Taking It Easy On The Gunpowder Falls
While on vacation not long ago, I spent $40 on admission to a fancy water park. One of the day’s aqueous amusements was floating in an inflated ring along a slow-moving artificial body of water dubbed “The Lazy River,” which, according to the park’s brochure, was supposed to recall a relaxed summer afternoon spent drifting down a pristine waterway (or some similar marketing department-contrived drivel). The reality was a float through sunscreen-scummed water, elbow-to-elbow with other parkgoers, a surprising number of whom were smoking cigarettes in blatant disregard of water-park regulations. And where do those cigarettes go once smoked down to the filter? Yep, you guessed it: right into the water. Let me again mention that this oh-so-pleasurable experience came with a $40 price tag.
Contrast that with a summertime tube trip down the Big Gunpowder Falls. The waterway, which eventually forms the Gunpowder River after merging with the Little Gunpowder Falls, is part of an 18,000-acre state park that truly is pristine. The Big Gunpowder Falls meanders through upper Baltimore County in a series of looping undulations that intersects only infrequently with civilization. Except for the occasional fly fisherman or kayaker gliding by, you’re unlikely to encounter many other rivergoers. Surrounded by luxuriant forests, and shaded by overhanging trees, serenaded by wild birds, and cooled by the sun-dappled water, a float down the Big Gunpowder is an ideal way to while away a lazy summer afternoon.
What’s more, nobody’s making any money off Gunpowder tubing, because, except for the cost of renting or buying an inner tube to serve as a personal floatation device, it’s completely free—in several senses of the word. There’s no admission fee, no operating hours more formal than sunrise to sunset, and nobody to care if you drink a beer or two midstream.
ýlthough the Gunpowder’s three channels stretch through two counties from Prettyboy Reservoir all the way to the Chesapeake Bay, the best tubing tends to be in the westernmost reaches of Big Gunpowder Falls. This is known as the Hereford Area of Gunpowder Falls State Park, near Hereford and Parkton. The waterway in this section is consistently deeper than the more easterly stretches, which are rife with shallower and rock-strewn areas tube riders need to portage—meaning they must stand up and carry their tubes, a total mellow-harsher.
The one small drawback to the pleasures of a long day floating along the Gunpowder is the water temperature, which averages 55 degrees Fahrenheit even in the summer. The water released from Prettyboy dam draws from the chilly depths of the reservoir in order to sustain the Gunpowder’s trout fishery—apparently, trout like it cold. Those lacking a cast-iron ass can rent a fancy tube with a bottom from Monkton Bike (see sidebar), but really, how is that any different from floating in a kayak, a canoe, or even one of those cheesy, inflatable Wal-Mart boats? Real tubers know how to alternate periods of butt-in-ice-water with a kind of horizontal, top-of-tube lounge in the sun-warmed air.
The state park administration formally recommends an hourlong tube course running from the parking area and trail head at Bunker Hill Road along about a mile of river to a less official site, the popular swimming hole known locally as Hobo Beach. It’s just past the bridge carrying York Road over the Gunpowder, and has a broad, sunny lawn running from the road down to the river bank. It’s quite the hike over land from one site to the other, so your best bet is to park a return vehicle at the downstream end of the tube trip (there’s parking next to the bridge) or arrange for someone to pick you up when you arrive. These are both nice places to begin and end a tubing trip—grassy, sloping banks make it easy to get your tube in and out of the water—but they are far from the only options.
Since the entire length of the Gunpowder is technically a state park, you can park and put in anywhere the river crosses a road. South of Hobo Beach and within the Hereford Area of the park, the river meanders a course more or less parallel to York Road before flowing into Loch Raven Reservoir (where tubing is technically not allowed). There are many excellent entry and exit points for tubing excursions along this corridor. Recommended spots include Monkton Road—a good choice for those needing to rent tubes from the nearby bike shop—Corbett Road, Upper and Lower Glencoe roads, Sparks Road, and Phoenix Road. One favorite float begins at Monkton Road and ends at Lower Glencoe; another goes from Upper Glencoe to Phoenix. Either trip takes about three hours. If you want to supersize your float, one mega-tubing trip goes from Monkton or Corbett all the way down to Phoenix Road, a good five- to six-hour sojourn. Better bring that cast-iron ass.
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