Editors' pick

Jug Bay Natural Area

Jug Bay Natural Area photo
Rita Zeidner/For The Post

Editorial Review

A winter's hike surrounded by woods and wildlife
By Rita Zeidner
Friday, Dec. 2, 2011

Sometime in the mid-1990s, seven 30-something women, all outdoorsy-types lving inside the Beltway, single and without any local family or religious attachment to Christmas, made an informal pact. Rather than sitting in a crowded movie theater or going out for Chinese food, my friends and I decided to start our own tradition: a Dec. 25 hike.

After getting caught in an ice storm midway through our inaugural trek, a seven-mile loop in Shenandoah National Park, we agreed to stay closer to home in the future and hike at or near sea level to minimize the risk of foul weather. Jug Bay Natural Area in Upper Marlboro fit our criteria to a T. Ten miles or so of trails crisscrossing woodlands, swamps and marshes provided enough change of scenery to keep us interested. And the park's proximity to the Patuxent River not only ensures great bird-watching, all that nearby water also helps fight off the worst of winter's chill.

My hiking group has long since disbanded. But Jug Bay remains one of my favorite close-in places to hike year-round, particularly in winter.

Turns out I'm not alone. Although it's possible to spend a Saturday at Jug Bay and not encounter a single soul, it's precisely that peace and quiet that draws hikers such as Gentry Navat of Upper Marlboro.

"I come here all the time," said Navat, who was checking out the last of the fall colors on a crisp and cloudless Sunday in November. "I come every season, just to enjoy the solitude. There's never anyone here."

Others come for the wildlife. "It's a fabulous spot," gushed Lynn Scarlett of Arlington.

She put down her binoculars long enough to explain that she and her hiking companion, Steven Courtney, had just hit a birders' jackpot. "In one spot, we saw 10 species," she said, merrily ticking off the names of tiny brown varieties such as the tufted titmouse and the Eastern towhee.

The largest fresh-water tidal marsh in Maryland, Jug Bay also delights hikers with great opportunities for viewing larger, and arguably more exciting waterfowl, including great blue heron, eagles, snow and Canada geese and a half-dozen or so duck species. The diversity of birdlife is due, in large part, to the park's success in restoring wild rice beds in the Patuxent, said Greg Kearns, the park's longtime naturalist. The nutrient-rich grain is an important food source for migratory birds, and as a result of recent bumper crops, a growing number of birds are making a pit stop and even making the park their winter home.

While extreme conditions are uncommon at Jug Bay, it's still important to dress for the weather, advises Esther Woodworth, a tax examiner for the IRS who leaves her day job behind on weekends to lead organized hikes through the park. Visitors should dress in layers, she says, noting that her typical winter ensemble includes a long-sleeve T-shirt, a short-sleeve T-shirt, a jacket, hat and gloves. Jug Bay's trails aren't rocky and most are short, so hikers need not wear heavy-duty boots. But it is crucial to wear shoes and socks that will keep your feet warm and dry, she admonishes. "If my feet get cold, the rest of me gets cold," she said.

Be careful not to confuse the natural area, on the western shore of the Patuxent in Prince George's County with the Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary in Anne Arundel County. Call ahead to find out about organized hikes and other events, including boat trips in warmer weather.