Visitors to the Washington DC area and locals alike might think all the sites worth visiting in the region are in the nation’s Capital. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Charles County Maryland, located in southern Maryland just 30 miles from Washington offers a rich colonial, maritime, and civil war history. And for the outdoorsy types, it offers plenty of opportunities to union with nature.
**Disclaimer: This was a hosted stay, however, all opinions are my own. I strive to provide my readers with my most authentic sentiments.
With its closeness to DC, Charles County makes for an awesome quick escape for Washingtonians. For visitors to the Nation’s Capital, this small county with so much history makes a perfect side trip. But with its proximity to I-95/495, Charles County makes a good weekend getaway for those coming from Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, and even Richmond. Within 5 hours or less (click on links for embedded maps), visitors from any of these cities can reach dynamic Charles County.
Whether you visit for a day or stay for the weekend you will find plenty of reasons to stay longer or return again and again.
Where is Charles County MD? Getting There and Getting Around
Heading south from the DC area you might be tempted to bypass Charles County. But if you jump off I-95/Rt 495 onto Route 5 and make your way to Route 301 aka Crain Highway, you will initially find oodles of shopping and restaurants. However, once off the main road and past La Plata things become rural quite quick. And in these areas is where you will find the gems this small county has to offer.
Situated on the Potomac, Patuxent and Wicomico Rivers, all estuaries of the Chesapeake Bay, you can get from one end of Charles County to the other in roughly 40 minutes. This means no matter where you decide to stay, the places you want to see are always a quick drive away.
The Mallows Bay National Marine Sanctuary at Mallows Bay Park and the “Ghost Fleet”
Mallows Bay Park (1440 Wilson Landing Road, Nanjemoy, Maryland), where your kayak journey begins is situated on the Maryland side of the Potomac River. There are walking trails, a boat ramp, and a kayak launch available for public use.
This place is truly awesome. Truth told; this was my main reason for visiting Charles County. And I was lucky enough to visit during the dedication of Mallows Bay as a National Marine Sanctuary. The event was attended by officials from NOAA, local officials, and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan as well as members of the Piscataway Tribe who performed a blessing at the ceremony.
The shallow waters of Mallows Bay contain the largest collection of wood and steel-hulled shipwrecks in the Western Hemisphere. It is one of only 14 sites in the country named as a National Marine Sanctuary by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the first new designee in nearly 20 years. Plus, in 2015 the shipwrecks and the 18 square miles between Mallows Bay and Widewater, VA were named an archaeological and historic district on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, nature has reclaimed the remnants of these ships. These shipwrecks provide shelter for flora and fauna, including fish, osprey, bald eagles, heron, beaver, river otter, and turtles. Plus, the wooded area surrounding the sanctuary contains artifacts dating back 12,000 years including Native American relics.
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On the morning of the event, we did some kayaking despite it only being 22-degrees. I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity. I think by the time we launched it was a balmy 40-degrees. It was worth braving the cold.
The waters of Mallows Bay are tidal and during high tide, few of the vessels stand above the water, so try to time your visit during low tide. This will give you the best opportunity to observe the greatest number of “Ghost Ships.” Better yet, if you can time it for a foggy morning, I imagine this would make for a haunting sight.
You can arrange for a guided kayak tour. REI was on location and providing the tours on the day of the event. Taking a tour will give you more context than simply heading out on your own. But if you are an experienced kayaker, I can understand why you would be tempted to go it alone.
Revolutionary and Civil War History
Few places are known for both Revolutionary War and Civil War history. But Charles County happens to be one of those places steeped in both and often in precisely the same place.
Thomas Stone National Historic Site
Thomas Stone is probably best known for his contribution as an architect of the Declaration of Independence and signing of the important document. But there is more history to be learned with a visit to the Thomas Stone National Historic Site, including how it is tied not only to the birth of our nation but to the Civil War as well.
Park Ranger Dave Lassman who heads up the operations of the site and as the official tour guide provides an in-depth, honest, and enthusiastic history of the site. One of the things I love about this site is that the Stone family who donated the property to the park service did not stipulate their story be told in only a flattering way. The rangers are free to talk about the fact that Stone was a slave owner and the work of those slaves. They are permitted to discuss the Confederate sympathies of their ancestors. Additionally, while touring the property with Lassman I heard all sorts of details I had never heard before about American History. Facts left out in civic’s course or at least oversimplified in class.
Because Lassman is free to speak in a candid way, this makes Thomas Stone House an excellent place for kids to learn about American history. And Ranger Lassman loves working with kids. That became obvious in my discussion with him. Thomas Stone National Historic Site is part of the Junior Ranger Programs. Kids can pick up their Junior Ranger badge while visiting along with other kid-friendly learning materials like coloring books and more.
But history is not the only reason to visit. The property is situated on 322 acres and has 2-miles of mixed-use trails for walking and horseback riding. The walking trail beginning at the Visitor Center will lead you past the Thomas Stone House, fondly known as Haber de Venture, the tobacco barn, and the Stone family graveyard.
Once the County Seat and the second largest seaport in Maryland, Port Tobacco is now a historic village dating back 400 years (much longer when you consider the Native Americans’ time on this land). At one time this was an expansive town (for its time) on the river’s edge.
Maryland was originally a Catholic colony settled by Europeans trying to avoid religious persecution under the monarchy. Port Tobacco was a major point of entry for those early settlers. If you come from a Catholic family who immigrated to the colonies, there is a good chance your ancestors entered through this port.
Today only a few remnants of what this city had once been remain. What is left is a handful of the historic buildings and a few of the homes are privately owned. But the buildings in the care of the historical society have been restored and staged nicely to give visitors a feel for life here in colonial times.
The buildings which still stand and are open to visitors at Port Tobacco include Stagg Hall and the County Courthouse. These were both important places.
Stagg Hall served a variety of purposes, including a gentleman’s meeting place, as you may have already deduced from the name. But its original function was as the general store and the residence of the merchant. It is modest despite several additions over the years.
A notable characteristic of this building is the main parlor of the old home. In the 1930s, it was dismantled piece by piece and reassembled at the Chicago Art Institute. This was not an unusual practice with historic buildings. In fact, the same happened with the Thomas Stone House. But the fact that the original pieces made their way back to Stagg Hall and can be seen in their founding place today is unusual. This was not the case with the Thomas Stone House.
Port Tobacco was not the original site of Charles County’s first courthouse. The exact location is unknown. But we do know that the first court was completed in 1729. A second courthouse was built in 1819. But, that incarnation of the County Courthouse was lost in 1892 to suspected arson (the court records had conveniently been removed from the building prior to the fire). The current structure is a reconstruction of the Charles County Courthouse. Ultimately the courthouse moved to nearby La Plata when the County Seat relocated there.
One of the things I found most interesting about Port Tobacco is the fact that it is an active archeologic site. I had the pleasure of touring the village with historian, Carin Diggle, and archeologist Esther Doyle Read. They are both a trove of information about this town. They will inform you about the day to days affairs of the city and the people who once lived here. But they can also regale you legends and lore of the city including the Legend of Blue Dog and lesser-known tales.
Looking for other quick getaways from DC? Check out the Best Road Trips from Washington DC for Adventurous Travelers
Religious Freedom Trail
Maryland was established as a colony based on the idea of religious freedom. However, the Catholics who came to the colonies in search of religious freedom and tolerance would later become disenfranchised. Like in the Old Country, they were persecuted by the other religious denominations which had also settled in Maryland seeking those same freedoms.
As a hub of religious tolerance, Charles County along with neighboring Queen Anne’s County has organized a Religious Freedom Trail which hits key historically significant places in the region.
St Ignatius Church – Chapel Point
After visiting Port Tobacco, you will want to stop by St. Ignatius Church at Chapel Point. The church founded in 1641 is the oldest active parish with a continual pastorate in the US. Sitting on a bluff overlooking the Potomac River, it offers outstanding views.
The chapel is lovely. It offers stunning stained glass with images not only depicting Christian scenes but also recognizing the original indigenous people. And, be sure to check out the kneelers. (Psst, they are all one of a kind and done in needlepoint.)
One of the highlights of St. Ignatius is the historic cemetery overlooking the river. If you are tracking your genealogy you may want to check to see if any of your ancestors were buried here.
Mt Carmel Monastery
Established in 1790, Mt. Carmel Monastery is the oldest Monastery in the US. It was founded by the Carmelites of European descent with familial roots in Maryland. They are an insulated group of nuns whose work is prayer.
As you ascend the hill leading to the monastery you become aware of the spirituality of this place. At the monastery, you will not see the sisters milling about. As a cloistered group, their interaction with the outside world is almost none. The women live behind a wall in modest dwellings.
What you can see when visiting is the tiny chapel in which they worship. The church is open to the public. If you attend mass the nuns will sit off to the right of the altar in a dedicated section. Additionally, you can visit the original primitive structure where the early Carmelites lived and prayed.
I highly recommend visitors step into the gift shop. They have a wide selection of religious items. But that is not the highlight. They have incredible handiworks including quilts and needlepoint. If you wish to make a purchase you will do so by way of a concealed Lazy Susan.
Cobb Island: Seafood, Sunsets and Sweet Treats
With its proximity to the Chesapeake Bay and with Maryland being known for its crabs, you are going to want to head to Cobb Island. The island is located at the furthest tip of Charles County. It is predominantly residential with a few businesses catering to the locals and the summertime residents and visitors alike.
Head down for the sunset and dinner. Just before crossing the bridge onto the island, you will find a couple of crab houses with waterfront dining, Shymansky’s and Captain John’s Crabhouse are local favorites.
I visited the island twice in search of a sunset. Unfortunately, on the first visit, the weather did not cooperate and Mother Nature failed to provide one. However, all was not lost. I stopped into the local coffee shop, The Cove at Cobb Island. This is a quaint little family-owned and operated coffee shop offering light meals, sweet treats, and even wine. They have regular events including art classes for kids, wine tastings, and live music. I visited in quiet November, but I would be willing to bet this is a great little hangout in the summer season.
In December 1900, Cobb Island was the site of a milestone in radio history. It was here that, Reginal Aubry and Frank W. Very transmitted the first intelligible speech by electromagnetic waves. The communications were sent via two masts 50-feet high and a mile apart. If you drive the main road around the island you can find the placard marking the achievement. Don’t worry you won’t get lost. The island is tiny.
In addition to kayaking on Mallows Bay, visitors can enjoy over 13-miles of paved biking trails that run through the county. The trails are the Indian Head Rails to Trails system, terminating at Mattingly Ave. near the Indian Head Naval Station and Theodore Green Blvd. west of US 301 in White Plains. This is a nice way to see the area by bike in a safe environment.
Also, Charles County has no shortage of hiking trails, many of which are in local parks and therefore well maintained. Along these trails, you can find diverse wildlife including deer, bald eagles, osprey, and more.
As with any place with such extensive colonial history you can find antique shops aplenty. Charles County is no exception. Head to Glory Days Antiques on Crain Highway and you will find an extensive collection of antiques. This antique garage set up as kiosks seems to go on forever. You can find unique artifacts from every era. It’s worth taking the time to visit.
Where to Stay
I stayed at the Hilton Garden in Waldorf. This is a nice clean chain hotel offering comfortable rooms, friendly staff, and ample breakfast. It is a great location due to its proximity to Rt 301 the main highway that you will use to get to just about anywhere in the county. Shopping and chain restaurants surround it. This is also a great location if you plan to visit DC and don’t want to pay the price of staying in the Nation’s Capital.
Looking to camp? Click here for a listing of area camping facilities.
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