Gunpowder Falls

River of the month #75

author: Pat Reilly
date: December 2004

I’ve liked the name of Maryland’s Gunpowder Falls since the first time I heard it. Such a manly sounding name, it conjures up images of exploding whitewater. Why name a river ‘falls’? The Gunpowder Falls State Park web site states, ‘The word "falls" is a local term used to name streams that cascade down ledges on their way to flat water.’ Maryland is the only place where I’ve heard this name and it occurs at least 5 times in the area around Baltimore. North of Baltimore we have Gunpowder Falls, Little Gunpowder Falls and Little Falls. These 3 all do indeed have whitewater where they go over the fall line, the geologic ‘step’ between the Piedmont and the Coastal Plain. However, none of these creeks feature any kind of a noteworthy waterfall.

Whatever! In any event Gunpowder Falls is a name that many CCGH members are familiar with. At least one section of this river gets visited often by a contingent of boaters from Harrisburg. However, the remainder of the river is not well known and is even cause for some confusion since the river is split by 2 big reservoirs. The whole non-tidal part of the river divides nicely into 4 different trips – 2 whitewater and 2 flatwater, 1 each below the first reservoir and 1each below the second reservoir. Lets take each section individually working from the top down.

Trip 1 – Prettyboy Dam to route 45 – 4.1 miles

I’ve heard of people paddling above the reservoir, but the creek is too small up there to consider. Neither is it legal to paddle on either reservoir, the city of Baltimore (who owns the reservoirs) forbids it.

This section begins right below the upper reservoir – Prettyboy Reservoir – and is the stretch of creek that has grown popular with boaters from our area. It has about 1 and a half miles of exciting but forgiving whitewater. The river here is not merely steep cobble bottom creek, like much of our area’s ridge-and-valley whitewater. It features big boulders with tight chutes, turns and play spots. The gradient is only medium at best while the creek is small here, so the water is not very intimidating at normal release levels. But it is fun, a good place for experienced novices, and a good place to hone your skills. Too bad it is so short.

This whole section (as well as the next section) is set in a pretty wooded gorge protected within Gunpowder Falls State Park. So you’ll share the space with hikers and thanks to good quality water, with fishermen as well.

The put in is a bit tough, you must carry either from the dam, where you can unload but not park, or from Falls Road, where you miss the first half mile of creek. Both spots require negotiating steep downhill trails through the woods. We put on at Falls Road on my first trip to Gunpowder Falls back in 1990. When I returned from running the shuttle on my bicycle, it took some time to determine the reason for the sheepish grins on the faces of the other participants. Seems as though my K-1 had slipped off the shoulder of its porter while being carried down the trail. It reportedly put on a spectacular display of barrel roles and a few end-over-end aerials while bouncing through the woods. Luckily it landed upright in the water where it was rescued before it ran the river solo. Thank God for plastic! Unfortunately, the whitewater ends shortly below the Falls Road Bridge. So you’ll have to put up with a few miles of flat water if using the convenient park takeout at rt. 45.

Probably the best thing about this and the following section is that they will often run when nothing else is! Both reservoirs do what water supply reservoirs do – collect water. But only the bottom reservoir – Loch Raven – has a water intake. When things get good and dry, like in late summer, the water in Loch Raven may get in danger of falling below the intake. So they have to transfer water down from Prettyboy. Thankfully they use the natural riverbed and not a lousy pipe. This means that you can have lovely clean cold water (Prettyboy Dam releases from the bottom) running at boatable levels in the middle of a drought! But how do you know about it? Use the Net. There is an online gauge on this section and local canoe club message boards will report on releases. Our own club has folks that keep tabs – Lee Thonas for one, has led trips to the river.

Trip 2. – route 45 to Loch Raven Reservoir – 12 miles

Lets call this trip Gunpowder Falls secret number 1. This is a great flat-water trip. One can take advantage of the same release conditions described above and have a lovely 12-mile trip through the woods during the dry season. Pity the poor flat-water boater, no ones seems to be looking out for him. Everyone gets the word out when the whitewater is running, but they always seem to assume that flat-water folks are fine, always able to paddle big rivers or lakes. But many long for the intimacy of a little creek same as the whitewater addict needs her waves and holes.

This trip starts in the same wooded gorge and continues with the same great scenery as the first section. That scenery includes many rock outcroppings. There are some riffles, I remember one strong one, but it is mostly just fast flat water, in some of the nicest scenery northern Maryland has to offer. After Little Falls enters on the left, the gorge opens up into old farm country. But there is little development to be seen, thanks to the park. A popular rail-bed bike-trail parallels the river for much of this stretch. So you may see other outdoor recreationists. A little picnic area off of Route 45 makes a nice put in and the Phoenix bike-trail access area makes an equally convenient take out. In fact why not bike the shuttle and see more of this attractive countryside from the trail? But keep in mind, the trail follows Little Falls and not Gunpowder Falls upstream of the confluence. The river keeps going below the Phoenix trail head, but I understand that you’ll soon be in the reservoir and subject to being snatched by the water police!

Trip 3 – Loch Raven Reservoir to route 1 - 5.5 miles

These next 2 sections can be hard to find up. There is no online gauge. And even after a massive storm, the river may not be running if Loch Raven Reservoir is low. The reservoir may be …well … reserving water. This reservoir doesn’t release, so it must be full and overflowing for this section to run. To catch it up I waited until after remnants of hurricane Jeanne came through this past fall, the 3rd (or 4th, I’ve lost track) hurricane in the past few months. So I was certain the reservoir would be full.

Now for Gunpowder Falls secret number 2 - While this is the ‘flat’ water half of the lower section, it is not really flat-water. In fact, it is a thoroughly delightful little slalom through the boulders. With very mild gradient, the water is somewhere between riffles and small rapids, perfect for tandem open boat fun or rec-boat rookies getting their first taste of whitewater. I had my 5-year old along on this past autumn’s trip and Tony and I were both grateful to find something a little more than flat water. Tony calls every little riffle a waterfall and he prefers trips with ‘waterfalls’. We made the trip a counting game and ended up with 37 ‘waterfalls’ in 5.5 miles. Not bad! The park is still here too, preserving big woods on both sides of the creek for the whole trip! Again, no development!

Don’t try to use the put in from Ed Gertler’s guidebook. The road to the Loch Raven Dam has been gated off, no doubt for security purposes following 9/11. And everything else up that way is posted. Put in where the road running up-stream from the route 147 Bridge leaves the river. Park access at route 1 is your take out (and put in for the lower section). Again, I would suggest paddler message boards to find when this and the next section are running. They may be an additional half hour of driving time when compared to the upper sections, but they’re worth it.

Trip 4 – Route 1 to tide water - 3.3 miles

This final section is Gunpowder Falls secret number 3. This section contains bigger, meatier, better whitewater than the more often paddled Prettyboy section. It’s got some nice medium sized rapids - think a slightly smaller Lower Yough in terms of size and difficulty. Too bad there are only about 3 or 4 good rapids. After the big S-turn (I’m not sure if that’s the ‘official’ name) it’s all over and you’ll soon be in tide water. It’s all still in the park though! So the scenery remains wooded and undeveloped. The best take out is a park access just before the route 40 bridge on river left.

Winter is the best time to assure a full Loch Raven Reservoir. My first trip down this last section was a frigid February day in ‘91. I was traveling solo and wasn’t looking forward to a very cold bicycle shuttle. So when I saw other boaters on the water as I pulled into the parking lot, I quickly put on and caught them to bum a shuttle ride. They were a friendly group from Lancaster and we paddled together doing some playing in spite of the cold. At the take out I remember about 6 of us squeezing into a car with our PFDs still on. We needed the car’s heater to thaw the ice encrusted on our jacket zippers before we could get them off!

So there you have it. Gunpowder Falls is about more than the initial whitewater below Prettyboy. Pick a section and take a trip to Maryland when you can find it up. Then think how cool it’ll sound when you return to work Monday morning and tell everyone, ‘Yep, paddled Gunpowder Falls over the weekend’.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2004 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.