At This Maryland Park, Prepare for Takeoff

A camper cabin in the Hilton Area of Maryland's Patapsco Valley State Park is surprisingly close to BWI Airport.
A camper cabin in the Hilton Area of Maryland's Patapsco Valley State Park is surprisingly close to BWI Airport. (By Anne Mcdonough For The Washington Post)
By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 23, 2008

It always seems like a bright idea at first: Take a wee-early flight from Baltimore and be on the beach, or atop a mountain, or traipsing around a new city before noon. Of course, that brilliant plan reveals its dark side the day of departure, when you have to drive to the airport before the sun has blinked awake.

There are undoubtedly ways to lessen the pain. The most obvious is to take a later flight or overnight at a hotel near Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport. However, there's another option, and it's a charm: Rent a camper cabin in Patapsco Valley State Park, about 10 miles from the airport. By sleeping in the backwoods near BWI, you can get some extra shut-eye, dodge a cruel commute and, best of all, treat yourself to a small adventure before your big one.

Established in 1907, the park stretches along 32 miles of the Patapsco River and covers 14,000 forested acres, which are parceled into five recreational sections. The Hollofield Area contains 73 campsites, some with electricity hookups, and the Hilton Area, near Catonsville (and the airport), offers 14 campsites and six camper cabins.

Compared with tents, the cabins are cushy affairs. The one-room wood structures feature a double bed and bunk bed (with narrow mattresses), electricity, heat, an outdoor fire pit and a long picnic table ideal for elaborate feasts or extended families. A central, well-lighted bathroom facility has flush toilets and two showers, including one that's accessible to the disabled.

Though I knew the park was a short drive to Interstate 195 (the main artery to the airport), I wanted to perform a trial run first. So I booked a cabin last Friday night to determine whether I could truly camp out, then catch a flight.

Check-in starts at 3 p.m., but my friend and I decided to poke around the park before moving in. With towering old-growth trees and a burbling river, there is no shortage of activities: canoeing, mountain biking, tubing, hiking, fishing. The park's Web site also lists its top 10 attractions. No. 1: the Thomas Viaduct, the world's longest multiple-arched stone railroad bridge. Without planning to, we inadvertently drove under it to reach No. 10, the Avalon Visitor Center.

We also easily checked off No. 4 (Bloede's Dam) and No. 3 (Swinging Bridge), and put a little toe on No. 2 (Grist Mill Trail). Then we jumped ahead to No. 7: "Camp in one of our family campsites or camper cabins to enjoy the park activities or nearby Ellicott City or Baltimore."

The Ingalls-esque cabins sit amid 100-foot-tall tulip poplars and beeches, beyond a playground made of recycled tires (we returned later for a pre-dinner ramble). Our homestead was closest to the road and the bathroom, but fortunately we could not smell any toilet water.

The structures are rudimentary (the biggest frills are the checkered cloth curtains), so out of necessity we brought every imaginable piece of gear with us: sheets, blankets, pillows, poker set, wok, wine, dishware, candles with holders. Outside firewood is not allowed, so we bought five dollars' worth from Chris Hartman, the volunteer camp host who lives in a trailer on the property. "You never know who you're going to run into in an urban park," he said, after we asked him about the Yankees fans who we learned at check-in were camping here before the next night's Orioles game.

The Yanks from Connecticut, it turned out, were in tents on top of the hill, but we did meet our immediate neighbors, a family of four from Silver Spring who were rendezvousing with three other families (inhabitants of the sixth cabin remained a mystery). We waved, they waved and then we turned our attention to the cold fire pit.

We had a semi-ambitious menu of stir-fry, boiled rice and mango chutney. A bottle of Riesling was chilling in a plastic bag filled with ice. The fire was slow to start. Fortunately, Hartman stopped by and gave our flame some much-needed oxygen. He then offered to bring over some cherry cobbler he was making in his Dutch oven. Dessert before dinner? Why not?

Eventually our meal came together, and as the tea lights twinkled on the porch railing, we sat down to an elegant meal in a rustic setting. Around us, families were roasting marshmallows, a dad was swearing at a misbehaving tent and a nearly full moon was shooting beams through the trees.

By 11 p.m., the camp fell silent, and so did our cabin. I slept solidly, not fretting about an early wake-up call. The morning plan was to make grits and coffee on the fire, but after our struggle with dinner, we wisely decided to leave time for a Dunkin' Donuts stop.

We rose to the sound of frolicking children and our neighbors' crackling fire. We looked longingly at their picnic table laden with eggs for omelets, doughnuts and pancake batter to be cooked on an electric griddle set up on the porch.

We had leftover wood and water and walked over to their cabin to donate them. They graciously accepted our gifts and offered us some breakfast. We still had to clean up the cabin and pack up our belongings, but we definitely had enough time for a cup of coffee -- maybe even two.

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