About this Itinerary
Coursing through the northern Maryland countryside among farms, woodlands and tiny villages, the Torrey C. Brown Rail Trail (formerly the Northern Central Railroad Trail) covers 21 miles of mostly flat terrain along a crushed-stone track. Locals treasure the corridor, which offers refuge on hot summer days and fantastic outdoor recreation opportunities year-round. They’re not the only ones, though; nature-seekers from Baltimore arrive in droves to escape the city, which can make for heavy use during weekends in the lower reaches of the trail. Fear not, however, after five miles or so, the crowds peter out and you can ride all the way to the Pennsylvania state line sharing the trail with fewer people. At the border, the trail continues another 20 miles as the Heritage Rail Trail County Park to York, Pennsylvania. You’ll find numerous access points, and many have picnic tables, benches, drinking fountains and porta-potties.
Fly to BWI Airport in Baltimore, Maryland, and drive 31 miles to Hunt Valley (I-95N to I-695N to I-83N; take Exit 20A). You can also take the light rail from the airport to the Pepper Road Station in Hunt Valley; bicycles are permitted if you’re bringing your own. If you need to rent bikes, get them from Hunt Valley Village at the Paper Mill Road crossing right near the trail.
We recommend staying at the Residence Inn in Hunt Valley just across the road from the rail station. It has spacious suites with kitchens and separate areas for sleeping, working, eating and relaxing. They also serve breakfast, although for a more hearty fare with a better selection, you can either cook your own or check out Café Gourmet, just one block west from the Residence Inn on Schilling Road at McCormick Road.
The trail is easily ridden out and back in one day (about 42 miles roundtrip). This itinerary begins at the southern endpoint and heads north, which is uphill over a gradual incline and makes for a nice return trip downhill. Water is available year-round in Sparks, Monkton and Feeland and at other locations during summer only. Find restrooms or port-a-potties at Paper Mill, Phoenix, Glencoe, Monkton, White Hall, Bentley Springs and Freeland. You can also buy food at Monkton (slightly less than the halfway point).
From the Residence Inn, ride your bike to the Ashland Road trailhead, which is one mile of road riding. Head west on Schilling Road to York Road and turn right. (You can also cut through the back road from your hotel through a small business park to York Road.) From York Road, go left on Ashland Road and take the right fork where it splits into Paper Mill and Ashland. Follow Ashland to the end where the trailhead begins.
Most of the packed-gravel trail is aligned along a forested strip with a few open areas scattered here and there among small lakes and wetlands. You’ll soon cross a bridge over the Gundpowder River in Loch Raven Reservoir. The trail follows the river’s course for a while, crossing it a few more times as it winds its way north along a mostly flat grade. The river is actually a tidal inlet of the Chesapeake Bay formed by the confluence of two freshwater rivers: the Big and the Little Gunpowder Falls.
Organized originally in 1828 as the Baltimore & Susquehanna Railroad, the Northern Central Railway that once occupied this route carried vacationing passengers to Bentley Springs as well as freight between Baltimore and York or Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It’s said to be the second oldest railway in the country, running for about 140 years. Today, the trail is managed by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as part of Gunpowder Falls State Park.
The trail’s namesake is for DNR’s third secretary in charge of the department, who died in April 2014 and was a key player in transforming the disused rail bed into a multi-use trail. Much of the track for the Northern Central Railway was washed away in a severe tropical storm that hit in 1972—bad news for the railway but good news for trail users today because it heralded the right-of-way’s transformation into a trail.
As you ride along, watch for evidence of railroading days. White whistle posts with pained black “W’s” instructed train engineers to sound their whistles or air horns when they approached a road crossing. The whistle pattern was typically two long notes followed by a short and another long note. Other white posts have black painted numbers indicating mileage (the number on the right is the distance to Sunbury, Pennsylvania, while the left number is the distance to the old Calvert Street station in Baltimore). You’ll also see 16-foot position light signals, unique to the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Norfolk & Western Railway. The large disks on top are reproductions. These signals—controlled remotely from towers and stations—directed engineers in recommended speeds or instructed them stop.
President Abraham Lincoln rode this rail line to deliver the Gettysburg Address. He made another—and final—journey after his assassination, traveling from Washington, D.C., to Illinois to be laid to rest.
After you go under Phoenix Road, you’ll come to Sparks and the Sparks Bank Nature Center (open summer weekends from 10 a.m.–3 p.m.) housed in an old bank building. It has hands-on exhibits, including live critters, catering to young children. Adults would appreciate it too.
About 3.5 miles farther, you arrive in Monkton, where you’ll find restrooms, water, telephones and picnic tables. The Monkton Train Station, dating to 1898, has been beautifully restored as a museum, gift shop, and ranger station. Here you can learn about the history of the Northern Central Railway (open Wed.–Sun., Memorial Day–Labor Day; weekends in spring and fall). The town dates to the 1600s and was known as Charlottestown back then. This spot gets crowded on summer weekends not only from bike traffic but from people tubing and kayaking the river.
The old brick building here, across from the train depot, was once a hotel and now bustles with activity as a tube/kayak rental, bike shop, and café. As its name implies, Monkton Bike rents, sells, and services bikes. They also run the café, which serves a variety of hot and cold sandwiches, including paninis, wraps and quesadillas. You can’t leave here without trying a scoop of organic ice cream from a local creamery or a fresh fruit smoothie. You won’t find any other food between Monkton and the Pennsylvania border, so fill up here.
As you leave Monkton, the trail’s topography changes to more of a narrow passage in places through rock outcrops sprouting cool springs that support the plentiful ferns. Check out the exposed rocks along the trail: aged at around a billion years old, the gneiss materials are what remains of an ancient continent’s crust. The schist formations farther north (around New Freedom) were once the bed of the ocean, and just north of New Freedom, volcanic rocks along the trail were once part of a mid-ocean ridge.
Whitehall is next, a quiet rural town that once hopped with commercial and agricultural businesses. Stores and mills (feed, grist, and paper) once thrived. The old Tudor-style hotel here is now a private residence, and the lovely former bank building is use today by a park ranger.
About a mile south of Parkton, stop by the overlook to view a lovely set of waterfalls. From Parkton the trail starts to climb on its way north to New Freedom, the highest point on the trail. Although a shallow grade, (about 2-3 percent) you’ll still know you’re working. Take heart, though, on the return trip you can fly!
Next is Bentley Springs, Beetree then Freeland. In a wetland near Beetree Run, look for a beaver lodge in the river. At the state border, you will be at the Mason–Dixon line just south of New Freedom, Pennsylvania. You can continue your explorations along what is now the Heritage Rail Trail County Park. The New Freedom station, built in 1885, was restored to its 1940s heyday, and you can buy refreshments here and visit the little museum. If you continue along the trail into Pennsylvania, note the adjoining railroad tracks are active with the Steam into History excursion train between New Freedom and Hanover Junction train station.
On your ride back to Hunt Valley, stop again in Monkton to wash off the dust from your ride with a float on the river. Monkton Bike also rents tubes and kayaks. Alternatively, take a left onto Monkton Road (where the trail crosses the road) and go a half-mile to Millstone Cellars (on the left). The hard cider brewery offers free tastings and tours (weekends only; check website for details). Housed in an old grist mill dating to the 1940s, the beautifully restored building itself is worth a gander.
For your second day in the area, you can fish or go tubing in Gunpowder Falls State Park. Hunt Valley Village rents tubes, in addition to bikes. In the park, visit the Jerusalem Mill Village, the park’s headquarters and also a living history museum. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places and was an 18th- and 19th-century Quaker settlement.
Hunt Valley restaurants include Nalley Fresh for gourmet salads, wraps and rice bowls. Wegman’s is also in town and has an excellent selection of café foods as well as groceries you can bring back to your kitchenette at the Residence Inn and cook yourself. For a more upscale experience, try Barrett’s Grill (soups, salads, seafood, steaks, burgers and sandwiches; cocktails, wine and beer).
In Monkton, make reservations for the sublime Manor Tavern, featuring a seasonal menu that sources its organic ingredients from local producers. The Tavern began as a stable in 1750 and now is one of the area’s premier restaurants, complete with its own organic garden that produces vegetables year-round. The rest of the seasonally changing menu features organic ingredients grown locally.
Nine miles south near Towson, visit Hampton National Historic Site, an 18th-century manor home with beautifully landscaped grounds and garden. There is no fee, and tours of the house are available as several events and exhibits that change throughout the year.
A little farther afield, Baltimore has plenty to see and do, including the Maryland Zoo, Cylburn Arboretum, National Aquarium, Inner Harbor, Fell’s Point, and the Maryland Science Center. You’ll also find countless restaurants, cafés, bars, art galleries, parks with trails, historical sites and year-round events.