St. Mary’s County, often referred to as ‘Southern Maryland’ or ‘South County,’ is just a short drive from the nation’s capital and yet feels a world apart. If you’re looking to slow the pace down a bit and revel in history, seafood, and a multitude of outdoor adventures, both on land and on the water, we suggest you put St. Mary’s County on your list. Be sure to check restaurant and other business websites directly, as well as visitstmarysmd.com, for the latest updates regarding Covid-19 in the area.
Visit St. Mary's County
1. Dock Bars
St. Mary’s County is no stranger to dock bars. Find suggestions on the Visit St. Mary’s website and in our Dock Bar Guide.
2. Historic St. Mary's City
HSMC is a museum on the site of Maryland’s first capital. Decades of research are the foundation of living history exhibits assembled across the landscape. Guests have the opportunity to tour a replica of the Dove, which carried English settlers to Maryland’s shores in 1634; a mercantile stocked with (reproduction) items colonists would have shopped for; the Woodland Indian Hamlet to discover how the Yaocomaco people lived; the first monumental Catholic Church in the English colonies, reconstructed on its original foundation; and the Godiah Spray Tobacco Plantation, which features varieties of plants used 350 years ago for food and medicine, and also livestock. The visitor center, the living history sites, and The Shop at Farthing’s Ordinary are set to reopen on Wednesday, July 8. For updates, visit hsmcdigshistory.org.
The County’s courthouse, hospital, and governmental center are all located here, along with shops, galleries, restaurants, a winery, a quaint town square, and even a water trail along Breton Bay. Historic sites include Tudor Hall, which houses the St. Mary’s County Historical Society, and the Old Jail Museum. Leonardtown Wharf Park also recently installed a new floating dock pier, which welcomes transient boaters and overnight visits.
4. National Trails and Scenic Byways
St. Mary’s County is part of three national trails and one national scenic byway. The Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail traces the routes of Smith’s voyages to explore the Chesapeake Bay and its major tributaries. The Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail tells the story of the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake Bay region. Southern Maryland and St. Mary’s County were the first targets for British attack and invasion, so you’ll find lots of historic sites and stops on the trail. And finally, the Religious Freedom National Scenic Byway, which runs through Charles and St. Mary’s Counties, tells the story of the first attempt at implementing the idea of religious freedom in America.
Another great thing about Southern Maryland? Oysters, oysters, and more oysters! St. Mary’s County is home to the U.S. Oyster Festival which takes place each fall at the fairgrounds in Leonardtown, MD (this year’s event is slated for October 17-18. Visit usoysterfest.com for updates). The county is also home to several oyster farms.
6. The Patuxent River Naval Air Museum
The Navy’s aircraft and flight systems have been tested and evaluated at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station since WWII. It is the only naval museum dedicated to aviation research, development, testing, and evaluation. Interior exhibits include a propulsion display, unmanned aerial vehicles, crew system artifacts, ejection seats, radars, and test instrumentation. An outdoor aircraft park displays 21 naval aircraft. Find more museum updates at paxmuseum.org.
7. Piney Point Lighthouse Museum and Park
Here you can climb the oldest lighthouse on the Potomac, constructed in 1836 by John Donahoo. The museum details the area’s history and also includes an exhibit on the WWII U-1105 Black Panther German submarine, which lies just offshore in an area designated as the state’s first Historic Shipwreck Dive Preserve. The Potomac River Maritime Exhibit includes a collection of historic wooden boats that once plied the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, and the six-acre park includes a picnic area, kayak launch, a boardwalk, pier, and sandy beach (no fishing or swimming). Currently the museum and kayak launch are closed until further notice, but the pier, outside grounds, and picnic areas are open to visitors from dawn until dusk.
8. Point Lookout State Park
Located at the very tip of St. Mary’s County, this park once served as the location of a camp which imprisoned as many as 52,264 Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. A museum on site recounts this history. The park is also home to the Point Lookout Lighthouse (currently closed for renovations), which was built in 1830 by John Donahoo. An Integral Lighthouse, it is considered to be the oldest of its type in the United States. It is also said to be one of the most haunted lighthouses in America. The park also features beaches and a fishing pier, which have since reopened to the public, and is a very popular site for birders (ebird.org lists Point Lookout as the number one bird hotspot in Maryland). For more updates, visit the park’s page at dnr.maryland.gov.
9. St. Clement's Island State Park
Located in the Potomac River off the shores of Colton’s Point and accessible only by boat. The 62-acre St. Clement's Island State Park contains a memorial cross dedicated to the memory of the first Marylanders who sailed to the island on March 25, 1634 on the Ark and the Dove. Boat tours are offered to the island through the St. Clement’s Island Museum (call 301.769.2222 for more information and a schedule of operation). The island is also home to a replica of the original Blackistone Lighthouse.
10. Water Trails
St. Mary’s County has over 5000 miles of creeks, tidal inlets, and open water for paddlers to choose from. Some of the trail routes are in protected areas with moderate wind and current conditions and are best for novices and families. Other trails, such as those that traverse the open waters of the Potomac River, provide more challenging paddling conditions suitable for experienced paddlers. Download water trail guides from the Visit St. Mary’s website.
For more details on any of the places mentioned, be sure to visit the Visit St. Mary's website. While some places remain closed, there are still plenty of opportunities for getting outside and on the water.
By Kaylie Jasinski