Fran Uhler Natural Area
10300 Lemons Bridge Road, Bowie, MD 20720
Fran Uhler Natural Area, managed by the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission (MNCPPC, aka Prince George’s County Parks Department), is located in northern Prince George’s County, bordered by the Patuxent River, the Patuxent Research Refuge and the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, MD Route 197, and the Amtrak Railroad Line. Bowie State University lies immediately adjacent on the opposite side of the railroad tracks.
The Natural Area is named for legendary wildlife biologist Francis M. Uhler, who worked at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and donated the money that allowed Prince George’s County to make the initial purchase of 29 acres in 1986, at the time an abandoned quarry and farmstead that was being used as an illegal dump. Today, there are more than 350+ acres that are managed MNCPPC at Fran Uhler Natural Area and adjoining lands. Prince George’s Audubon Society, which campaigned for the area to become a public park, sponsors the park and offers monthly walks here on the first Saturday of every month at 7:30 am, in partnership with the Patuxent Bird Club.
The Fran Uhler property has indeed become “natural,” the more so since it surrounded by other natural areas, including Patuxent Research Refuge to the north. Much of the terrain is marked by ridges, hollows, and small ponds, reflecting earlier land use. Most is wooded, but there are open areas under a power line, where forest succession is taking place. Be aware that some parts of the park may be flooded after heavy rains and some of the low-lying trails may be inaccessible.
The park can be directly accessed from MD Route 197/Laurel-Bowie Road via Lemons Bridge Road, which leads directly into the park. The entrance is marked by a gate that is kept locked except during the monthly bird walks. If you visiting alone, you may park in the small lot outside the gate (also see below for additional parking and access) and continue on foot along Lemons Bridge Road, which becomes a gravel lane running parallel to the Amtrak rail line. The lane passes old fields bordered by woods, and then enters woodland as it nears the Patuxent River. After entering the woods, the road/trail turns to parallel the river bank, and comes eventually to the pilings for the old Lemon’s Bridge over the river. A few un-maintained foot-trails wind past some old ponds in this area (see vicinity map at the link at left), but this whole section may be flooded and the trails impassable.
South of the railroad lies a state-owned property – the Uhler Natural Resource Management Area (169 acres), which can be accessed from Fran Uhler Natural Area via a foot-trail and underpass under the railroad near the Patuxent River. See the vicinity map at the link at left. The Uhler NRMA is adjacent to Bowie State University and lies along the Washington, Baltimore & Annapolis Trail (WB&A Trail), a paved 5.6 mile hiker-biker trail. The WB&A Trail follows the right of way of an abandoned railroad, cutting across the north side of the town of Bowie (see WB&A Trail map at link at left). The Fran Uhler Natural Area and Uhler NRMA are linked to the main part of the WB&A Trail by the 2-mile-long Horsepen Branch Spur Trail. The northern end of the Horsepen Branch Spur Trail, near Fran Uhler Natural Area and Uhler NRMA, is unpaved clay surface, but the southern 3/4 of the Horsepen Branch Spur Trail is paved and is wheelchair-accessible, as is the main part of the WB&A Trail.
A nice long hiking loop or bike ride is to start at the Park & Ride on Lemons Bridge Road, walk or bike through Fran Uhler Natural Area and then use the underpass to go south under the railroad to enter the Uhler NRMA and access the northern terminus of the Horsepen Branch Spur of the WB&A Trail. Continue southeast on the Horsepen Branch Spur, and then turn right (west) where it joins the main part of the WB&A Trail, which will bring you to Race Track Road. Turn right (north) onto Race Track Road; in 0.4 miles, bear right onto Jericho Park Road, which in another 0.5 miles will take you into Bowie State University. Continue straight ahead to reach the south side Park & Ride lot near Route 197, and then use the pedestrian underpass in the Park & Ride to get back to your car in the Park & Ride on the north side of the tracks.
Alternatively you could park in the WB&A Trail lot off Race Track Road just north of the old Bowie Race Track (now defunct), and then trace the route above in reverse: go east on the WB&A Trail; then northwest on the Horsepen Branch Spur Trail and pass under the railroad tracks on the gravel path. Once on the north side of the tracks, turn left to continue southwest along Lemons Bridge Road, which will bring you to MD Route 197. At Route 197, turn left to go south to Race Track Road, and turn left to return via Race Track Road to the WB&A Trail parking area.
Over 160 species have been reported on eBird from Fran Uhler Natural Area. There is a separate eBird hotspot for the WB&A Trail–Horsepen Branch (PG Co.) with 142+ species reported.
Spring migration can be very good, especially along the gravel lane in Fran Uhler, and also on the foot trails to the wetland areas. Both American Woodcock and sometimes even Whip-poor-wills can be heard in spring – you might actually be hearing Whips that are located across the Patuxent on the North Tract of Patuxent Research Refuge, where there is a remnant breeding population.
Fall migration can be active or quiet – it’s hard to predict.
Breeding birds include Wood Duck, Wild Turkey, Barred Owl, Brown Creeper (some years), and Prairie Warbler.
In irruption years, Purple Finch, Pine Siskin, and crossbills may occur.
Park outside the gate at the end of Lemons Bridge Road, being careful not to block the gate. Or (preferred), park at the adjacent Bowie State train station Park and Ride, on the right after turning onto Lemons Bridge Road, and walk in on the road. A third option is to park at the WB&A Trail parking lot on Race Track Road and use the Horsepen Spur Branch Trail to access Fran Uhler Natural Area on foot or by bike, via the underpass under the railroad. Of course, you can also come for the monthly bird walk held on the first Saturday of every month at 7:30 am, when the gate will be open to allow cars to drive to the internal parking area.
The southern end of the Horsepen Branch Spur Trail (about 1.7 miles) is paved and is wheelchair-accessible, as is the main part of the 5.6-mile-long WB&A Trail. Lemons Bridge Road in Fran Uhler Natural Area is an unmaintained gravel road and can be rough and wet in spots, but it could be possible to bird it from a wheelchair if you join one of the monthly bird walks at Fran Uhler, when the gate is opened so that a car can enter and park. ◾ For an interesting glimpse into conservation history and a look at the life of Fran Uhler, you can read the remarks made at the dedication of the Fran Uhler Natural Area on May 2, 1987, kindly provided by Dr. Matthew Perry, retired biologist from Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and colleague of the late Dr. Uhler. ◾ Prince George’s Audubon Society sponsors the park and offers free monthly walks here on the first Saturday of every month at 7:30 am, in partnership with the Patuxent Bird Club. See the MOS calendar for details. ◾ The local chapter of the Maryland Ornithological Society is the Patuxent Bird Club, which offers field trips and meetings with informative programs, all free and open to the public.
From the Capital Beltway (I-495): Exit onto MD Route 450/Annapolis Road, eastbound. Make a left to go north onto MD Route 197/Laurel-Bowie Road. Just north of Bowie State University and after going over an overpass over the MARC railroad line, make a right to go east on Lemons Bridge Road. Follow road to the gate at the park entrance, or (preferred) turn right to enter the Bowie State Park & Ride and walk the rest of the way into the park.
From the Baltimore Beltway (I-695): Exit onto MD Route 295/Baltimore-Washington Parkway southbound. Travel south on the Parkway for approximately 15 miles to the unnumbered exit for MD Route 197/Laurel-Bowie Road southbound. At the stoplight at the end of the exit ramp, turn left to go south on Route 197 for approximately 5.6 miles. Make a left to go east on Lemons Bridge Road. Follow Lemons Bridge Road to the gate at the park entrance, or (preferred) turn right to enter the Bowie State Park & Ride and walk the rest of the way into the park.
Prince George’s County: Governor Bridge Natural Area, Greenbelt (National) Park, Greenbelt Lake Municipal Park (Buddy Attick Lake Park), Lake Artemesia Natural Area, Patuxent Research Refuge – South Tract (National Wildlife Visitor Center), Patuxent River Park – Jug Bay Natural Area, Patuxent River Park – Mount Calvert Historical & Archaeological Park, Schoolhouse Pond
Anne Arundel County: Davidsonville Park, Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary, Oxbow Natural Area, Patuxent Research Refuge – North Tract, Piney Orchard Nature Preserve
Bottomland DeciduousConifersHedgerows Reclaimed Industrial Site Old Fields, Shrubby Meadows Forested SwampFreshwater Marsh or FloodplainFreshwater Pond, Lake, or ReservoirRivers & Streams
Bicycle Trails (Bikes may be prohibited on some trails)Free - No Entry FeeHiking/Walking TrailsLake, Pond, Bay, River, OceanNative Plant Garden or Meadow/Pollinator PlantsParkingPets Allowed
The Rivers of the Western ShoreWater Trails