Thursday, April 24, 2014

Battles of Bull Run: Manassas National Battlefield Park

When we headed to Manasses, VA on a spring day, I realized we were not the first tourists to have visited and wandered the battlefields there. In fact, the very first sight-seers were those rather naive Washintonians and Congressmen, who, in mid-July 1861, followed Gen. Irvin McDowell’s army of some 35,000 green Union soldiers on a lark to watch the battle. These sightseers brought along picnic baskets and wine, expecting to see the Confederate Army routed by their boys in blue. Even the Union soldiers didn't take it seriously, straggling to pick the ripe blackberries along the route. No one except the Confederates were in earnest.

Manassas National Battlefield Park is a site that's worth multiple visits. Like Gettysburg, the battles and associated skirmishes took place over several days. Unlike Gettysburg, the two armies clashed here twice, about a year apart -- Virginia got the brunt of the Civil War.

So, on 18 July, McDowell's berry-eating army encountered 22,000 very serious Confederates, under the command of Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard, waiting for them at Centreville. The battle was fierce, but when the Southern troops started wearing out, they were reinforced by General Thomas J. Jackson's troops -- it was at this battle that Stonewall Jackson earned his famous nickname -- and they rallied and pushed the Union army hard.

Soon, the Union Army started an orderly retreat, which quickly turned into a panicked rout when they encountered the picnickers clogging the road back to Washington. This was the first Union debacle (of many) in the war. After the Union defeat at Manassas in July 1861, Gen. George B. McClellan took command of the Federal forces in and around Washington and organized them into a formidable fighting machine, the Army of the Potomac.

Walking through the battlefields, I was struck by one sick woman's tenacity -- she refused to leave her home, despite the conflict raging all around her. That decision proved to be a fatal one. It stories like these that make the Civil War so interesting to me.

I don't know enough to consider myself a Civil War buff, but I'm a sucker for some history and I love visiting Civil War sites. It's important to know our country's history, and important to share this history with our kids, so they also understand the shaping forces of our nation. For all these reasons, I frequently bring my sons to local battlefields (living in Maryland is like living in Civil War Central -- there are battlefields and important Civil War sites to the north, east, south, and west!).

War came twice to Manassas.

In March 1862, leaving a strong force to cover the capital, McClellan shifted his army by water to start
advancing upon Richmond. Although he advanced to within sight of Richmond by April, Lee's army eventually pushed him back. Lee meanwhile sent Stonewall Jackson's northward to distress General Pope and his troops. Jackson's veterans seized Pope's supply depot at Manassas Junction. After a day of wild feasting, Jackson burned the Federal supplies and moved to a position in the woods at Groveton near the old Manassas battlefield. Again the two armies clashed and again, the Union troops were defeated and they again withdrew, under cover of darkness, to the safety of Washington DC.

Lee's bold and brilliant Second Manassas campaign opened the way for the south's first invasion of the north, and a bid for foreign intervention. Later that year, the Battle of Antietam would take place -- which although technically a victory for the North, was essentially a draw.

Manassas National Battlefield Park, located north of Manassas, in Prince William County, Virginia, preserves the site of two major American Civil War battles. The battlefields themselves are beautiful, in addition to the stories they have to tell. The park offers a wide array of activities, scenic vistas, historic sites and walking trails to interest the casual visitor or the true Civil War historian. A good place to begin your visit is the Henry Hill Visitor Center. Pick up a park brochure, map, trail guides and check out the daily schedule of interpretive programs.

Getting there: 6511 Sudley Rd, Manassas, VA 20109

Hours: The park is open daily from dawn to dusk. The Henry Hill Visitor Center is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas day. The Stone House is open daily from 10 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. through Labor Day weekend.

Dogs: Allowed in the park, but not the associated buildings. Take turns holding them outside.

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Have you daytripped somewhere interesting? I'd love to hear what you're doing! Email [email protected] if you're interested in being a guest-blogger! 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Patapsco River Valley State Park Part 2: Everyone Can Help

This week's blog -- Part 2 of last week's blog on Patapsco Valley State Park -- isn't really about a day trip -- but it is about activities my family and I participated in, on two separate days this spring. We decided to volunteer to help out in the park. It was certainly a different way to experience one of Maryland's state parks. I've loved this park since I moved nearby, but now I also feel a sense of responsibility and ownership.

Some 50 + volunteers cut the tree tubes from the trees, then gathered up all the used tubes.
Here, the park is re-foresting former farmland.
A few weeks ago, in part because of my rant about litter (in last week's blog), I decided to stop complaining. I found my way to the park's web site, where I signed up to become a volunteer. March 22 was the first volunteer opportunity. Our work that day was to remove tree jackets and choking vines from 10-year-old trees in Patapsco State Park land off Landing Road, near the Avalon area, which is quite close to my home. These jackets have been on the trees since they were planted a decade ago, and are now choking them, so off they come!

This event was organized by the Patapsco Heritage Greenway (PHG) in coordination with the state park, which is dedicated to preserving, protecting, interpreting, and restoring the environment, history, and culture of the Patapsco River Valley. In short, this organization wants the Patapsco Valley to remain pleasant for our generation and for future generations. There's a wealth of information available on PHG's web site, including some fascinating local history of the Patapsco River Valley.

The most tiring part of the work was
gathering  all the old tubes.
Saturday morning found us heading to the meeting site wearing heavy pants, work boots and armed with our Gerber knives and garden clippers to cut off tree tubes. (We also brought plenty of drinking water and a lunch.) Volunteers rolled in between 9:45 and noon, and some 50+ individuals showed up, families like mine, but also groups from Centennial High School (in Columbia, MD); military from nearby Fort Meade, MD; Howard Community College, and other groups (I apologize for not naming the other groups -- but I didn't have anything with me to take notes!).

My older son, who was a trifle grumpy about participating, admitted at dinner that night that he was grateful (yes, he even used that word) that he had "helped out the environment a little." How silly of me to feel as proud of him as I did that moment!! But it turned out to be a fun day, we did something out of the ordinary, we did it as a family and thus built family memories, and we helped the park a little. This is just the start to what to me is an ongoing obligation to give back to the community I live in and the park I spend so much enjoyable time at.

Carting away all the tree tubes.
PHG also organized the April 5th annual "Project Clean Stream," in partnership with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, where hundreds of cleanups were conducted throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The work focused on a section of Patapsco State Park off of Belle Grove Avenue that was in dire need of a cleanup. Although an area few people know about, it is another example of a beautiful section of Patapsco State Park, popular for fishing and kayaking. We spent a few hours with a bunch of other volunteers picking up debris along the river.

Volunteers grabbing vests, gloves, and bags before heading out to clean up along
the shore of Patapsco River, along Belle Grove Avenue.

A glass bottle takes a million years to decompose, according to the U.S. National Park Service; Mote Marine Lab, Sarasota, FL: we found plenty of those -- mostly beer and other alcohol bottles. We also found plenty of plastic beverage bottles and probably the grossest thing I found was a pile of used disposable diapers; both the plastic bottles and those diapers take about 450 years to decompose -- something I bet that young parent didn't consider when he/she dumped that bag of used diapers. Foam cups take about 50 years -- we picked up those by the dozens. We even found a rubber sneaker, which takes between 50 and 80 years to decompose. We found old tires, discarded lawn furniture, even old TVs, along with old clothing, linoleum tiles, plastic bags galore (10-12 years to decompose), and lots of other litter and garbage. My sons commented on the way home that they will never view litter along the side of the road the same way. Even if they had been predisposed to do so (and I doubt that), I do not believe that they will ever throw litter out of a car, now that they've seen it out in the environment and picked up what other people have carelessly left for others to clean up.

The weather was gorgeous and it was a great way to spend a Saturday morning. As a family, we learned some important lessons about caring for the environment, and we had an interesting conversation on the way home about litter, why people litter (we concluded it was carelessness -- thoughtlessness about the impact) and we got to enjoy a beautiful river in a different way than most get to do. Sadly, even as we cleaned up the area, we realized that by next year, the litter might be back. For more about ongoing efforts to help the Chesapeake Bay, click here.

Just some of what was picked up -- this was one of two large piles of garbage
collected from along the river by mid-morning -- and more was still being added to this pile.

That's me!
There are other volunteer opportunities as well. Also in Maryland, for example, the Accokeek Foundation, which participated in the annual Potomac River Clean-Up day. I chatted with Casey Lowe, Volunteer and Membership Coordinator, before the event (as I was figuring out what to do and where to do it). "We expect a much higher turnout (last year we had around 60 people), and participants will be given trash bags and gloves and will walk along the shoreline picking up trash," she said. She noted that it's a brand new event this year.

On the same day that we were cleaning up the Patapsco River, 115 volunteers helped remove more than 50 bags of trash and recycling from the Potomac shoreline in Piscataway Park. Accokeek Foundation also sponsors "Service Saturdays" the first Saturday of each month, to organize volunteers helping out in with the National Colonial Farm in Piscataway Park. "The number of volunteers vary from month to month depending upon the weather and the specific project--we've had anywhere from 3 people to 23 people." Lowe said that during the first Service Saturday event, in November, volunteers helped harvest the "leftover" crops on the Ecosystem Farm.

"Everything we harvested was then donated to a local food pantry," she said. Since then, we've had projects involving event set-up, barn clean-up, seed saving, and garden gate construction." May's Service Saturday, volunteers will be doing a smaller-scale project.

So if you have a favorite park and find yourself going there again and again, consider giving some of your time to help the park out. You may find, as I did, that doing that is as rewarding as going on a hike or bikeride in that park!

Getting there: Depends where "there" is. You can learn about volunteer activities in a state park near you at Maryland DNR website:

Hours: Based on the activity planned for that day.

Dogs: Not on volunteer days!

Eats: Pack snacks or a picnic to keep your energy up while volunteering!

Website: Patapsco State Park: publiclands/central/patapsco.asp; Patapsco Heritage Greenway

Check out the blog's FB page for updates on places we've visited and blogged about:!

Have you daytripped somewhere interesting? I'd love to hear what you're doing! Email [email protected] if you're interested in being a guest-blogger! 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Patapsco Valley State Park and a Rant: Part 1

The park is a perfect place to tire out kids and beagles.
The benefit to living near a state park like Patapsco Valley State Park is being able to grab a beagle or two and go for a walk in the woods whenever it's convenient. I am very grateful to have, by chance, bought a home near a park that offers so much. This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Next week I'll run Part 2.

Many a weekend morning we've leashed up the dogs and headed to the nearby Avalon/Orange Grove area, where the Bloede Dam creates a pleasing rumble.

Ironically, the Bloede Dam is a bit of an eyesore, and even poses a drowning hazard, having caused several deaths over the past years.

Patapsco Electric and Manufacturing of Ellicott City brought fame to the Patapsco River corridor in 1906 when it constructed the world’s first underwater hydroelectric plant. Named Bloede's Dam after the company’s president, Victor Gustav Bloede, it was state of the art at the time, but only operated a couple decades and stopped providing power in 1924. Part of the reason why it became unfeasible to continue operations was the large amount of silt and debris ending up in the river from the denuded hillsides. Since then it's served no function, and in fact, impedes the migration of some fish, and is therefore being considered for demolition.
Although the sound it makes is pleasant and it's historical, the dam and its supporting structures are ugly. In my world, if it serves no function and can't be repurposed, if it's ugly (and it is), and if it hurts the wildlife or environment, then it should go. For now though, I enjoy the sound it makes, and I know I'll miss that when/if it finally is removed.

I go to Patapsco a couple times a month during the warmer months, usually to the Avalon/Orange Grove areas and the Grist Mill Trail -- a paved path that is heavily used by bicyclists, joggers, and dog walkers. I was at the park most recently a week ago, when my husband and I decided to go biking, trying out our new bikes. As usual, we were on the Grist Mill Trail, which is accessible from two sides -- one the formal entrance to the park in Elkridge, going under the railroad viaduct and Interstate 95, which is how we entered this time.

This area has some interesting history (okay, interesting to me -- but I love this sort of stuff). According to the Patapsco Heritage Greenway organization (PHG), which works to preserve the history of the Patapsco Valley, from the early 1700s to the 1860s, the river valley was heavily industrialized, served by the port of Elk Ridge Landing -- the site of modern day Elkridge. I tried to imagine ships and the hustle and bustle of a port, but I couldn't do it. I wonder if the ships were just river barges. Was Patapsco even deep enough for an ocean-going ship?

Early development in the valley centered on tobacco and the production of iron in the vicinity of present day Elkridge. During the colonial era, both of these commodities were exported from Elk Ridge Landing to Britain and the East Indies. However, by the early to mid-1800s, the port had silted up (due to land erosion as a result of the iron forges in the area) and as a result, a highway and railroad system was developed largely to get products from there to Baltimore's markets and harbor.

The rapidly falling water -- the same stretch that makes for a nice tube ride on a lazy summer afternoon -- along the Patapsco River provided an abundance of power for a wide variety of mills. However, in 1868, a devastating flood hit the Patapsco Valley and eliminated almost all of its industries. If you think about it, this flood started the Patapsco River Valley to begin its unwilling conversion from industrial mills and factories to the forested state park we have today. The possibility of additional floods, the invention of the steam engine, and the generally poor national economic situation at the time prevented many mills and their associated communities from rebuilding along the Patapsco. Like Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia, which I wrote about last fall (check out, the environmental devastation has been slow to be reversed.

The Grist Mill Trail is sandwiched between the river and an active rail road. Along the trail are remnants of the foundations of an old mill on high ground between the B&O Railroad tracks and the river. In fact, throughout the park are the ruins of old brick and stone homes and other structures. The flood associated with Hurricane Agnes (remember that one? a major event of my childhood!) swept away almost all of the remaining evidence of earlier mill sites from the valley. Two well maintained swinging bridges also characterize this section of the park. There also is an old stone arched bridge carrying a road to no-where crossing over what was probably an old stream or mill water race.

Back to the remaining foundation wall, which is all that remains of the Orange Grove community and a flour mill established in 1856 on the Baltimore County side of the river. One of the largest mills in the mid-Atlantic region, it returned to operation after the 1868 flood, and continued operating until a fire devastated it in May 1905. A small community lived in 12 mill homes on the Howard County side of the river, connected by a swinging bridge to the mill that provided their livelihoods. Orange Grove flour, which was marketed as "Patapsco Superlative Patent Flour," was widely popular in both Europe and the United States. The rebuilt swinging bridge and the Orange Grove picnic area is all that remains of this once vibrant community.

That we have the park to enjoy at all is thanks to the state. Although the 1868 flood ironically started the environmental restoration of the valley, it wasn't until the early 1900s, when the State of Maryland established a forest and parks system largely to reestablish the forest in the Patapsco Valley, that restoration was really able to take hold. That beginning has resulted in the present day Patapsco Valley State Park, which now covers over 15,000 forested acres. I love learning this sort of history about an area and am grateful for the PHG for its work in preserving it.

When we go "just" to walk the dogs, we usually access the park from Ilchester Road in Ellicott City -- there are a couple of parking spots at the bottom of the hill near where the old Simkins/Thistle Mill -- an old abandoned  factory -- used to be (it was razed this past fall) and you can cross into the park on a swinging bridge that has been known to frighten the dogs, although my beagles are hardly the bravest members of the canine kingdom. Despite this, it's a pleasant walk and sometimes we see heron and other birds, and see tracks from deer and fox. Every once in a while we're treated to the roar of a train going by on the rails on the hillside above. I hope that the land the old factory was on will become part of the park. For more information about the Simkins/Thistle Mill, click here. Also, please note that parking is hard to come by on this side of the park.

The falls in the McKelden Area.
There are a variety of trails, including some accessed from Hilltop Road that connects Ellicott City and Catonsville, that are enjoyable hikes into the hollows formed by the creeks flowing into the Patapsco. Some of the hikes offer some pleasant views. Walking along some of the trails that follow creeks feeding into the river, especially in the fall, are enjoyable hikes. Keep alert, although about the wildest thing you'll see are mountain bikers!

The path on the opposite side of the river is less well traveled and can be accessed from the park's main entrance and leads up to a better view of the dam. Unfortunately, however, it seems to have more litter, although on the face of it, that doesn't make sense. 

In fact, that's the downside to the Avalon/Orange Grove area of the park in general -- the litter. It seems worse in this stretch than in the other sections of the park. It's a shame that this little gem hidden in a largely suburban area is treated so casually and scornfully. From soccer balls to discarded t-shirts to the ubiquitous soda cans and chips bags, you can find it all during a stroll through that park. Although some of the garbage may be in the park due to wind storms and flooding -- much has simply been left behind by others enjoying the park. A shame!

The Avalon/Orange Grove section of the park is heavily used: the hikers, the bikers, the dog walkers, people tubing, people fishing, people picnicking... there is no solitude there. And that is fine -- if only everyone would clean up and bring out the garbage they bring in. There. I've ranted. So, what can I do about it? Find out in next week's blog (hence, Part 2)!

When we have more time on our hands, we may head over to the less populated (but still popular) McKeldon Area for the McKeldon Rapids trail, which takes you along the river as it twists and turns a bit, and is quite lovely in all seasons. I don't believe I've yet completed the trail -- the first few times we got distracted and detoured from the trail to others, and more recently because debris, presumably from Hurricane Sandy, still covers the trail in places.There's always next time...

Last year in early March my friend and I were feeling adventurous on a warm Saturday and decided to go check out a trail that led to some old house ruins in the northern McKeldon area, off of Raincliff Road near Rt 32. There was a parking area and some mown grass seemed to indicate a trail, but it soon petered out into a series of deer paths that scattered through the dense thickets and brush.

On we went -- we believed we were headed in the right direction, but we became hopelessly lost, and it was only because my friend had enterprisingly brought her GPS phone (and knew how to use it) that we were able to find our way to the river and the railroad tracks, and walked along these until we reached some steps leading up into the woods. We went up those and quickly found the house ruins -- a stone structure with heavy wooden beams that have largely disintegrated into a pile of rubble in the center. The floor over a dug-out basement had collapsed inward. Really not much to see, unfortunately.

For haunted house lovers I can hold out no hope: it didn't look haunted, it didn't feel haunted, there were no weird sounds or odd things lurking in the periphery of our sight -- although I'm not sensitive to those sorts of things and I'd probably pee in my pants if I ever did really encounter a ghost (actually, I think I might have once -- but that's a story for another blog, and at the time I hopped back into the car and drove away quick, without even taking a photo of the house, which is what I'd originally stopped for). I hoped this particular house had been well loved and well lived in while it was whole -- it was small, but it must have been cozy and pretty cute, and in a lovely setting perched on the top of a little hill.

Going back to our car we blazed our own trail, using the sun to guide us. We knew we couldn't get too lost -- the river and rail road were behind us, the main road a mile to our left. But what should have been a two-mile walk there and back we believe to have taken us more than five miles, through brush and brier patches, stumbling over broken logs and hidden creeks and up and down some steep hills. Sore and tired, we greeted our car with joy. Only the dogs really had fun on that walk in the woods.

An old stone house in the Avalon/Orange part of the park.
To be honest, I don't know the other parts of the park very well -- the ones nearer Baltimore. I look forward to exploring those. Patapsco Valley State Park is an odd, odd park. It's more like a series of smaller parks, strung together like beads on a string. The park follows the river for 32 miles, from Carroll County through Howard, touching on Baltimore County and Baltimore City as well.

Getting there: Depends where "there" is. I recommend getting trail guides in advance from the Maryland DNR website: These tell you what's where and roughly, how to get there.

Hours: Dawn to dusk.

Dogs: Bring them and tire them out! A tired dog is a happy dog!

Eats: Lots of picnic areas in both Avalon and McKeldon areas. Probably in other parts as well. Cart in and cart out -- so bring a bag to carry your own trash out with you.

Website: Patapsco State Park:; Patapsco Heritage Greenway

For other hikes in the Patapsco Valley State Park, check out the following articles:

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Thursday, April 3, 2014

Biking, Lunch, and then Some Wine: The NCR Trail, Woodhall Winecellars, and Royal Rabbit Vineyards

Courtesy of Maryland
Department of Natural Resources
There is not much that wine doesn't enhance. Is there any better way to round out a few hours biking on Maryland's Northern Central Rail Trail (renamed the Torrey C Brown Rail Trail) than with a trip to two local wineries?

The itinerary for this day trip -- and it was a full day-long day trip -- was bike riding the NCR trail in Parkton. My friend, Barb, and I figured we'd ride down to Monkton, a ride of just over 5 miles, (the trail headed north was covered with snow, ice, and slush), plus the stretch between Parkton and Monkton offers some of the loveliest views of the river that runs alongside. Afterward we'd head to Woodhall Winecellars for lunch at Patricia Stella's "casual fine dining" restaurant and a wine tasting, in Parkton. We'd round out the day with a wine tasting at Royal Rabbit Vineyards, also in Parkton. We arrived at the trail around 9:30 a.m. and with the biking, lunch, and two wineries, ended up back in Ellicott City around 4 p.m. It was a full day indeed!

Bike riding in March is problematic after a winter like the one we've experienced this year. The snow and ice have been slow to go -- has there been enough warm days to melt it? In some places, no! We found only few patches of ice -- there was mostly slush and mud, and lots of downed limbs and trees, which made the going tough (especially for me, since I apparently have much to gain by way of fitness!).

The North Central Railroad, built in 1832, ran between Baltimore and Sunbury, PA, and was one of the oldest rail lines in the country. The railway serviced the growing Baltimore, York, and Harrisburg industries, had 46 stops, 22 in Maryland, and operated for 140 years. It carried passengers, people vacationing at Bentley Springs, and freight between Baltimore and York or Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. As with many things in Maryland, the railroad played a pivotal role in the Civil War, serving as a major transportation route for supplies, food, clothing, and material, as well as troops heading to the South from Camp Curtin and other Northern military training stations. It served the area for another century, eventually ceasing operations in 1972 after Hurricane Agnes (raise your hand if you remember this hurricane!) battered its bridges. The old bed, which was converted to a rail-trail just 12 years later, can still be seen today, mostly apparent in the bridges, which clearly are old railroad bridges.

An abandoned old dwelling in ruin along the NCR Trail.
Thus was born the Torrey C. Brown Rail Trail, formerly and more commonly known as the Northern Central Railroad Trail (NCR Trail), which is one of the best hiking and biking trails in the mid-Atlantic region. Running through Gunpowder Falls State Park, it's a relatively smooth and flat trail, with a crushed stone surface, that extends 20 miles, from Ashland Road in the Hunt Valley area to the Mason Dixon Line, where another rail trail takes over. It was renamed in honor of former Baltimore City representative to the Maryland House of Delegates (1971-1983) and former Maryland Secretary of Natural Resources (1983-1995). Amenities include drinking fountains, picnic tables, benches, and portable restrooms. There are several places where you can stop for food and water; however, because of the rural setting, if you're traveling long distances, I recommend packing enough snacks and water for your trip.

The stretch of the trail heading south from Parkton is beautiful, even in early spring, although it goes without needing to say it that I want to return after the leaves have come out. The trail follows Gunpowder Falls River, Little Falls, and then Bee Tree Run up to Pennsylvania. I am guessing that the stretch between Parkton and Monkton follows Little Falls, but I am not certain, and I couldn't find a definitive name for it. Whatever its name, it is lovely as it winds through groves of trees and between rock outcroppings. Throughout the trail, you can see occasionally interesting old ruins and lovely Victorian-era farm houses.

At Monkton the original train station now serves the trail in warmer weather, providing water fountains, information, rest rooms, and other welcome amenities for trail users. There is some limited parking in Monkton as well.

A house that can be seen from the NCR Trail. 

A Dream of Chocolate owner Mark
Coulbourne suggests trying a little
of all the flavors in the
chocolate sampler.
After we completed our ride, we headed over to Woodhall Winecellars, which was located about 4 miles away from the Parkton NCR Trail parking area. Yes, I visited that winery the previous week, with two other friends. This time, however, we decided to eat lunch at the restaurant onsite, in addition to the wine tasting. This, we felt, added convenience to our trip, since we'd focused on the biking part, and hadn't planned well by bringing along a picnic lunch or snacks for the wineries.

They seemed surprised that we'd wanted lunch, although to be fair, we hadn't called ahead or made reservations or anything like that, and it was technically still the winter season, when not as many folks venture out to the wineries. We were offered a single choice: chicken breast with sun-dried tomato goat cheese spread, lettuce, tomato, onion and a touch of balsamic vinegar served on ciabatta bread. It was tasty, and luckily, exactly what we were looking for, since there were no other choices, except to go hungry. We were served our lunches in the wine tasting room.

If you go to Woodhall, you go for the wines, more than the ambiance, which is perhaps as it ought to be. Although the wine tasting room is what is clearly an old barn, and quaint with stone walls, it is dimly lit, sparsely decorated, and frankly, a little dirty -- the floor needed a good vacuuming. The bowl of oyster crackers needed to be refilled. It seems neglected, but perhaps that will improve with late spring and summer crowds. With little to beautify the entrance -- it's clearly a working farm, and that's part of the coolness of this winery. However, the wines are well regarded -- a colleague at work is a huge fan of Woodhall Winecellars -- and the wines are worth a quick visit!

This trip to Woodhall took an unexpected turn: we ended up having a "chocolate tasting" at the winery as well as a wine tasting. We got to talking with chocolatier Mark Coulbourne, who has a table of his chocolates set up in the wine tasting room. Barb and I purchased the sampler of nine of his signature chocolates to share. Mark noted that he has worked with Woodhall wine maker Chris Kent on a regular basis, including helping him make, blend, and bottle the wine.

The sampler offers a mix of white chocolate, such as the scrumptous Summertime Bar, with white chocolate, toasted coconut and citris, and the Pistachio Bar, with white chocolate blended with pistachios; dark chocolate, such as the Orange Love Bar, with 74% dark chocolate and natural orange, and the Buzz Bar, with dark chocolate and expresso beans; and milk chocolate, such as the Almond Bar, with milk chocolate blended with almonds, and the Pretzel Bar, with milk chocolate blended with pretzels. Yum!! They were all good, we decided! Mark also offers spicy chocolate, such as his Hellfire Bar with 74% dark chocolate, toasted pumpkin seeds, and ghost pepper -- which I'm glad I tried but have decided it's not my favorite. The sampler, aside from the Hellfire, was so good that I purchased another to share with my family at home.

Mark noted that he and Chris have worked together to pair a number of Mark's chocolates with their wines. "Our dark chocolates pair up well with Woodhall's Cabernet Sauvignon and Chambourcin," he said.

Mark's story is interesting. Like many of us would LIKE To be, he's a man who's followed his dreams. After too many years of working in a cube farm in the software industry, and being laid off twice, he went to culinary school, and emerged committed to chocolate. "I chose chocolate for a number of reasons,"he said. "It was the one aspect of food service I was most passionate about."

He's worked with chocolate for nearly 10 years and after working in restaurants and bakeries, he struck out on his own. His company, A Dream of Chocolate, produces its chocolates by hand in a commercial kitchen nearby. "Making the transition from working in an office to working in a kitchen hasn't been the easiest process, but I've learned and adapted since we opened up 3 years ago," he said.

In stark contrast to Woodhall Winecellars, our next stop was Royal Rabbit Vineyards. Although the Tour de Tanks event sponsored by the Mason Dixon Wine Trail brought in a crowd, the owner, Roy Albin warmly greeted every guest, chatting with them for a few minutes.

The tasting room was well lit and invitingly decorated. For the usual fee of $5, the winery offered a tasting of nine wines, including two straight out of the tanks (they kindly allowed us to join in while we were at the winery). The wine tasting room is in the basement of the owner's house, but is cheery, bright, new, and invitingly decorated. The servers, although swamped with visitors, poured their wines knowledgeably, discussing each one in depth and asking questions about our preferences and thoughts about the wines as we sampled.

I preferred the Le Chamberlain, a Chambourcin with a deep red color and a distinctive berry flavor that ends with a little bit of spice. Barb particularly enjoyed tasting the wine right out of the barrel, including the comparison between wine being aged in Hungarian oak and French oak. (She preferred the Hungarian.)

Royal Rabbit also had a table filled with what looked like homemade chocolatey goodness on it. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to chat with the candy-maker. Next time I definitely will!

Tip: If you avoid purchasing wine or chocolates and pack your own picnic, this is a budget-friendly day trip!

Getting There: To access the NCR Trail at Parkton, take York Road to Parkton (Exit 31 off I-83). Turn left (west) onto Frederick Road, and park at 18858 Frederick Road. Woodhall Winecellars is located at 17912 York Road Parkton, Maryland 21120. Royal Rabbit Vineyards is located at 1090 Jordan Sawmill Road, Parkton, 21120.

Hours: NCR Trail is open during daylight hours. Woodhall Winecellars is open Tuesday - Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.; Royal Rabbit Vineyards is open Friday - Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.

Dogs: Absolutely on the NCR Trail. In fact, there's water and water bowls at Monkton. Not so much at the wineries!

Eats: Bring plenty of snacks and sustenance for hiking or biking along the NCR Trail. Frankly, I recommend packing a picnic or bringing your own bread and cheese to accompany the wine tastings.

Websites: The NCR Trail; Woodhall Winecellars; A Dream of Chocolate; Royal Rabbit Vineyards

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Have you daytripped somewhere interesting? I'd love to hear what you're doing! Email [email protected] if you're interested in being a guest-blogger!