Visiting Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is a great nature adventure on your way to the shore. While you’ve probably driven right through Cambridge, Maryland on your way to Ocean City, you might not know it is home to one our state’s greatest treasures: Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
Blackwater was established in 1933 as a waterfowl sanctuary for birds migrating along the Atlantic Flyway, and lies just a few miles outside of Cambridge. Blackwater has been called the “Everglades of the North,” and one of the “Last Great Places” by the Nature Conservancy. It is well off the beaten path, but also well worth the drive. The refuge comprises more than 28,000 acres of marshland, streams and forests, and offers numerous opportunities for recreation and natural beauty.
What To Do at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
There are many choices for taking advantage of the natural surroundings and educational programs at Blackwater.
Be sure to try:
A slow and easy drive around the nature loop
This trek usually affords close-up encounters with eagles, turtles, waterfowl, songbirds, fish and herons. Keep an eye out for animal tracks in the marshes. See if you can identify what animal was visiting the area and take a guess as to why they were there.
A visit to the visitor center
Downstairs features several exhibits, but go upstairs for a look through four powerful telescopes. You might just spot a falcon, eagle, deer or fox.
A picnic in the Bay-friendly gardens
Beautifully landscaped to make the most of indigenous plants and flowers, the garden is perfect for sitting in the sun, enjoying a quiet seat, or playing hide-and-seek amongst the hedges.
Hiking and Biking
There are several well marked paddling trails throughout the refuge, and two major biking routes (20- and 25-miles long) beyond the loop road. If your children like to bike, the shorter 4- or 7-mile-long loop drive might be a good option on a cool day—there is much to see, but little-to-no shade and slow moving traffic.
Blackwater has beautiful light, especially at sunrise and sunset, gorgeous vistas found nowhere else, and plenty of indigenous creatures. While you can stop along the popular loop drive, don’t be afraid to practice your skills while heading further into the refuge.
Birds at Blackwater
Blackwater offers regular birding outings for adults. Harry Armistead, a seasoned birder who has volunteered at the refuge for 30 years, will drive participants well beyond the Visitor Center to look for song birds, neotrops, birds of prey and other marsh and river creatures.
2022 outings are scheduled for March 27, April 24, October 30, November 20 and December 4. Guiding birding tours meet at 8:00 am at the Blackwater Visitor Center, 2145 Key Wallace Drive, Cambridge, MD, 21613. Tours may last 3-4 hours. Bring your binoculars and dress appropriately for the weather. The birding party will caravan via car to birding hotspots around the Wildlife Drive. Covid protocols observed.
The Eagle Festival
Each year in March the refuge celebrates the eagle. In 2022 the festival is scheduled for March 5 & 6 and March 12 & 13. At the festival you’ll find great birding talks (that are quite captivating, even for kids), bird-watching hikes, refuge tours, and hands-on activities for kids like making your own birdhouse or identifying owl poop! For details on this year’s festival, visit fws.gov/refuge/Blackwater.
Blackwater is an excellent day trip for families that like to get outdoors. In addition to the Eagle Festival in March Blackwater also hosts an annual Youth Fishing Fun Day in June.
Getting To Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
Blackwater is about an hour from Annapolis via Route 50 East. If you are using GPS, you must enter the physical address of the refuge. Do not use “Blackwater Wildlife Refuge.” 2145 Key Wallace Drive, Cambridge, Maryland 21613.
Parking is free and available in several places: the Refuge Center, the Key Wallace Trail, the Tubman Trail and the Tubman Visitor’s Center.
• If your children aren’t adequately tired out, stop off at Sailwinds Park in Cambridge, located near the Dorchester County Visitors Center on the south side of the Choptank River bridge. The park features a faux lighthouse, plenty of green space for running and kite flying, a playground, swings overlooking the charming river and public bathrooms.
• Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay, a large resort and marina perfect for all ages, with an indoor pool, all season golf course, fine dining and spa.
• Harriott Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park
• City of Cambridge historic downtown
Private Vehicle – $3.00
Pedestrian, Bicyclist – $1.00
Federal Duck Stamp or federal pass holder – Free
Permits are obtained at the self-service kiosk at the start of the Wildlife Drive (CASH or CHECK ONLY). Entrance passes are available at the Visitor Center. The current Federal Duck Stamp is valid July 1 to June 30 ($25). The Interagency Annual Pass ($80) and the Blackwater NWR Pass ($12) are valid one year from the date of issue. The lifetime Interagency Senior Pass ($10) is available to those 62 years or older. Free passes include the Interagency Access Pass for people who are blind or permanently disabled, the Military Annual Pass for active duty military and dependents, and the “Every Kid in a Park” Pass for 4th Graders who possess a completed voucher.