Birding Howard County, Maryland

Patuxent Branch Trail Detailed Information

This connector trail between Lake Elkhorn and Savage offers easy walking and floodplain birds in a scenic setting.

GPS: Trail N39 09 58.1 W76 50 30.4
North access N39 10.949 W76 50.952
South access N39 08.953 W76 49.985

Habitat: Mostly forested floodplain along the Little Patuxent River. North of the Pratt Bridge (halfway point) the trail is on the east side of the sandy bottomed river. It passes through several wetlands and over tributaries behind Columbia business parks. Trees are mostly deciduous with little understory. Occasional remnant pines exist on higher ground, and landscaped conifers are present in a few locations. In the vicinity of the transmission line and near each highway overpass, openings provide a limited amount of scrub and views of the sky. South of the bridge, the trail moves to the west side. In this section the slopes are generally steeper, the river rockier, and the floodplain more narrow.

Layout: The Patuxent Branch Trail (PBT) follows the Little Patuxent River 3.5 miles south from Lake Elkhorn to Vollmerhausen Road near Savage. The northern half is paved and the southern half has a crushed stone surface. The portion south of the Pratt Bridge (about the halfway point) lies atop an old railroad bed. This spur moved stone from the granite quarries in Guilford to Savage. A sewerline also runs along the river, although not always on the same side as the main trail. It is possible to make a round trip between the Pratt Bridge and Vollmerhausen Road by walking the trail in one direction on the west side of the river and the umimproved sewerline in the other direction on the east side. Because the PBT connects to the Columbia path system on the north and Savage Park or Wincopin Trail on the south, it is popular with hikers and bikers. Most of the wetlands lie in the northern section where the gradient is low and the sandy-bottomed river placid. To the south, the river becomes much rockier as it approaches the Fall Line. In this section the floodplain narrows and wooded slopes on each side become steeper. In both sections, occasional paved or dirt paths lead off east and west to businesses or houses. This is one of the few (perhaps the only) county-managed property with mileage markers. Large maps of the trail and the surrounding area are posted at each end of the trail and at the Pratt Bridge so that it would be hard to become lost. Combining a walk around Lake Elkhorn with an extension along a portion of the PBT offers a fine combination of habitats.

Best Time to Visit: Spring and fall migration are the best periods; any season may be a pleasant walk. In summer, there are floodplain breeding species and, in winter, occasional flocks of woodland species. Because this trail passes beneath I-95, MD 32, Guilford Road, and Broken Land Parkway (twice), traffic noise can be annoying. The southern section is the more quiet. Avoid rush hours if possible, although with morning birding, that is not always feasible. Fortunately, there are long stretches where road noise is minimal. Warm-weather holidays and pleasant weekend afternoons are the most congested. The northern section tends to be the most heavily trafficked. Families with buggies and strollers, as well as walkers and bicyclists, are attracted to the paved path.

Birding: Because the habitat tends to be mostly deciduous forest with scattered openings, the species diversity is not high; however, most woodland passerines turn up eventually. Great Blue Herons and Belted Kingfishers move along the river, hawks, woodpeckers, flycatchers, vireos, and a sampling of warblers occur either as breeding species or in migration. Less than one-half mile north of the Pratt Bridge, a transmission line right-of-way creates an opening with a good view of the sky along with habitat for sparrows, Indigo Buntings, and mimic thrushes. Each wooden bridge is worth a short pause to check the wetland area it spans. In spring, parts of the north section contain standing pools of water with frogs and toads announcing their presence.

The area around the Pratt Bridge is often worth a quick look during a lunch break. The trail just south of the bridge (down river) as far as the run-off settling area (about 100 yards), can be productive for warblers of all kinds during migration. From the parking lot on the east side of the bridge, one can take an unimproved path south that follows the old Md 32 downriver for 50 yards or so. A variety of micro-habitats can be found under the utility lines including honeysuckle thickets, second-growth, and even a small cattail marsh. Farther downriver along the sewer line is a small water-filled quarry where a Green Heron can often be found.

Highlights: The combination of natural history and local history makes the PBT a worthwhile destination. Descriptive plaques and the restored Pratt Bridge near the halfway point, spring wildflowers on the slopes of the southern section, frogs in floodplain pools, and dragonflies over the river during the summer produce an attractive site.

Handicapped Access: The paved section is the easier of the two to navigate. Parking in the Guilford Road lot provides the easiest access. There is no lot immediately adjacent to the trail at Lake Elkhorn. At the southern end, the Wincopin Trail lot is several hundred yards to the west of the PBT entrance partway up a slope along Vollmerhausen Road.

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