mud? Yes! Better mud than horse poop!
Adventure, even the mild, misguided variety, is a hungry pursuit. I was happy to find La Patrona Taco Truck mere minutes from the Red trail. For a tasty Mexican lunch, follow signs for the Nature Center and turn into the Chevation parking area. Your GPS may suggest a square-dance of directions, but don’t worry, the truck is easy to spot. Fresh cilantro and spicy, green salsa, paired with the sweet relief of surviving my mountain biking inexperience, only elevated the rich flavor of my $7 veggie quesadilla.
I sat down at adjacent picnic tables to munch. Flies may become an obvious presence in the summertime, but on the spring day I visited, sociable bumblebees were my only company. One downside: I couldn’t find a trash can, and “packed out” my paper plate and foil.
Properly fueled, I next took a look at the Fair Hill Nature Center and Foxcatcher Farms Covered Bridge. The Nature Center is geared towards kids. When public health allows, the Center’s outdoor stage, plentiful picnic seating, and two slides cleverly built into the hill may appeal to families. The Center overlooks a large pond, a NOAA weather reporting station, and the covered bridge.
If covered bridges interest you, the Foxcatcher Farms site is the more accessible, serene overpass. However, if you’re prepared to make a sharp pull off Rt. 272 and suck down some roadside exhaust, you can also check out Gilpin’s Falls Bridge.
I found myself wishing I’d brought my sketchbook. The Green Trail winds past the Foxcatcher Farm bridge, along Big Elk Creek. Visitors will find many stop-off points perfect for drawing, fishing, or meditating. I scouted a prime rock on which to perch…next time. Dazzled to the brim by the sun and somewhat caked in mud, I was ready to taper off adventuring for the day.
As I began my return journey, I did stop to investigate The Bee Hive along Rt. 272. This group of stone ruins was once abuzz with activity. An interpretive sign, sponsored by The Elk Creeks Preservation Society, draws a vivid picture of the settlement in the 1700s. The now diminutive Elk Creek powered lively grist mills. Revolutionary War troops fed on grain from the countryside, and travelers rolled through the area on their way from Philadelphia to Baltimore.
The structures remaining include Wallace Tavern, a mill workers’ rowhouse, the ruins of a cooperage (barrel-makers), and a purported armory/harness shop. If you decide to cycle around Fair Hill in October, sweeten your day trip with The Apple Butter Festival. Held at The Bee Hive every October, the fair funds Preservation Society projects. If Elk Creek History piques your interest, check out The Preservation Society’s historic site map.
The Fair Hill NRMA offers many ways to appreciate the rural beauty of Eastern Maryland. If I don’t rent a mountain bike with proper shocks, I’ll at least bring my sketchbook on my next day trip. If you decide to try an unknown trail and new recreational genre, bring a sense of humor as well. Take it from this “novice mountain biker:” the bumps on a learning curve are best softened with a laugh at your own expense.
Lead Photo: Lydia Hadfield