Thursday, January 21, 2021

Hiking the Columbia Air Center Loop

While looking for family friendly local hikes, I came across the verbosely named Columbia Air Center Loop Hike through Patuxent River Park. It checked a number of key boxes: it's close by (only 45 minutes!), is a kid friendly distance (just 4 short miles!) and it's a loop. But what made this hike a must-do for me was the history of the location. 'Columbia Air Center' refers to the name of the air field that was operating on the grounds of the hike in the 1940's. It served the area's African American pilots because other air fields were whites-only. This article explains how the air field got its start:

The [African-American] pilots, members of a local aviation organization called the Cloud Club, had recently been kicked off a white-controlled airport in Virginia, so in 1941 they began leasing for $50 a month the 450-acre lot along the Patuxent River. Historical records show that it was among the first black-operated airports in the nation.

I kept an eye on the weather, and anytime there was even a chance of making this hike work, I nagged Shira to go for it. I finally wore her down this past weekend. The weather was iffy at best, and we had our friend's one year old with us. But months of nagging had left Shira's defenses reduced.

We pulled into the parking area for the trail and I quickly went off to snap photos. There's not a whole lot of evidence of the former Air Center's glory. There are historic plaques, a compass rose on the ground and a flag pole flying a CAC windsock. Still, the history is real here and I was glad to be among it. There was also a kids play area off in the woods and signs referring to camp sites and other amenities in the area.

As I mentioned, we had R., our friend's one year old along for the adventure. Shira declared that she was going to carry him for the hike. At about 29 lbs, R. is a whole lot of one year old so this was a bold promise. Shira, in full beast mode, didn't waiver and carried him the entire hike.

The hike's route is a shaped like a figure 8. Shira had us hike it in reverse which insured we got the lengthy road walk out of the way. The second loop of the hike was nearly all in the woods. I recommend doing the route in this direction.

R. started off annoyed that he'd been woken from the nap he'd started on the drive to the trailhead. Combined with the blustery weather, and one could understand why he was not the happiest camper. After completing the road walk and hiking in the proper forest, he finally started to the warm to the idea of being in the wilderness. His attention was ultimately captured by the trees and other sights of nature around us and he began to genuinely enjoy himself.

There's a waypoint on the hike marking the wreckage of a Piper J-3 Cub. When we arrived at this location I searched but wasn't able to find any evidence of the plane. I gave up, but was rewarded further up the trail with some ancient wreckage. I snapped some photos, and from looking at the distinct triangular shape of the front of frame, it does look like I found the J-3 cub. So if you do the hike and don't see the wreckage where the waypoint says it should be, don't give up.

Oh, and another pro tip: there's a detour on the red trail around some mud. I insisted to Shira that we folllow the GPX track and not the red arrow and found ourselves ankle deep in said mud. I thought it was actually the most interesting part of the hike, but then again, your definition of 'interesting' may be different than mine. Best to follow the detour and not to obsess about following the GPX track.

Overall, this hike was a pleasant one, though I'm not in a hurry to return to the park. The history of the area is impressive, though, there's minimal evidence of the air field and I could have done without the lengthy road-walk. Still, a walk in the woods with family and friends is always going to beat being indoors. If you find yourself near the park, you should absolutely stop by revel in the soul of the place.

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