Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), located in Dorchester County, MD, includes more than 28,000 acres of tidal marsh, hardwood and loblolly pine forests, freshwater wetlands, and croplands. The refuge was established in 1933 and contains one third of Maryland’s wetlands, garnering it the nickname “Everglades of the North.” It is home to the largest natural population of the formerly endangered DelMarVa Peninsula fox squirrels, and is also home to the largest breeding population of American bald eagles on the East Coast (north of Florida).
When visiting Blackwater for the first time, start your trip at the Visitor Center, open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. In addition to being a prime viewing spot for bald eagles, the visitor center has exhibits specific to the refuge, an upstairs observation area and library, an authentic eagle’s nest, and TV monitors for watching live video from the osprey and eagle cams. Outside the center you will find the Butterfly and Beneficial Insect Garden with walking paths and picnic tables. From here you can decide how best to explore the refuge: by car, foot, bike, or paddle craft.
Visitors can drive, bike, or walk along the four-mile paved road that takes visitors along the Blackwater River, offering excellent views of the refuge. If driving, turnouts are available at various points to safely stop and observe the scenery. Visitors must remain on the paved road; briefly stopping outside of the turnouts is permitted only when there are no other vehicles around. Grab a wildlife guide from the Visitor Center to learn about the animals and habits you might see along the scenic route.
There are four land trails available at the refuge: the Marsh Edge Trail, the Woods Trail, the Key Wallace Trail, and the Tubman Road Trail. Trails are open daily dawn to dusk, but pets are not permitted, even if on a leash. The 1/3-mile paved Marsh Edge Trail runs along the confluence of the Little Blackwater River and Blackwater River, and provides great views of the open water areas of the refuge. It can be accessed by turning left at the first fork on Wildlife Drive but is closed seasonally from winter to late summer to minimize disturbance to nesting birds. The half-mile Woods Trail can be accessed from Wildlife Drive by taking the first right after the photo blind. Visitors will have the opportunity to see the DelMarVa Peninsula fox squirrel.
The Key Wallace Trail provides visitors with a chance to observe a timber stand improvement area. Located at the intersection of Key Wallace Drive and Egypt Road, this 2.7-mile trail takes about two hours to hike. The fourth option, the 1.5-mile long Tubman Road Trail, is named after an old dirt road which comprises a portion of the trail and was once one of the main access routes to this part of the county. It takes visitors through mixed pine and hardwood forests, sloughs and marshes, and reforested fields. This trail is located off Hip Roof Road and takes about an hour and a half to complete.
To truly experience Blackwater you’ll want to get out on the water, and there are three paddling trails to get you in the thick of the refuge.
The Orange (7.6 miles roundtrip) and Purple (nine miles one way) Trails generally have the highest overall salinity and the lowest diversity of plant species. Big cordgrass and saltmarsh cordgrass thrive here. In late July and August, marsh hibiscus is covered in white and pink blooms. On the Green Trail (eight miles roundtrip), the marsh ranges from slightly brackish to fresh water. During summer, fragrant waterlily covers much of the water, and narrow-leaved cattail grows at the water’s edge. The green trail is the best option for beginners. The closest launch points for the water trails are the Rt. 355 Bridge soft launch and the Shorters Wharf Public Boat Ramp.
Fishing at Blackwater
Blackwater NWR waters include the Blackwater and Little Blackwater Rivers and the associated expansive shallow water marsh areas. No special refuge permits are required; however, a valid state sport fishing license and/or a state recreational crabbing license is required if fishing or crabbing in these waters.
Production manager Zach Ditmars recently traveled to Blackwater NWR to target Northern Snakehead. Since their arrival at Blackwater a few years ago, the species has perpetuated and Blackwater and is now one of the go-to snakehead spots on the Bay. Ditmars has also caught largemouth bass, catfish, white and yellow perch in the area. Every June, the refuge hosts an annual Youth Fishing Derby for anglers 15 and under. This year’s event was held on June 2. The Susquehanna River Fishing Club also hosts an annual Snakehead Smackdown tournament in the spring.
If you’re sitting at your desk at work, wishing you were at Blackwater, you can get a glimpse of the refuge by tuning in to the osprey and eagle cams. Since 2001, the Friends of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge have been broadcasting images from an osprey platform located along the Refuge Wildlife Drive, and since 2004, the Friends have also been broadcasting images from a bald eagle nest in a local loblolly pine tree. Tune in and learn more about these awesome raptor species at friendsofblackwater.org.
The refuge is located just 12 miles south of Cambridge, MD, so after a day of hiking or paddling, consider heading into town for a quality meal. Find options at downtowncambridge.org. Another detour to consider is the town of Hooper’s Island, located about 25 minutes east of the refuge. Stop into Old Salty’s restaurant if you’re looking for “the best crab cake around!” After a recent paddling trip I found myself at Old Salty’s, which is located in a historic schoolhouse, and had one of the best soft shell crab sandwiches I’ve had in a long time. If it’s seafood you’re after, make the detour—you will not be disappointed.