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Go Play in the Park

Enjoy smart family fun at Anne Arundel County’s big regional parks

Summer is all about kicking back and enjoying extra time together as vacations begin and the weather warms.
    But so many summer activities can mean trouble for the family budget. With some smart planning, a fun-filled summer doesn’t have to break the bank. In Anne Arundel County Recreation and Parks, I’ve found good, affordable fun for the whole family, even the dogs.
    Anne Arundel County’s four well-maintained regional parks offer amenities and activities to keep families busy for days. The parks are strikingly different, offering a new adventure with each stop. The price is small: you pay only a parking fee of $6. Even better, use all four parks all year long — from beach play in the summer to ice skating through the winter — with a vehicle permit costing only $30 for a resident and $40 for a nonresident and for a resident senior’s lifetime.
    Park by park, here’s what you’ll find.

Fort Smallwood: Beach and Boats
    Pick Fort Smallwood Park if you’re looking for a day at the beach. The secret known to regular beach-goers is that Fort Smallwood Park has three beaches, appropriately called First, Second and Third. First Beach is at the beach entrance. Often not as crowded, Second and Third Beach are worth the extra walk.
    Follow Fort Smallwood’s 1.4-mile path that loops around a small peninsula for a panoramic view of the Patapsco River as it meets the Bay. Along the path, you’ll find a large playground and plenty of shaded picnic areas.
    Boating and fishing are part of the fun at Fort Smallwood. Boaters find the county’s only public boat ramp, only a year old, with vehicle and trailer parking (priced separately). The 380-foot Bill Burton Fishing Pier — named for the great outdoorsman (for 16 years in the pages of Bay Weekly) — takes anglers where the fish are.
    Find bathrooms at both beach and playground. Restrooms by the beach offer an indoor changing area as well as outdoor showers to rinse off sandy feet.

Kinder Farm Park: Animals and Agriculture
    Kinder Farm Park offers a different view of Chesapeake Country, focusing on agriculture and environment. The farm complex is a real working farm. Local 4-H Clubs kids are often here caring for the animals and their newborns — and keeping the farm running. Babies are born each spring. Cow milking is at 6:30pm.

    “She loves the animals,” says Maggie Currey of her two-year-old daughter Kate. “It is her favorite way to spend a morning. My favorite part is how much we can get from that single location. We go back and forth between the farm and the playground.”
    Kinder Farm boasts the county’s most impressive children’s playground, each of its three tiers connected to the next by a slide.
    Hiking and biking trails invite photographers and birdwatchers alike. For more energetic play, there’s a disc golf course.

Quiet Waters Park: Picnics and Play
    After a visit to Quiet Waters Park, it’s easy to see why people choose to celebrate their weddings here. The park is picturesque. From the fountains to the gazebos, this gem feels more like a country club than a county park.
    You’ll find usual and unusual park amenities. A playground for the kids sits not too far from the fountain, and there’s a dog park and dog beach. Plenty of shaded picnic tables can be found around the park, but the best spot for a picnic is on a blanket, under a shade tree in front of the big, beautiful fountain.
    An added recreation option here is boat and bicycle rentals. Rowboats, pedal boats, kayaks and paddleboards can be taken out on the South River. Choose the bicycle rental instead and explore the miles of trails on dry land. Or walk or run the trails with your leashed dog.
    There is much to see on these trails, each taking you to a different area of the park. “Each little trail leads to another little treasure,” says County Recreation and Parks’ Colleen Joseph. One of those treasures is the concert stage with live music every Sunday evening through August.
    Restrooms are in the Visitor Center, where you’ll want to stop anyway to see the art gallery that showcases local artists and their talents; then follow the stairs to the nature center on the second floor.

Downs Park: Scenery and Dog Swimming
    When you pull into Downs Park in Pasadena, don’t stop at the first parking lot. Though that is a beautiful picnic area, you want to keep going to the second parking lot on your right, for that’s where the view is. Downs Park offers the most beautiful views of Chesapeake Bay. Linger at one of the many benches along the shoreline. Or catch the view along park trails that are paved and easy to maneuver, with many shaded.
    Swimming at Downs Park is for the dogs. Human companions can also enjoy the dog beach for views but not swimming. The long pier offers another angle of Bay views and fishing.
    Downs Park also hosts an adorable playground with a sandbox and tiny picnic tables for tots.
    The Visitor Center is worth a stop. You’ll find a wealth of information about the many animals native to the Bay area.
    The final must-see is the amphitheater, hosting events throughout the year, including Sunday concerts during September.
    Whatever your interests may be, the regional parks of Anne Arundel are great places to find summertime fun, no matter your budget.

Ideas for Smarter Family Fun

Pack a Picnic. The fun can last all day without an extra stop (and an extra expense) for a meal. Pack a picnic and make it part of the fun. Mix it up with finger-sized bites like crackers and cheese.

Go exploring. Take along a magnifying glass or a pair of binoculars and venture off along a nature trail or on the beach to see what kind of creatures you can find. Before your trip to the park, plan a library day to find books on Chesapeake creatures. Take those books along as guides.

Change your pace. All of these parks offer wonderful walking and riding trails. Bring your bikes, scooters, rollerblades or strollers and add exercise to your visit.

Live the history. The parks have done an impressive job of preserving and documenting the history of the region. From the plaques along the path at Downs Park to the meticulously restored historic farmhouse at Kinder Farm (open the second Saturday of every month for tours), take a day to immerse yourself in the local history of the Bay area.

Plan ahead for a whole year of fun. The annual vehicle permits, on sale in November and December for the next calendar year, make good holiday gifts. Get them at park gatehouses or park office.