Celebrating Black History Month on the Underground Railroad Experience Trail

January 21, 2014
The Woodlawn manor and barn are the starting point of the URET.
Courtesy of M-NCPPC Montgomery ParksThe Woodlawn manor and barn are the starting point of the URET.

February is a great month to enjoy invigorating exercise amidst winter’s stark beauty. It is also Black History Month. At Woodlawn Manor Cultural Park in Sandy Spring, Md., you can admire winter scenery and learn something about 19th-century history on the Underground Railroad Experience Trail. This 2-mile out-and-back history hike emulates a route that escaping slaves might have followed.

The village of Sandy Spring, Md. was founded by The Religious Society of Friends, otherwise known as the Quakers, in 1753. Quakers were abolitionists, and the community outlawed the possession of slaves nearly a century before slavery was abolished nationwide. In the heart of fiercely anti-abolitionist Montgomery County, the free blacks and Quakers of Sandy Spring helped escaping slaves travel the Underground Railroad north to hoped-for freedom.

The Underground Railroad Experience Trail is part of the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, a group of historic sites throughout the eastern United States. The trail is open year-round for self-guided hikes. There is no entrance fee, and free guided tours of the trail are offered from April to October. The park does close for inclement weather, so check its website before you go.

The 2-mile hike is perfect for families and pets and is also open to equestrians. Interpretive signage provides historical information along the route.

The trail begins at the Woodlawn manor and barn, two picturesque structures built around 1800. The massive stone barn with its distinctive arched entrances is said to have been an overnight hiding place for fleeing slaves. From there, the trail meanders through forest, where fugitives could have travelled without being seen.

After about a half mile, the trail passes a large hollow tree. Fugitives often used hollow trunks as places to hide, to light a fire unnoticed for cooking or warmth, and to store food and water.

Slaves would have had to jump from rock to rock to cross a stream that passes across the trail, but now a sturdy wooden bridge leads to the far side. The trail then ventures across some open fields, where you can rest on some benches next to the spring that gave the town its name. In the 19th century, paths led from each house in the village to this spring. It would have been an important landmark along the trail, and a likely place for travelers and residents of Sandy Spring to meet.

The trail ends north of the spring at an ash tree estimated to be three centuries old. This tree has been a silent witness to the life of a community and the courage of those who fought to escape and to end slavery. It is a perfect spot at which to turn around and begin your return trip.

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Susan Kieffer

AMC Outdoors, the magazine of the Appalachian Mountain Club, inspires readers to get outside and get engaged. Learn more.