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How to Spend a Day in Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

You could say that Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is for the birds, but that’s just part of its story. It’s truly a treasure for those who want to experience unspoiled natural beauty in the Mid-Atlantic region.

About Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

The refuge began in 1933 on the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay because of its ecological importance. It’s right along the Atlantic Flyway, a main migration path for birds, including waterfowl. This diverse range of habitat is home to more than 250 different bird species, including many pairs of nesting bald eagles, which are a popular attraction there.

Other kinds of wildlife are abundant throughout the forests, marshes, and shallow waterways. Besides being one of the most important bird habitats in North America, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is also home to the largest population of a particular squirrel species. The Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrels were once endangered but have recovered thanks to successful conservation practices. The refuge also makes up a third of Maryland’s tidal wetlands and provides significant storm protection for the surrounding communities.

The refuge has more than 20,000 acres open for public recreation. It’s open from dawn until dusk every day, and its visitor center’s hours are 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Admission is just $3 per day for vehicles and $1 for pedestrians and cyclists.

Summers are hot and muggy in the area, and winters can get very cold and windy. Great times to visit the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge are late spring, early summer, or early fall.

Curious to learn more about America’s 568 national wildlife refuges? Check out this article: What Is a National Wildlife Refuge?

How to Spend a Day in Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is 21 miles south of the picturesque and historic Cambridge. That’s a separate trip, though, so for now, let’s just explore the confines of this breathtaking nature preserve!

In the Morning

Try to get a good night’s rest the night before because we have a jam-packed morning planned for you! There’s so much to do and see at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, but here’s what we suggest. 

Take a Hike Through Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

A walk through the park is an eye-opening experience on many levels. Four different hiking trails showcase the unique natural aspects of the refuge’s lands. Besides the marine estuaries, there are forest lands (a mix of hardwoods and pines) supporting a wildlife menagerie. You can easily access all of these trails from the main road, which is appropriately called Wildlife Drive.

Enjoy excellent views of the open water from the Marsh Edge Trail, which is 0.33 miles long and paved. This scenic, meandering path skirts the shores of both the Little Blackwater River and the Blackwater River. A key feature along the trail is a boardwalk built for observation.

The Woods Trail provides the best opportunity to see some rare squirrels. The half-mile trail cuts through mature forest with little undergrowth, which is the squirrels’ preferred habitat. In the spring, this stretch of woods is alive with the sounds and activity of toads and frogs.

The Key Wallace Trail, at 2.7 miles, is the longest trail of the four. It takes a couple of hours to hike but is sometimes closed during hunting season for safety reasons. Here, you can learn more about the many tree varieties and their importance to the overall ecosystem.

The Tubman Road Trail takes you through forests and marshes, sloughs, and fields, so wear appropriate footwear. This trail is 1.5 miles long and should take about an hour and a half to complete. Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge provides yellow trail markers to keep you on the right path.

In the Afternoon

Since you’re likely tired from your morning hikes, we’ve got a slightly less strenuous afternoon planned for you. Enjoy these relaxing activities until you get your second wind. 

Eat a Picnic Lunch at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

This is a great excuse (and setting) for a picnic lunch. Grab a picnic table right outside the visitor center, which is our next stop!

Check Out the Bald Eagles at the Visitor Center

You can often see bald eagles soaring over the marsh or perched in their treetop nests. Another way to view them is on a TV monitor inside a visitor center. Cameras capture the close-up action inside the nests so that you can get a glimpse into these massive birds’ personal lives. 

There are many other bird-related exhibits here, too, including an authentic eagle nest. You won’t believe how big it is!

Highlights from the Blackwater Waterfowl Cam | December 2018

Go Paddling

Let’s head back outside. These calm tidal waters are great for fishing and boating or a relaxing ride in a canoe or kayak. You can take any of three scenic paddling trails that meet any experience level with different water conditions, varied plant life, and unique scenery.

The more experienced paddlers should take the Purple or Orange trails. The Purple Trail is 9 miles one way on the Blackwater River and takes 3-5 hours to paddle. The Orange Trail is a round trip that covers 7.6 miles on the Blackwater River and Coles Creek. Since the current is a little faster here, expect it to take about 2.5 hours. 

Then there’s the Green Trail for beginners that’s an 8-mile round trip on the Blackwater River and can take up to 4 hours.


Once you’ve dried off, use your second wind for a leisurely bike ride. Here’s where we think you should go: 

Take a Bike Ride Along Wildlife Drive

An evening bicycle ride is a great way to cap off your day. The main drag here is almost 4 miles long, and we’ve already explored much of it. There are two different loops you can take inside the refuge, and the longer one is 7 miles.

For the more ambitious, the refuge also has maps for longer routes of 20 and 25 miles. They stretch out to include nearby county roads, as well. You might roll through some water in places as the tides overtake some streets twice a day.

Where Should You Stay?

You may hate to leave the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, but when it’s time to go, you won’t have to go very far. We have two RV campground recommendations for you:

Taylor’s Island Campground

Address: 4362 Bay Shore Rd, Taylors Island, MD 21669

About the Park: Just 18 miles away is an older family-owned campground with a fishing vibe. It’s a bayfront location with a general store, laundry, boat launch, clean bathrooms, and showers. There are partial hookups (water, 30-amp power, and a dump station) and some pull-through sites. There’s no Wi-Fi, but decent cell service, especially with AT&T and Verizon.

Why you’ll love staying here: It’s in a great location on the bay. Enjoy the breezes and take in some fishing or crabbing.

Madison Bay Campground

Address: 4814 Madison Canning House Rd, Madison, MD 21648

About the Park: This campground is even closer to Blackwater–just under 10 miles–with partial hookups here as well. There are 20, 30, or 50 amp sites, and some are pull-through. There’s a marina attached to the campground so that you can expect activity from boaters and fishermen.  

Why you’ll love staying here: It’s a relaxed and friendly atmosphere, and there’s a restaurant nearby that serves up smiles along with local flavor.

Pro Tip: Want to explore another wildlife refuge? Check out How to Spend a Day in Parker River National Wildlife Refuge

Why You Should Visit Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Sometimes called “the Everglades of the North,” Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is a special place, indeed. We can see why the birds flock there. It’s like going back in time and visiting the Chesapeake Bay region before there was any development. 

It’s hard to paint an accurate picture of just how breathtaking this place is. Thankfully some forward-thinking folks realized the importance of it years ago when they named it a refuge.

Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts has a similar vibe to Blackwater. If you want to visit a wildlife refuge a little further north, read How to Spend a Day in Parker River National Wildlife Refuge.

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About Tom and Caitlin Morton

Tom & Caitlin Morton of Mortons on the Move gave up the stationary life for one where they are constantly on the move. They are full-time travelers, television hosts, and digital media producers.
They left their jobs, sold their house and possessions, and hit the road in September 2015 in their full-time “home on wheels”. Since then they have traveled the US, Canada, and even internationally by RV.
Now, they are Discovery Channel & PBS TV Co-stars of “Go North” on Amazon Prime Video, co-founders and instructors of RV Masterclass, and contributing authors for and an Arizona travel guide.

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