WHAT IS IT? Over 1,000 acres of pine and deciduous forests nestled in between the sprawling metropolises of Washington D.C. and Baltimore, Md.
BEAUTY (4/10) Greenbelt Park greeted us with colorful foliage, falling leaves, expansive meadows, rippling creeks, well-marked trails and a charming campground. The Park's dense forest border protects its vistas from the manic pace and density of its loud neighbors: the D.C. Capital Beltway, Kenilworth Avenue, Greenbelt Road and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway (itself a quasi National Park).
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (1/10) The familiar east coast lack of a historical story. Indians lived here. British colonists took over, felled the native trees and starting farming with bad techniques. Colonist-induced erosion makes further farming difficult and the original trees slowly return.
Greenbelt Park is unique only because the land wasn't paved over and the reborn trees weren't harvested to allow for out-of-control suburban development. Don't worry, you won't have far to go to see civilization's new encroachment. Just leave the Park.
CROWDS (5/10) Before our visit we were leery about the Park's advertised claim of “visit Washington, D.C. and stay at Greenbelt Park's campground for only $14 a night.” Sleep outside in an unprotected tent just 12 miles from D.C.'s center? That wouldn't be our idea of fun. But the campground's relative isolation from the Park Entrance and outside purloiners did slightly belie our fears.
The few others we saw at Greenbelt Park joined us in our what-a-beautiful-day I-can't-believe-I'm-outside-in-the woods-today spirit. One perpetual motion machine of a mountain biker pedaled in and out of the woods, through the meadows and along the auto-loop-road for hours. Who can't enjoy a unusually warm late fall day?
The biggest crowd deterrent was the loud car noise emanating from all directions. We ended our Azalea Trail Loop hike prematurely because of the sounds; our busy day promised many more urban hikes and we had hoped Greenbelt Park would provide an aural escape. No such luck.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (5/5) Greenbelt Park's boundaries are encased and defined by high-traffic roads. From the D.C. Beltway, take Exit 23. Turn left onto Greenbelt Road and then a quick right into Greenbelt Park. There are NPS signs (if you keep diligent watch) but think fast. The Park's entrance is less than a half mile from the Beltway exit.
This is the Park's only entrance. A loop road circles the Park; its southern terminus being the campground entrance.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (1/5) We saw nothing for sale at the Ranger Station.
COSTS (4/5) Park entry is free. A campground spot run $14 a night. Late camping arrivals be forewarned: the Park Entrance gate closes at dusk.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (3/5) A Ranger was posted at the Ranger Station located at the end of Park Central Road, near the campground entrance. He showered us with brochures detailing the other D.C.-area parks and gave us good directions to our next stop: the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.
TOURS/CLASSES (2/10) No video and no museum. But what is there to learn? The campground boasts a campfire circle where Rangers (or maybe Boy Scout Troop leaders) presumably give talks on crowded weekends. Who knows?
A few exhibit panels recount the history of the nearby planned community of Greenbelt, Md. An antiquated, but still helpful, fitness station walk hugs the Azalea Trail hearkening memories of our own Harrisburg Riverfront Park, which has the same bars and balance beams along its path.
FUN (4/10) We took the time at Greenbelt Park to relax and appreciate the fall colors. Until Michael nearly drove the car into a young male deer.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Look up Gab,” he yelped as he stopped the car at the side of the home and hurriedly grabbed at the camera. “Why aren't you getting your camera out?” he anxiously (and perhaps rudely) barked at Gab.
“Uh, we've seen deer before,” was her less than delicate response. Which was true, but it sure did not feel that way. The excitement of nature had returned with the thrill of spotting a large wild animal. For a second, Michael believed that we weren't in the city.
Just for the heck of it, we drove around Greenbelt Park's campground. This isn't so bad at all. More deer appeared. Then we remembered that we forgot our tent and sleeping bags. The city is more fun anyway.
Let's just hope the deer stay within the Park's narrow borders and don't venture out across the roads and into four-wheeled danger.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (2/10) Does Greenbelt Park feel like an escape from the city? An oasis from a high-pace, high-stress existence? The scenery – yes. The sounds – no. Roaring engines and the clanging metals of 18-wheeler axles are the norm. Our notion of an idyllic natural escape also needs physical distance. Distance from home, distance from interstates, distance from cell towers and distance from people. Greenbelt Park provides none of these things.
Meandering hikes and car camping are better when the location is somewhere wilder and someplace not directly across the street from a T.G.I. Friday's, a Cadillac dealership and three hotels.
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