Friday, September 23, 2016

Hiking the Mason-Dixon Trail, White Clay Creek to the Susquehanna River

The head of the Chesapeake Bay at the mouth of the Susquehanna River as seen from the Mason-Dixon Trail.  Note the blue paint trail-blaze on the stately old oak at right.

This report continues my exploration of the wonderful network of medium- and long-distance trails in the area of southeastern Pennsylvania and adjacent Delaware and Maryland, the area where I grew up.  In the last report I covered the trails along White Clay Creek.  The blue-blazed Mason-Dixon Trail rambles through that protected watershed for several miles.  Eastbound it leaves the White Clay Creek basin and reaches its eastern terminus at Brandywine Creek.  I'll discuss that section in another post.  West of White Clay Creek, the trail uses some quiet roads as it hops over a divide near the University of Delaware, then it plunges into the woods to follow another peaceful stream for four miles.

This is Christina Creek.  It's not a protected watershed and there are more highway noises here, yet the visual hiking experience is nearly as rich in wild natural scenes as White Clay Creek.  For four miles you're in the woods except to cross over or under a handful of roads and some railroad tracks.

Christina Creek runs north-south on the west side of the city of Newark, DE before turning toward the southeast through Rittenhouse Park.  There the Mason-Dixon Trail continues south, leaving the valley to climb Iron Hill in a large wooded county park by the same name.  Here you'll find a monument to Robert Yost, founding father of the M-D T.

In colonial times Iron Hill was mined, the ore was smelted, and much of the resulting iron was shipped to England where the local supplies of iron ore had all been depleted.  One of the largest scale smelting operations was located farther west at Principio Furnace, founded in 1720, and also on the route of the Mason-Dixon Trail.

Before reaching Principio Furnace, the trail meanders through suburban developments and a tract of private woodland.  It then turns west to follow a power line right-of-way to the Delaware-Maryland border.

Once in Maryland there are several miles of road walk before the trail reaches Big Elk Creek near the town of Elkton.

A brief meander along that lazy stream leads the hiker into the town of Elkton.  Sidewalks on the city streets lead through and out of town then a couple more miles of road walk bring you to Elk Neck State Forest.  Here the wild settings return.  The trail meanders for six miles or more through this forest preserve.  When I passed through the late summer fungi were on display.

The M-D T emerges from Elk Neck State Forest to pass through the center of the town of North East, MD.  The new route here follows the shoulder of high-speed four-lane US 40 for more than a mile with the roar of eighteen wheelers ringing in the hiker's ears.

Next there's a more peaceful stroll along a gas pipeline right of way in the woods.  That leads to a commercial district with large warehouses, with more being built all the time.  This section is on private land and has been recently rerouted to avoid the new construction.  The trail maintainers seem to have their hands full here.  The trail is so new and so little used that it is completely invisible except for the paint blazes.

There's a long stretch of these paint blazes that parallel a railroad track.  I'd recommend following the track here because the trail itself has not been cleared.  In order to follow the blue blazes you'll be wading through thigh-high thorny brush.  My legs were thoroughly covered with nasty scrapes and chigger bites and I picked up several deer ticks through here as well.  No fun.

The trail returns to the road after passing one of the most massive structures I've ever seen, a trucking company warehouse and transfer station that must cover half a square mile.

It is along this road walk that you pass Principio Furnace, nestled beside the surprisingly rambunctious Principio Creek.

The road walk ends in the town of Perryville at the mouth of the Susquehanna River.  Here history is the big attraction.  One piece of the trail here is 350 years old this year.

The blue blazes take you past Rodgers Tavern, an Inn that George Washington frequented.  It's stunning to realize that the road here was already in use for a full century before George came along.

The trail makes its way through town and comes to an abrupt end at the big white iron bridge seen in the distance in this view from the Lower Ferry Pier.

This is the US 40 bridge over the Susquehanna, and pedestrians are prohibited.  You have to find a ride across.  For me, as a 'Continuous Footpath' hiker, this was the end of the trail.  I've already made the connection across the river farther upstream, though, so I'll resume hiking the Mason-Dixon Trail on the west side of the river later this fall.  Meanwhile, here's an overview map of the GPS tracks of my hiking.  I hiked out-and-back each day here.  In places, such as through Elk Neck State Forest, I found different routes to hike my return leg, thus the various strands of 'red spaghetti.'

For a trail so close to the mid-Atlantic 'Megalopolis' the Mason-Dixon Trail is a surprisingly wild experience.  Best of all, it is a well-connected hiker trail amid an excellent network of other well-connected trails.  I wish there were more regions with this much wealth of foot trail.  The Mason-Dixon Trail connects to the Brandywine Trail at its eastern terminus, which in turn links to the Horse Shoe and Schuylkill trails, both of which connect to the Appalachian Trail, and the M-D T itself connects with the AT on its western end.

That is the fulfilment of Benton MacKaye's dream.  Plenty more hiking to do!


  1. Replies
    1. So true. A hiker can't walk across the Susquehanna on the Mason-Dixon Trail. The US 40 bridge is closed to pedestrians. What I did, in the long term, was cross the Susquehanna at the Norman Wood Bridge in southern PA. I've also crossed it on the Appalachian Trail at Duncanon, PA.