Allen’s Fresh Natural Area/Zekiah Swamp Natural Environmental Area
At the Bridge on Budd’s Creek Road, La Plata, MD 20632
Allen’s Fresh Natural Area is a remarkable tidal marsh at the southern end of Zekiah Swamp in Charles County, where the waters from a myriad of small streams in Zekiah Swamp come together to form Allen’s Fresh Run, a tributary of the Wicomico River, itself a tributary of the Potomac River. The 286 acres at Allen’s Fresh are owned by the MD Department of Natural Resources and set aside as a State Natural Area with limited development. Allen’s Fresh also operates as a state Cooperative Wildlife Management Area for waterfowl hunting.
Allen’s Fresh is the #1 eBird hotspot in Charles County. This incredibly rich ecosystem has very limited access by land, and is best explored by canoe or kayak, which can be put in near the twin bridges that carry Route 234 over two branches of Allen’s Fresh Run.
If not paddling, it is possible to park, with extreme caution, near the bridges and bird on foot on the sidewalks on the bridges and from the roadside. Be forewarned that the traffic is heavy on MD Route 234 and moves very fast, so be extremely cautious. If you want to get away from the traffic for a few minutes, there is a short dirt road that angles to the northwest from the west end of the more easterly of the twin bridges, on the north side. The dirt road (shown as a yellow and black line on the trail map at left) is in very poor condition and driving down it is not recommended. Instead, walk the road, being mindful of the very deep trenches and water-filled ruts. It is muddy most of the year. The dirt road ends abruptly at what used to be a soft launch area but is now too steep-sided to be used for that.
Another section of Allen’s Fresh Natural Area lies along Allen’s Fresh Road, which is a horseshoe-shaped road off the south side of Route 234. You can pick up Allen’s Fresh Road just east of the more easterly of the twin bridges. As you drive south along Allen’s Fresh Road, the land on the right (west) side will be DNR-owned land that is part of the Natural Area; this parcel is a mix of wet woods and open marshes. About half-a-mile south of Route 234, there is a gated dirt road that leads west through the Natural Area to a privately held parcel on the waterfront at Westwood Point. Do not trespass on the private land.
The land on the left (east) side of Allen’s Fresh Road is all privately owned farmland, that sometimes can be good for field birds such as Eastern Meadowlark and Northern Bobwhite. As you continue south, Allen’s Fresh Road will make a hairpin turn, taking you in a northeasterly direction back to Route 234. Once you reach the hairpin turn, you have left the area owned by the State.
Allen’s Fresh is part of the larger (450 acres) Zekiah Swamp Natural Environmental Area, most of which is protected as a State Wildland. The DNR-owned lands are just a small part of Zekiah Swamp itself, which is mostly in private ownership. Since about 2007, the state and county have been systematically working with private landowners to protect Zekiah Swamp through conservation easements and other means. Zekiah Swamp is a remarkable freshwater ecosystem, centered on the braided streams of Zekiah Swamp Run, that extends through the heart of Charles County. The headwaters of Zekiah Swamp Run are in Cedarville State Forest, over 20 miles north of Allen’s Fresh. Zekiah Swamp is the largest hardwood swamp in Maryland and is considered by many authorities to be one of the most ecologically significant areas in the Chesapeake Bay watershed because it is relatively undisturbed and intact. There is no public foot access to Zekiah Swamp, but views of the stream and swamp can be obtained from public roads where they cross the swamp: for example, Poplar Hill Road, Leonardtown Road (MD Route 5), and Charles Street (MD Route 6). Consult the official State Highway Administration map for Charles County, which shows the location of Zekiah Swamp quite clearly – look east of the town of La Plata, and north to Cedarville State Forest and south to Allen’s Fresh. There are no designated parking areas on the roads that cross Zekiah Swamp; viewing is from the road shoulder. Be extremely cautious with traffic.
Over 175 species have been reported on eBird from Allen’s Fresh, which makes it the #1 eBird hotspot in Charles County. As you might expect, water and marsh birds dominate the list. Nineteen species of waterfowl have been reported, including all three mergansers. Northern Bobwhite and Wild Turkey are present in the upland areas. King Rail and Virginia Rail occur in the spring. Shorebirds can be found when water levels are low enough to expose mudflats: reported species include Black-necked Stilt (spring); American Avocet (fall); and Wilson’s Snipe (winter through spring). Forster’s Terns breed here, and Caspian and Black Terns may pass through in spring.
In the warm months, look for Great Blue and Green Herons; Great, Snowy, and Cattle Egrets; Black-crowned Night-Heron; and American Bittern. Ospreys and Bald Eagles are abundant; other raptors include Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks; Northern Harrier (winter and spring); and Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks (fall through spring). American Kestrels are present year-round. Owls include Great Horned, Barn, Eastern Screech, and Short-eared (winter). Red-headed Woodpeckers can be found in winter, and sometimes in spring or summer. Spring and summer bring vireos, flycatchers (including breeding Willow Flycatchers), swallows, Marsh Wrens, and orioles. Eastern Meadowlarks can be found year-round, and Bobolinks might be around in spring and summer. Breeding warblers include Ovenbird, Common Yellowthroat, Northern Parula, Yellow, Pine, Yellow-throated, and Prairie. Indigo Buntings and Blue Grosbeaks are abundant in season. Dickcissels can sometimes be found in spring.
Roadside pull-off on Route 234 near the bridges. Be sure to pull entirely off the road and be cautious when re-entering the traffic. Gravel parking lot at the trailhead on Allen’s Fresh Road.
There is a kayak and canoe soft launch at Allen’s Fresh near the twin bridges. ◾ Fishing is allowed, with permit. ◾ Zekiah Swamp has a notorious past, being on the escape route of John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. ◾ Allen’s Fresh is one of the state’s designated Natural Areas. ◾ The north part of Allen’s Fresh Natural Area and Zekiah Swamp Natural Environmental Area are contained within the Zekiah Swamp Important Bird Area, as designated by the National Audubon Society. ◾ There is no chapter of the Maryland Ornithological Society in Charles County, but birders can participate in MOS through the Anne Arundel Bird Club or the Patuxent Bird Club; both of these MOS chapters offer field trips and meetings with informative programs, all free and open to the public. ◾ In addition, the Southern MD Audubon Society serves birders in Charles, Calvert, St. Mary’s, and Prince George’s Counties.
From points north: From MD Route 301/Crain Highway, proceed south from La Plata and then turn left to go east on MD Route 234/Budd’s Creek Road. The bridge over Allen’s Fresh will be ahead in about 1.2 miles. Parking is on the left (north) side of the bridge. It may be advisable to cross the bridge and look for a safe place to make to turn around in order to approach the bridge with the parking area on your right.
From St. Mary’s County: Use MD Route 5 to access MD Route 234/Budd’s Creek Road. Bear west onto Route 234 and continue west for about 17.5 miles to the bridge over Allen’s Fresh. Roadside parking will be on your right (north side of the bridge).
From Calvert County: Take MD Route 2 to MD Route 231/Hallowing Point Road. Go west on Route 231. At a pair of traffic circles in about 12 miles, follow signs to go south on MD Route Route 5. Follow Route 5 south for about 4.3 miles to the town of Charlotte Hall. Just south of Charlotte Hall and the intersection with MD Route 6, bear right to go southwest on MD Route 236/Thompson Corner Road. In about 6.3 miles, at the T-intersection with MD Route 234/Budd’s Creek Road, turn right to go west. The bridge over Allen’s Fresh will be ahead in about 6 miles. Roadside parking will be on your right (north side of the bridge).
Chapman State Park & Chapman Residual Wildlife Management Area, Indian Creek Natural Resources Management Area, Indian Head Rail Trail, Smallwood State Park
Bottomland DeciduousHedgerows Agricultural Crop Fields or Fallow FieldsOld Fields, Shrubby Meadows Forested SwampFreshwater Marsh or FloodplainMud Flats (Tidal or Non-Tidal)Rivers & StreamsSalt or Brackish Marsh
Boat or Canoe/Kayak LaunchFishingFree - No Entry FeeHuntingLake, Pond, Bay, River, OceanNative Plant Garden or Meadow/Pollinator Plants
#1 Hotspot in County or CityAudubon Important Bird AreasChesapeake Bay Gateways NetworkState Natural Areas & WildlandsThe Rivers of the Western ShoreWater Trails