At a Glance

Hours: Sunrise to sunset.

Cost: Free.

Tips: Restrooms are at the shooting range in the Main Tract & at the Arboretum. ◾ The State Forest is open for deer and other hunting, so be aware of hunting seasons and plan your visit accordingly. ◾ There are target ranges for guns and archery within the State Forest; do not be alarmed by the gunfire. Obey the signs delineating the shooting range boundaries and stay out of those areas. ◾ Trails can be wet & muddy so wear sturdy waterproof hiking boots.

Best Seasons: Year-round.

Breeding Bird Atlas Blocks (Includes all tracts of the State Forest): North East NE, North East CW, North East CE, North East SW, North East SE, Elkton NW

Local MOS Chapter: Cecil Bird Club

Elk Neck State Forest

Main Tract – 717 Irishtown Road, North East, MD 21901
Black Hill Tract – 30 McKinneytown Road, North East, MD 21901
Arboretum – 2295 Old Elk Neck Road, Elkton, MD 21921
(410) 287-5675

Elk Neck State Forest lies just southeast of the town of North East in Cecil County and provides a rare opportunity to bird in a rich woodland habitat. This 3,500 acre forest was planted in the 1940s as a demonstration forest with the intention of logging, but was never cut because of poor timber quality. Today, the State Forest consists of mixed hardwoods and evergreens with an understory of mountain laurel, azaleas, and other native shrubs and ground covers. The understory is dense in many places, providing excellent nesting habitat. Since the State Forest is open for deer hunting, the understory is mostly intact and not over-browsed by deer.

Do not confuse Elk Neck State Forest with Elk Neck State Park, which is a separate facility about 11 miles south, at the tip of the Elk Neck peninsula,

There are three tracts within the State Forest that are open to the public. The Main Tract, entered from Irishtown Road, is comprised of 2,958 acres, with an extensive network of driveable dirt roads and marked foot-trails, including a portion of the 199-mile long Mason-Dixon Trail. A section of the main tract is adjacent to the county landfill and attracts species that prefer open or scrubby areas. A pond formed by damming Plum Run lies in the central part of the main tract; the dam has now been breached and may be crossed on foot (with difficulty), but not by car. A tall observation tower, located on a side-trail just 0.2 miles from the entrance, provides a sweeping view over the treetops on the wooded hillside below all the way to the North East River in the distance. Note that some or all of the dirt roads (which are designated by the Forest Service as Trails 1, 2, and 3, on the trail map at link at left), may be closed from time to time because of weather damage. Note that all the dirt roads within the State Forest are dead ends and you will have to turn around to return to the entrance when ready to leave.

About 500 acres of the Main Tract have been designated by MD DNR as the Plum Creek Natural Area. The Natural Area contains an exceptional pitch pine (Pinus rigida) community. Pitch pine forests are found in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, but are rare in Maryland. On the Maryland Coastal Plain, pitch pine has a very limited distribution, and is primarily restricted to very dry, sandy, acidic habitats subject to periodic fires. In the Plum Creek Natural Area, mixed within the tall pitch pines are an assortment of native oaks, along with an understory of huckleberries and blueberries. In early spring, pink Lady’s-Slipper Orchids provide splashes of color among the pine needles on the forest floor. In contrast to the dry pitch pine community, the Plum Creek watershed also contains seepage wetlands and vernal pools. These two habitat types are breeding sites for dragonflies and amphibians.

The 350-acre Black Hill Tract lies a couple miles south of the Main Tract and is accessed from McKinneytown Road. The Black Hill Tract is open to foot traffic along a trail that leads to a fire observation tower (the tower itself is closed to the public). Another trail at Black Hill is wheelchair accessible. The trails here are one-way and you will have to retrace your steps to return to your car (see trail map at link at left).

The Arboretum Hiking Trail is the newest tract at the Elk Neck State Forest. In addition to being the first arboretum in Cecil County, it is the first project of its kind undertaken by MD DNR. The Arboretum displays 61 newly planted specimens and 35 pre-existing specimens, representing 52 different species of Maryland native shrubs and trees. The plants have identification tags and are located along a ½ mile walking loop. The specimens represent shrub and tree species from all over Maryland. The Arboretum is just 4 acres, but is part of a 130-acre tract along Old Elk Neck Road that includes adjacent fields managed for wildlife habitat. Most of this tract is undeveloped and is used for hunting. In addition to the trail maps at links at left, see the Arboretum Hunting Area Map at https://dnr.maryland.gov/forests/Documents/ArboretumHuntingSmall.pdf.

There are two additional tracts of the Elk Neck State Forest – the Shady Beach Road Tract (53 acres) and the North East Tract (190 acres) – but there is no public road access or parking. for these two areas, so they are not described.

Birdlife:

Over 140 species have been reported on eBird from the Main Tract of Elk Neck State Forest. Migrating passerines, particularly thrushes, flycatchers, vireos, and warblers, are plentiful during spring and fall migration.

Breeding birds include at-risk species such as Whip-poor-will, Wood Thrush, Hooded Warbler, Ovenbird, Worm-eating Warbler, and Scarlet Tanager. Other breeding species include Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Acadian Flycatcher, Great Crested Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo, White-eyed Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Black-and-white Warbler, Orchard Oriole, Baltimore Oriole, Blue Grosbeak, and Indigo Bunting. Whip-poor-wills may be heard starting shortly after sunset and again shortly before sunrise. Pine Warblers nest near the gate at the trail to the Observation Tower and in the pine trees that ring the old gravel pit directly across the entrance road from the Observation Tower Trail.

Bald Eagles are present year-round, and Osprey are plentiful from March through September.

Winter birds include Hermit Thrush, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Red-breasted Nuthatch, White-breasted Nuthatch, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

The Observation Tower is a good place to watch the never-ending parade of gulls commuting back and forth between the adjacent county landfill and the North East Community Park on the North East River. During fall, the Tower is a good spot to watch for passing raptors, which migrate south down the Elk Neck peninsula.

Parking:

Gravel lots throughout; see trail map at link at left. Roadside parking is generally permitted in the Main Tract but do not block any gates or the right-of-way. Roads may be gated closed because of weather damage but it is OK to park and walk in.

Special Features:

Because much of the Main Tract of the State Forest can be birded from or near the car (except when the dirt roads are closed because of weather damage), the Main Tract is a good birding spot for those who are mobility-impaired. There is a wheelchair-accessible trail (designed for hunters) at the Black Hill Tract. The walking loop at the Arboretum is too soft and irregular to accommodate a wheelchair.◾ Elk Neck State Forest is one of the focal points of the Elk Neck Important Bird Area, as designated by the National Audubon Society. The IBA encompasses most of the Elk Neck peninsula. ◾ A section of the Main Tract has been designated as the Plum Creek Natural Area by MD DNR. ◾ The Main Tract includes a public shooting and archery range (fee required). ◾ The Arboretum is designed for use as an outdoor classroom and school groups are encouraged to take advantage of the great education opportunities. ◾ The trails within the State Forest are part of the 14-mile Elk Neck Trail System (aka Lighthouse Trail), which begins within the Main Tract and crosses on and off State Forest property, eventually crossing the Black Hill Tract and then heading south to its southern terminus at the Turkey Point Lighthouse in Elk Neck State Park. ◾ A portion of the 199-mile long Mason-Dixon Trail goes through the Main Tract. ◾ The local chapter of the Maryland Ornithological Society is the Cecil Bird Club, which offers field trips and meetings with informative programs, all free and open to the public.

Directions:

Two alternative routes are given below to visit the three State Forest tracts.

From I-95 north of Perryville, MD: Take Exit 100 for MD Route 272 and go south approximately 3 miles to the town of North East.

  • To reach the Main Tract: At the south end of town, turn left (east) onto Irishtown Road. Take Irishtown Road for 2 miles to the dirt entrance road to the State Forest, which will be on the left (north) side of the road.
  • To reach the Black Hill Tract from the Main Tract: Turn right (west) onto Irishtown Road when exiting the Main Tract. Return to MD Route 272 and turn left to go south. Follow MD Route 272 for 3.2 miles and then turn left (east) onto McKinneytown Road. After just 0.3 miles, watch for a trail head marked by a yellow gate on the right. Park behind the Ranger Station
  • To reach the Arboretum Hiking Trail from the Black Hill Tract,: Exit the Black Hill parking area and turn right (east) onto McKinneytown Road. Follow McKinneytown for approximately 1.6 miles to its intersection with Old Elk Neck Road, and turn left (north). Follow Old Elk Neck Road for approximately 3.2 miles to the Arboretum ono the left (wests) side of the road. Look for a square parking area with a small building and comfort station.

ALTERNATE ROUTE: Visiting first the Arboretum, then the Main Tract and last the Black Hill Tract.

  • To reach the Arboretum Hiking Trail from I-95: Take Exit 109 for MD Route 279 south toward Elkton. In 4.0 miles, at the intersection with US Route 40, go straight across the intersection to proceed south on MD Route 7/Old Philadelphia Road. Route 7 will turn west in a short distance at a sharp curve to the right. Turn left at the first intersection to go south on Old Elk Neck Road, which is just 0.4 miles from the Route 40 intersection. Proceed south on Old Elk Neck Road for 2.7 miles. The Arboretum will be on the right (west) wide of the road.
  • To reach the Main Tract from the Arboretum Hiking Trail: Turn right out of the Arboretum parking area to go south on Old Elk Neck Road. In 1.2 miles, turn right (west) onto Irishtown Road. Follow Irishtown Road for 3.2 miles to the entrance to the Main Tract, which is a dirt & gravel road on the right (north) side of Irishtown Road.
  • To reach the Black Hill Tract from the Main Tract: Turn right (west) onto Irishtown Road when exiting the Main Tract. Return to MD Route 272 and turn left to go south. Follow MD Route 272 for 3.2 miles and then turn left (east) onto McKinneytown Road. After just 0.3 miles, watch for a trail head marked by a yellow gate on the right. Park behind the Ranger Station

Nearby Sites:

North East Community Park; Elk Neck State Park – Turkey Point; Elk River Park & Elkton Marsh; Elkton – Meadow Park, Eder Park, Hatchery Park & Howard’s Pond; Perryville Community Park

Habitats:

Bottomland DeciduousConifersUpland Deciduous Freshwater Marsh or FloodplainFreshwater Pond, Lake, or ReservoirMud Flats (Tidal or Non-Tidal)Rivers & Streams

Features:

Bicycle Trails (Bikes may be prohibited on some trails)Birding By CarFishingFree - No Entry FeeHiking/Walking TrailsHorseback RidingHuntingNative Plant Garden or Meadow/Pollinator PlantsObservation Platform or TowerParkingPets AllowedPicnic AreaRestroomsWater ViewWheelchair Accessible Features

Type:

Audubon Important Bird AreasDriving Tours (Birding By Car)Gardens & ArboretaHunting AreasState Natural Areas & Wildlands