For mariners exploring the Western Shore, few rivers offer as much boating diversity and Bay history as the Patuxent. Captain John Smith and his crew spent three days in August 1608 exploring 40 miles up the river and back down again. Today, boaters can experience firsthand the same strong currents, deep waters, broad marshes, and unfettered views as the intrepid Englishmen did. Along with your own explorations, you can enjoy great restaurants, marinas, and services in the boating hub of Solomons Island at the river’s mouth.
Unlike the mighty Potomac to the south, the Patuxent is only about 20 nautical miles long from its mouth to the bridge at Benedict, Maryland, where most boaters in larger vessels will probably choose to stop and turn around. Above the bridge, the river narrows and meanders another 12 to 15 miles with fairly deep water until it begins to get shallow in the paddlers’ havens of Patuxent River Park Jug Bay Natural Area and Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary. These environs marked the uppermost point of Smith’s Patuxent explorations. Here, along the river’s path, are deep, quiet, protected creeks and miles of marshes that glow emerald green with native wild rice, as well as a variety of cultural and historical stops that explore the river’s role in the lives of Chesapeake Bay Indians, colonial settlers, and Bay watermen.
If you’re traveling in a larger boat, a logical first stop is Solomons Island, where the Solomons Visitor Information Center can help you plan your stay.
Based on Smith’s brief description of his Patuxent travels, Mill and Back creeks, the two tributaries about 1.5 nautical miles west of Drum Point, weren’t even on his radar—he went straight past them headed for Battle Creek, where he met the chief of the Pawtuxent tribes. Today the creeks embrace the community of Solomons Island, founded in the mid-1800s as a village whose economy was based on the river’s abundant oysters, crabs, and fish. Smith did make a note of this abundance—“Here,” he wrote, “are infinite divers kinds of fish, more than elsewhere.”
This fishing heritage is highlighted in the Calvert Marine Museum, within easy walking distance of most marinas and a short dinghy ride from the small anchorage in Back Creek. This museum also explores the community’s World War II history, when it became the Allied Command’s first naval amphibious training base.
Fossils dating from 20 million years ago, during the Miocene Epoch, are the highlight of your trip to Calvert Cliffs, just north of Solomons. It’s a geological formation that is slowly eroding, exposing the fossilized remains of the fish and creatures that once swam in the shallow sea that covered this area. During his first voyage up the Bay in June 1608 Smith anchored here en route from the Eastern Shore north toward the Patapsco River.
Today, at Calvert Cliffs State Park and Flag Ponds Nature Park, you can walk along the beaches and find fossilized sharks’ teeth, as well as pieces of ancient scallop and whelk shells and corals. There’s no boating access at these two Gateways. However, you can leave your boat in Solomons and find a ride to the sites, or explore the Calvert Marine Museum’s extensive exhibits on this portion of local history.
If your interests are more inclined toward contemporary Bay biology, the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory is an easy dinghy ride from the anchorages and marinas in Back and Mill creeks, or a leisurely bike ride or walk in Solomons. A free tour of its visitor center explains how this state-supported laboratory, founded in 1925, has inspired research on the Bay, its health, and inhabitants.
Traveling upstream from Solomons, it’s just a short hop across the 120-foot-deep waters at Point Patience to three Chesapeake Bay Gateways on the river’s southwest side. Deep-draft boaters can anchor in Cuckold Creek and, using dinghies or kayaks, visit Myrtle Point Park to the south and Greenwell State Park to the north. Greenwell offers water-accessible campsites, kayak rentals, and a canoe and kayak launch, and is about a 25-minute paddle along the edge of the Patuxent to Sotterley Plantation. This National Historic Landmark, built in 1703, is the last of its kind open to the public in Maryland. Boaters can visit by anchoring near Sotterley Wharf and driving their dinghies to the dock there, although you should call the plantation first to arrange a tour.
Almost directly across the river from Sotterley is beautiful St. Leonard Creek, long a favored anchorage for deep-water boats. Smith sailed right by this creek on his journeys. During the War of 1812, Commodore Joshua Barney, who led the Chesapeake Flotilla in shallow-draft barges against the marauding British, holed up here for a time, eventually scuttling two of his boats. Underwater archaeologists found some of the boats’ remains in the 1990s, and they now reside nearby at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, home of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory.
The park’s 512-acre campus on Petersons Point has yielded archaeological treasures revealing human habitation here as long as 9,000 years ago, as well as more recent colonial history. Based on information from archaeology, colonial accounts, and native traditions, Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum has constructed an Eastern Woodland Indian settlement to help visitors understand the people who lived in the Chesapeake region long before the arrival of John Smith. The park lacks a public dock, but you can anchor in St. Leonard Creek or in the small cove just inside Petersons Point, dinghy in to its research vessel docks, and then walk up to the free visitors’ center.
About seven nautical miles upstream of St. Leonard Creek is Battle Creek, where Smith met with the tribal leader of the Pawtuxent, whose people he described as “very tractable and more civil than any.” Today, above the site of that meeting, is Battle Creek Cypress Swamp, an intriguing 100-acre wildlife sanctuary that encompasses one of the state’s largest stands of bald cypress, some more than 100 feet tall. It’s nearly impossible to get to the sanctuary on water even by kayak—it’s highly dependent on tide, rainfall amount, and time of year. The best way to access this Chesapeake Bay Gateway is by car.
Some six nautical miles upstream of Battle Creek is the Route 231 Bridge at Benedict, with a vertical clearance of 16 feet. While this is a swing bridge, most boaters in larger vessels don’t go beyond it, and from here the river becomes increasingly narrow. About seven nautical miles above the bridge is King’s Landing Park, with a 200-foot pier and a canoe and kayak launch. From here, as the river becomes more wild and the channel more marsh-bound on either side, you can really begin to see what Smith and his crew viewed as they rowed with the strong flood currents and waited out the ebbs. If you’re paddling or kayaking you’ll want to do the same—play the tides and currents—and you can expect to see a variety of wildlife from ospreys, bald eagles, and blue herons to river otters and turtles. In autumn and winter, thousands of waterfowl feast on acres of wild rice among the marshes in the Merkle Wildlife Management Area and Patuxent River Park Jug Bay Natural Area.
These upper reaches are rich with paddling opportunities, letting you get close to the river’s birds, animals, and plants, and truly imagining what Captain John Smith saw as he explored this beautiful and ecologically diverse region.