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Step Into the New Year With These First Day Hikes

Experience the beauty of Maryland’s natural resources by partaking in the New Year’s Day tradition.

First Day Hikes began on a hunch by a Massachusetts park ranger back in 1992 that a New Year’s Day renewal stroll might just draw a few visitors to his park in the winter. Some 380 people showed up at Blue Hills State Reservation for the inaugural First Day Hikes—an annual walk in the woods now held in all 50 states.

The First Day Hikes movement reached Maryland on New Year’s Day 2012, with 560 people participating at 17 state parks that winter. It proved to be just the beginning. Today, with New Year’s Day events at more than 30 state parks, Maryland’s First Day Hikes—both ranger-led and self-guided—attract almost 5,000 people each year.

Such is their popularity that First Day Hikes aren’t limited to hikes anymore. Last year, Rosaryville State Park in Prince George’s County hosted a ranger-guided, 3-mile BYOH (Bring Your Own Horse) trail ride. First Day Hikes also aren’t limited to January 1 anymore, at least not when the holiday falls over a weekend. Last year, Patapsco Valley State Park hosted an adventurous 6-mile, ranger-led “Last Day” bike ride on December 31—one of three parks offering ranger-led bike rides. Specific kid- and dog-friendly hiking options have been added at many state parks.

There’s also more to First Day Hikes than a little exercise and communion with nature—local history-focused walks are offered, too. Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park, one of the smallest parks in the state system, has in the past partnered with Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on a history hike. Cunningham Falls State Park last year offered a self-guided hike to the Catoctin Furnace and the African-American cemetery there, the final resting place of many of the former enslaved and free Black furnace workers between the 1770s and 1840s.

Another hike, at Gathland State Park, has traversed the Appalachian Trail from Crampton’s Gap to Brownsville Pass, a  location that played a major role in the 1862 Civil War Battle of  South Mountain.

The coffee, hot cocoa, s’mores, and post-hike campfires offered at some of the venues organized by local volunteers—the various park “friends” groups—are an attraction all their own. In other words, whether it’s a trek to see the wild horses on the beach at Assateague or a sunset hike at Washington Monument State Park in Washington County, there is something for everyone, including those with strollers or accessibility issues.

Close to home, check out North Point State Park, which typically offers two First Day Hikes; Gunpowder Falls State Park and Patapsco Valley State Park, which host several events; and the Soldiers Delight Natural Environmental Area in Owings Mills.

But don’t be afraid to venture farther afield. Elk Neck State Park in North East offers spectacular views of the upper Chesapeake Bay and winter wildlife, including songbirds, hawks, and geese. Though perhaps not quite as early as January 1, when it really gets cold in the region, enormous blocks of ice form in the Bay beneath Elk Neck lighthouse. Similarly, the massive icicles that dangle alongside the tumbling water at Cunningham Falls and Swallow Falls state parks are worth a winter’s drive.

“One of the great things about the First Day Hikes is that we get new visitors, old visitors, and everything in between,” says Ranger Melissa Boyle Acuti, chief of interpretation for the Maryland Park Service, who happily received snowshoes as a gift one year to enable her winter hikes during visits to Western Maryland’s state parks. “We get people who say, ‘I just heard about it this year,’ and then with others it’s, ‘We do this hike every year.’ But we also get people that say, ‘I try to find a new one to hike every year.’”

Check the Maryland Department of Natural Resources website for the complete list of this year’s Last Day and First Day Hikes, but here are seven nearby highlights.

Gunpowder Falls State Park 
This ranger-led hike is so popular that the folks at Gunpowder offer it twice on New Year’s Day. This “moderate” hike begins at the historic Jerusalem Mill village and takes hikers on the Little Gunpowder trail along the Gunpowder River. The hike also includes shallow stream crossings and several small inclines, so remember to wear appropriate footwear. Leashed pets are welcome. 1/1/24 start: 8 a.m. and 12 p.m. 2813 Jerusalem Rd., Kingsville

Gunpowder Falls State Park: Torrey C. Brown Rail Trail
The NCR-Hereford Volunteer Association will lead a guided, round trip bicycle ride from White Hall to the Pennsylvania border along the historic route of the Northern Central Railroad. Take in views of the Little Falls, Beetree Run, and local geological formations as you pedal the well-maintained trail’s gentle grade. Bring your own bike, helmet, water, and snacks. No ride in case of rain or snow. 1/1/24 start: 2 p.m. 1349 Wiseburg Road, White Hall

Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area
One of the more vigorous First Day Hikes, this ranger-led walk will take hikers along Fair Hill’s historic green trail and part of the blue trail, traversing hayfields and upland and bottomland hardwood forests along Christiana Creek. There are some steeper sections, so expect a roughly two-and-a-half-hour trek on this healthy hike. 1/1/24 start: 10 a.m. 2941 Appleton Road, Elkton

North Point State Park
What better way to greet the first sunrise of the year than with a walk past North Point’s ancient Black Marsh and views of the Chesapeake Bay? This flat 1.5-mile trail follows an old trolley line through the woods and past the remnants of a small power station, but the trail can also get wet—so appropriate hiking shoes or boots are recommended. North Point offers excellent opportunities for bird-watching and leashed pets are welcome, too. 1/1/24 start: 7 a.m. 8400 North Point Rd., Edgemere

North Point State Park: Afternoon Hike
If you sleep in New Year’s Day, don’t worry. You can catch the first sunset of 2024—with a campfire and smores included—on North Point’s Chrystal Pier. This flat, 3.3-mile walk through the Black Marsh wildlands also takes hikers past the historic remnants of Bay Shore Park. On this ranger-led hike, participants will learn about some of the park’s year-round wildlife, as well as the colorful history of North Point State Park. 1/1/24 start: 3:30 p.m. 8400 North Point Rd., Edgemere

Patapsco Valley State Park: Avalon Area
Meet at the Lost Lake Pier and join fellow last-day-of-the-year hikers and Patapsco rangers for a guided walk along the repaved Grist Mill Trail to the state park’s famous Swinging Bridge for a smooth 2.5-mile round trip. Accessible for strollers and mobility chairs. Leashed pets welcome. 12/31/23 start: 2:30 p.m. 5120 South Street, Halethorpe

Sandy Point State Park
Join rangers for a 3-mile loop along the Sandy Point’s Chesapeake Bay coastline and through the park’s Blue Crab trail. This hike is mostly flat and includes sidewalks, gravel roads, and dirt paths. Participants are encouraged to wear weather-appropriate footwear and clothing and to bring water. Leashed dogs are welcome, but the trail is not recommended for mobility chairs or strollers. 1/1/24 start: 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. 1100 E. College Pkwy., Annapolis