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Gwynns Falls Leakin Park facts for kids

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Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park
Orianda Mansion ("Crimea")
Orianda Mansion ("Crimea") in Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park
Location 4921 Windsor Mill Road
Baltimore, MD 21207
Area 1,216 acres (492 ha)
Created 1908
Operated by Baltimore City Department of Parks and Recreation

The contiguous 1,200 acres of Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park constitute the largest woodland park in an East Coast city. Envisioned as a “stream valley park” to protect Baltimore’s watersheds like the Gwynns Falls from overdevelopment and to preserve their natural habitats, Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park today offers a rare opportunity for the public to explore a diverse natural environment characterized by stream valleys, ridge tops, and meadows; enjoy opportunities for active recreation; and experience historic structures from an earlier era.

Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park, designated as part of the Baltimore National Heritage Area, is managed and maintained by Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks, assisted and supported by volunteers of the Friends of Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park (FOGFLP).

Overview

Providing a green canopy for Baltimore City’s west side, the park incorporates the valleys of the Gwynns Falls and its tributaries, extending more than six miles from the western municipal limits south to Wilkens Avenue. Along its borders are twenty of the city’s neighborhoods. Today’s visitors may find themselves agreeing with an 1831 traveler who expressed surprise at discovering the valley’s “wild and beautiful scenery . . . so near the city, surrounded by all the various majestic features of a rocky mountainous country.”

Outdoor recreation

Gwynns Falls Trail, Leon Day Park, and Winans Meadow

The Gwynns Falls Trail extends the length of Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park from the terminus of I-70 to Wilkens Avenue, then proceeds with alternate destinations to the Inner Harbor and the Middle Branch. Constructed in stages from 1999 to 2008, the trail opened the stream valley to active recreational use for hikers and bikers, with trailheads and provision for parking along the route. Interpretive panels tell the history of the stream valley. Visit the Gwynns Falls Trail website for more details, history, and route information.

The project also contributed new amenities along Franklintown Road for Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park, creating playfields that were designated Leon Day Park, in honor of Baltimore’s Negro leagues' great. It also provided greater public access to the park at Winans Meadow, including visitor parking, a covered pavilion for group use on a permit basis, and access to trails that extend from the valley to the park's uphill ridges.

Other hiking trails

The park is an ideal spot for walking, hiking, running, bicycling, and dog walking, although some would say that being in the presence of an abundance of nature tops the list. There are approximately eighteen identified hiking trails in GFLP that are listed on the Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park Trail Map. Most of the trails are in the Winans Meadow and Crimea areas of the park. Trails are unpaved with the exception of a few trails that utilize sections of the Gwynns Falls Trail. Trails fall into the easy to moderate level with some rocky sections, rolling hills, and the occasional muddy area.

A popular trail is Heide's Trail, formerly the Ridge Trail, which runs along a ridge in an east/west direction, allowing for beautiful views of Winans Meadow and the Dead Run stream in the valley and several stands of very tall old trees. Along the Old Fort Trail there are several historic structures from the Winans Estate and, depending on the season, a great view of the back of the Orianda Mansion.  

There are ten short hiking trails in the Winans Meadow area (accessible from Franklintown Road) and the Crimea area (accessible from Windsor Mill Road), which permit hikes of varying lengths, challenges and exposures. Longer hikes can be taken into different sections of the park via the Gwynns Falls Trail, the Dickeyville spur, the Windsor Hills Conservation Trail, and other trails that parallel Gwynns Falls. The Millrace section of the Gwynns Falls Trail (once a water power source for mills downstream and the only part of the route not paved) is a particularly scenic area with exceptional view of the Gwynns Falls. Parking for this section is available at the Windsor Mill Road Trailhead of the Gwynns Falls Trail.

Many hiking options are available to meet the desires of beginner and seasoned hikers and explorers. There is a historic estate to explore, relatively undisturbed forest areas, streams, a Sacred Labyrinth, a restored Magnolia Grove, and of course, the birds, bees, and other wildlife that make GFLP their home.

Activities and events

Carrie Murray Nature Center

Carrie Murray Nature Center is operated by Baltimore City Recreation and Parks, and it offers environmental education programs for children, families and adults. Their programs serve an estimated 30,000 visitors annually, serving individuals and families as well as groups from schools, faith-based groups, recreation centers, and camps. During the school year, the nature center offers field trips and outreach programs for students of all ages including the Wild Haven forest immersion program for preschool-age children. They also offer summer camps, public programs, special events, and volunteer opportunities.

Chesapeake Bay Outward Bound School

Chesapeake Bay Outward Bound School (CBOBS) is an educational nonprofit that operates one of its two campuses inside Gwynns Falls Leakin Park. Their character education programs focus on teaching social emotional learning (SEL) skills to middle and high school youth, with programs available for educators, professional teams, and veterans as well. CBOBS has served nearly 100,000 students since being established in 1986, over 90% of which receive some form of scholarship to attend Outward Bound. Programs range from one-day high ropes teambuilding to multi-week wilderness expeditions taking students backpacking, rock climbing, canoeing or sea kayaking across the Chesapeake Bay Region.

Second Sundays in the park

Chesapeake & Allegheny Live Steamers operates a miniature steam-powered railroad with 3,400 feet of track, and provides free rides every second Sunday, April through November. On those days the Friends of Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park provide information, family-friendly activities, and visits to the historic structures.  The Carrie Murray Nature Center is also open for visitors.

Baltimore Herb Festival

A group of volunteers who had been active in the fight against the expressway decided to conduct the Baltimore Herb Festival as an annual event in the park, with proceeds going towards its maintenance and preservation. The first festival, held in 1987, proved successful in attracting a large crowd, but it ended in tragedy when lightning from an abrupt thunderstorm struck the chapel where many had taken refuge, injuring several and taking one life. Despite this bittersweet inaugural event, the festival has continued to be held annually on the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend, drawing about 2,000 visitors to the park for the event, which features herb and plant vendors, displays by area organizations, food, and musical entertainment.  

Leakin Park Parkrun

Leakin Park Parkrun is a free weekly 5k run/walk held on Saturday mornings, starting at Winan's Meadow near Ben Cardin Pavilion

Volunteer opportunities

The nonprofit organization Friends of Gwynns Falls Leakin Park (FOGFLP) organizes volunteers to perform ongoing maintenance of the park, including daily trash collection, trail work, tree plantings and gardening. They also provide assistance by supplying maps to visitors, monitoring park usage, reporting conditions to Baltimore City Recreation & Parks, and much more. FOGFLP also sponsors annual activities such as the MLK Day of Service, the First Day Hike, seasonal hikes, and the Black Friday Hike.

History

Establishing the parks: the Olmsted role

Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park traces its earliest history to a small tract near Edmondson and Hilton Avenues, designated in 1901 as the Gwynns Falls Reserve. In 1904, as the City anticipated expanding its borders through annexation, the highly-regarded Olmsted firm proposed creating “stream valley parks” to protect distinctive watersheds like the Gwynns Falls from future development and secure them as natural preserves.  Over the next decades, the Olmsteds worked with the city in its acquisition of park land extending to Windsor Mill Road.

In 1926, following the 1918 annexation, the City again commissioned the Olmsteds for a study of park needs to the year 1950.  This report recommended extending Gwynns Falls Park northward along the stream to the City boundary.  It also urged acquiring the valley of a tributary, the Dead Run, “considered by all who view it as one of the very best bits of scenery near Baltimore.”

In 1939 Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. was again consulted, this time to evaluate options for the use of the bequest of Baltimore lawyer J. Wilson Leakin for the establishment of a park in the name of his grandfather, a former City mayor. The issue was politically contentious, as various sections of the city competed for selection. Olmsted Jr. strongly recommended acquisition of the Winans Estate, Crimea, which included the valley of the Dead Run and the heights above, as “ so nearly in condition, just as it now is, to be a very beautiful and valuable park.” The availability of the Winans Estate for purchase as late as the 1940s offered a rare opportunity for a park acquisition of this size within the City limits. With purchases in 1941 and 1948, the City created Leakin Park, the name adhering to the bequest. Since Gwynns Falls and Leakin Parks are contiguous, over time the City’s Department of Recreation and Parks came to designate the combined parklands as Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park.

The Winans Estate

The Winans Estate, acquired to become Leakin Park, was property purchased by Thomas DeKay Winans in the 1850s.  The son of B&O railroad builder Ross Winans, Thomas had accompanied his brother William to Russia in the 1840s to construct that country’s first railroad, connecting St. Petersburg and Moscow. While there, Thomas met and married his wife Celeste. Upon completion of the project, the Winans returned to the U.S. in the early 1850s with considerable wealth. Establishing their home as a city mansion, they purchased property in the countryside, naming their estate the Crimea and their country home Orianda—names evoking the Russia where they met. At Celeste’s request, the couple erected a chapel for the religious needs of the Irish workers on the estate. Sadly, Celeste died shortly after its completion in 1861.

Three structures in the park from the Winans era—the stone Orianda mansion and carriage house and the wooden chapel--have been designated Baltimore City Landmarks; they are easily visible from the park’s Eagle Drive. The hillside and valley below also feature remnants from the Winans period, including the ruins of a mock fort and farm buildings, as well as an iron water wheel—one of the park’s most visited sites--apparently designed to pump water up to the mansion.  These sites are accessible by hiking trails from Eagle Drive or from the Winans Meadow parking entrance along Franklintown Road.

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