At a Glance
Hours: Dawn to dusk.
Tips: Restrooms are at both ends of the trail and at parking/access points in between; see trail map set at link below. ■ Hunting takes place in several adjacent tracts. Be aware of hunting seasons and stay on the paved trail.
Rules: No motorized vehicles (Exemption: electric wheelchairs permitted). ■ It is illegal to be on the trail during non-daylight hours. ■ Stop at all road crossings and yield to road traffic. ■ Respect the rights of adjacent homeowners – stay within the trail boundaries. ■ Alcohol, drugs, and smoking are prohibited. No amplified music. Bikers must wear helmets. ■ Weapons prohibited.■ Leashed pets are welcome (6-foot leash or less – no retractable leashes); owners are required to clean up after their pet. ■ Do not litter.
Best Seasons: Year-round.
Breeding Bird Atlas Blocks: Indian Head NE, Port Tobacco NW, Port Tobacco CW, Port Tobacco NE, La Plata NW
Indian Head Rail Trail
Eastern Terminus: 10390 Theodore Green Boulevard, White Plains, MD 20695
Western Terminus: 27 Mattingly Avenue, Indian Head, MD 20640
Charles County is justifiably proud of the Indian Head Rail Trail, a paved hiker-biker trail that runs east-west for 13 miles between the towns of White Plains, on US Route 301, and Indian Head, on the Potomac River. The Rail Trail follows the right-of-way of an abandoned railroad that was originally built to carry supplies to the Naval Support Facility at Indian Head. The railbed was donated to the county through the Federal Lands to Parks Program of the Department of the Interior and the trail is now maintained by the Charles County Parks Department. The Rail Trail has several access points with parking and portable toilets. See the trail map set at link at left.
For the birder, the allure of the Indian Head Rail Trail lies in the fact that it passes through prime bird habitat and through thousands of acres of protected lands in the Mattawoman Natural Environmental Area, Chapman Residual Wildlife Management Area, and Myrtle Grove Wildlife Management Area.
At its western end, the Rail Trail lies in the stream valley of the Mattawoman Creek, with its extensive wetlands and it rich network of tributary streams. Near the middle, the Rail Trail parallels Old Woman Run, and as it nears White Plains at its eastern end, the Rail Trail passes through the stream valleys of several tributaries of Port Tobacco Creek.
As a result, more than 11 miles of the 13-mile Rail Trail go through designated wetland habitats. Much of these wetlands are wooded, so there is a mix of interior-forest-dwelling birds and wetland birds. Between Chapel Springs Place and Bensville Road, the south side of the Rail Trail parallels a power line cut, adding some brushy habitat to the mix.
The National Audubon Society has designated two Important Bird Areas that are adjacent to the western end of the Rail Trail: the Chapman State Park Important Bird Area and the Mattawoman Creek Important Bird Area.
And, all this habitat is easily accessible to the walker, biker, or wheelchair user. The Rail Trail has parking near its two ends and also at several intermediate points: the Mason Springs area at Livingston Road, Bensville Park on Bensville Road, and at Middletown Road (see trail maps at link at left). It’s not necessary to traverse the whole Rail Trail at one time; instead, you can use one of the intermediate access points to focus on a particular section. Most of the Rail Trail is on level ground, with only a few easy grades.
A trio of eBird hotspots are on or near the western half of the Indian Head Rail Trail:
- Mattawoman Creek–Mattingly Park, near the west end of the Rail Trail – 103+ species
- Indian Head Rail Trail – Mason Springs – 142+ species
- Bumpy Oak Swamp – 112+ species
And a fourth hotspot was recently established to cover the eastern portion of the Rail Trail from Middletown Road to Crain Highway, a distance of about 2.2 miles; this hotspot has only 39 species and 2 checklists as of summer 2021, but the number of bird species will grow as more birders use the eastern end of the Rail Trail.
The area near the Mason Springs hotspot has been the most productive to date. A baker’s dozen of waterfowl have been reported: Canada Goose, Tundra Swan, Wood Duck, Blue-winged Teal, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Mallard, American Black Duck, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Bufflehead, Hooded Merganser, and Common Merganser.
American Woodcock is sometimes found in the spring. Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, and Green Herons frequent the wetlands. Ospreys and Bald Eagles are plentiful breeders, with eagles being present all year and Ospreys from March through September. Other locally breeding raptors include Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks.
Red-headed Woodpeckers also breed along the Rail Trail, and are found all year round. Summer brings breeding populations of neo-tropical migrants such as Acadian Flycatcher, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Eastern Phoebe, Great Crested Flycatcher, White-eyed Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Yellow-throated Vireo, and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. House Wrens are present in the warm months, replaced by Winter Wrens in the cold months, and Carolina Wrens are present all the time. Eastern Bluebirds are prevalent year-round, and Wood Thrushes are here during breeding season. Hermit Thrushes over-winter. Swamp Sparrows are abundant in winter, and White-crowned Sparrows can sometimes be found during winter.
Other breeding birds include Baltimore Oriole, Orchard Oriole, Yellow-breasted Chat, Summer Tanager, Scarlet Tanager, Blue Grosbeak, and Indigo Bunting. In some years, Rusty Blackbirds can be found in winter along the trail. Breeding warblers include Ovenbird, Louisiana Waterthrush, Prothonotary, Kentucky, Common Yellowthroat, Hooded, American Redstart, Northern Parula, Yellow, Pine, Yellow-throated and Prairie. Yellow-rumped Warblers over-winter here, and can be found through a long span, from October through May.
The entire Indian Head Rail Trail is wheelchair-accessible, and motorized wheelchairs are permitted. No other motor vehicles may use the trail. Portable restrooms at various ponds along the trail are handicapped-accessible. There is a permanent restroom providing ADA access at Mattingly Park in Indian Head.
All pets must be on leash 6 feet or less in length (no retractable leashes) and you must pick up after your pet.
The Indian Head Rail Trail lies, in part, within the Chapman State Park Important Bird Area and the Mattawoman Creek Important Bird Area, as designated by the National Audubon Society.
The Mattawoman Creek Water Trail uses Mattingly Park as one of its access points. The Water Trail goes into prime wetland habitat in the Mattawoman Natural Environmental Area. The Water Trail is depicted on the interactive map of the Maryland Public Water Access Atlas and in the Charles County Water Trails brochure. ■ The Mason Springs Conservancy maintains a kayak launch near the Mason Springs Parking Area for the Rail Trail. See Google map.
Local Bird Clubs:
There is no chapter of the Maryland Ornithological Society in Charles County, but many birders 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 Maryland Audubon Society serves birders in Charles, Calvert, St.Mary’s and Prince George’s Counties.
There are paved parking areas near both ends of the trail and at intermediate points. See Directions below and trail map set at link at left.
- Eastern Terminus: 10390 Theodore Green Boulevard, White Plains, MD 20695; GPS Coordinates: 38.591474, -76.946960
- Middletown Road parking area: approximate address 4480 Middletown Road, Pomfret, MD or use 4450 Indian Head Rail Trail, White Plains, MD 20695 ; GPS Coordinates: 38.595041, -76.979871
- Bensville Park parking area: address 6980 Bensville Road, White Plains, MD; GPS Coordinates: 38.598845, -77.018772
- Mason Springs Parking area: approximate address 4970 Livingstone Road, Indian Head, MD 20640; GPS Coordinates: 38.591631, -77.112422
- Western Terminus: actual trailhead is at 27 Mattingly Avenue, Indian Head, MD 20640; GPS Coordinates: 38.597050, -77.168207. However, there is no parking immediately adjacent to the trailhead. Park at one of three nearby locations:
- Village Green Park, 100 Walter Thomas Road, Indian Head, MD 20640; GPS Coordinates 38.600487, -77.166999
- Charlie Wright Park, Dr. Mitchell Lane, Indian Head, MD 20640; GPS Coordinates: 38.601283, -77.167254
- Mattingly Park, 108 Mattingly Avenue in Indian Head, MD 20640; GPS Coordinates: 38.591252, -77.161836
Charles County: Allen’s Fresh Natural Area / Zekiah Swamp Natural Environmental Area ■ Cedarville State Forest ■ Chapman State Park & Chapman Residual Wildlife Management Area ■ Indian Creek Natural Resources Management Area ■ Mattawoman Natural Environmental Area ■ Maxwell Hall Park ■ Myrtle Grove Wildlife Management Area ■ Smallwood State Park
Bottomland DeciduousConifersHedgerowsUpland Deciduous Agricultural Crop Fields or Fallow FieldsHay Meadows, Pasture, Grass FieldOld Fields, Shrubby Meadows Forested SwampFreshwater Marsh or FloodplainFreshwater Pond, Lake, or ReservoirRivers & StreamsSalt or Brackish Marsh
Features:BeginnersBicycle Trails (Bikes may be prohibited on some trails)Free - No Entry Fee at Any TimeHabitat Restoration ProjectNative Plant Garden or Meadow/Pollinator PlantsObservation Platform or TowerParkingPets AllowedPicnic AreaPlaygroundRestroomsWater ViewWheelchair Accessible FeaturesYoung People / Families
Type:Audubon Important Bird AreasHiker-Biker Trails (Paved)