At a Glance
- South Tract Grounds open daily, sunrise to sunset; closed on Federal Holidays.
- Visitor Center open Tuesday – Saturday, 9 am – 4:30 pm; closed on Federal Holidays.
- Wildlife Images Bookstore and Nature Shop open Tuesday – Friday, 11 am to 4 pm, and on Saturday 10 am to 4 pm; closed on Federal Holidays.
Cost: Free. Donations to Friends of Patuxent are appreciated and are used to support the Refuge and the Science Center, which as government organizations cannot accept donations directly from the public.
Tips: Bring a scope to view the lakes near the Visitor Center. ■ Wear sturdy hiking boots if you plan to walk the trails. ■ Managed hunting is conducted at North Tract, Central Tract, and in parts of South Tract that are not open to the general public. Be aware of hunting in progress and do not stray off the public trails. ■ Restrooms are located in the Visitor Center, in the main parking lot, and at the Cash Lake Fishing Area.
Best Seasons: Year-round.
Breeding Bird Atlas Blocks: Laurel SE, Laurel SW, Laurel CE, Laurel CW
Patuxent Research Refuge – South Tract (National Wildlife Visitor Center)
10901 Scarlet Tanager Loop, Laurel, MD 20708-4027
Patuxent Research Refuge is a facility of the National Wildlife Refuge System and totals 12,841 acres, consisting of three tracts: South Tract (2,389 acres) in Prince George’s County, North Tract (8,126 acres) in Anne Arundel County, and Central Tract (2,326 acres), which overlaps both counties. North and South Tracts are open to the public but Central Tract, which houses the Eastern Ecological Science Center (formerly known as the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center), is closed to the public. (Birds that you see reported on eBird from within Central Tract have usually been observed by the Science Center’s employees.) See the separate description for North Tract in this Birder’s Guide, and note that there is no direct access between North and South Tracts – one has to drive on public roads to go between the two areas.
The presence of Patuxent Research Refuge in Southern Maryland is a great honor – it puts Maryland on the wildlife research science map – and the Refuge is an outstanding resource for our birding community. Established in 1936 by executive order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Patuxent Research Refuge is the nation’s only national wildlife refuge established to conduct wildlife research. Today much of the research on the refuge is conducted by the US Geological Survey (USGS) through its Eastern Ecological Science Center. Two of the notable programs within the Science Center are the Bird Banding Laboratory and the North American Breeding Bird Survey. The wildlife and habitat research being conducted by the Eastern Ecological Science Center goes well beyond birds, to include fish, pollinators, freshwater and coastal ecology, and wildlife diseases; read about the science programs. US Fish and Wildlife Service biologists also conduct research and projects on habitat management and species conservation at the Refuge.
South Tract includes the National Wildlife Visitor Center, which features displays about wildlife and projects at the Refuge as well as at other refuges across the country; a gallery for rotating art and photography exhibits: a permanent exhibit of wildlife photographs: a viewing area that looks out over one of the lakes at the Refuge; a large auditorium; smaller meeting rooms; a bookstore and nature shop; the Kids Discovery Center; and restrooms. Just outside the Visitor Center is a native plant and pollinator garden with a bird feeding station, a photography blind, and comfortable benches for viewing.
South Tract’s 5-mile network of trails is centered on the Visitor Center:
- Loop Trail – (0.3 mi.) is a paved and fully accessible trail. It starts at the Visitor Center’s side door and offers views of both Lake Redington and Cash Lake. Plantings inside the loop offer a demonstration of the PEPCO power line right-of-way management program, meadow management, and a mitigation wetland. This trail also provides access to the other trails.
- Goose Pond Trail – (0.2 mi.) parallels the woods’ edge as it wanders first through a forested wetland area as it leads to Goose Pond. Goose Pond Trail terminates at Goose Pond where one can sometimes see waterfowl and several waterfowl management practices. There is also an outdoor education area and access to Cash Lake and Laurel Trails.
- Fire Road Trail – (0.9 mi.) begins at the intersection of Valley and Laurel Trails, and crosses the exit road before ending at the edge of the Visitor Center parking lot. This wooded trail in a pine and hardwood forest travels through an old experimental tree cutting area and follows an old fire road.
- Laurel Trail – This woodland trail (0.4 mi.) was named for the many Mountain Laurels found along the trail. Visitors have the opportunity to see woodland songbirds, mammals (esp. deer) and evidence of their habitat use in this mid-successional forest. This trail is dedicated to Chandler S. Robbins, the esteemed ornithologist and MOS member whose remarkable career at Patuxent Research Refuge started in 1943 and ended only with his death in 2017. Chan’s research interests were broad, but a central theme was the study of migratory birds and effects of habitat fragmentation on bird populations. The trail is marked with a bronze plaque placed by MOS to commemorate Chan’s 50th year of research at Patuxent. Visitors can continue along Valley Trail and return to Goose Pond via Cash Lake Trail.
- Valley Trail – (0.6 mi.) connects Cash Lake and Laurel Trails, and follows a gully up a slight grade next to a woodland valley . Along this trail, visitors can see features of a predominantly oak and beech hardwood forest.Cash Lake Trail
- Cash Lake Trail – (1.4 mi.) travels along the edge of Cash Lake, the largest impoundment at Patuxent Research Refuge. This trail offers many opportunities to view the lake and its waterfowl, as well as a beaver lodge and evidence of their activity. Two new camouflaged viewing blinds provide excellent viewing for birders and photographers. There is also a seasonal fishing program at Cash Lake, with fishing by permit from the accessible pier and along parts of the shoreline. Information and permits are available at the information desk. Parts of the Cash Lake trail along the shoreline may be closed seasonally during wet conditions and to avoid disturbance of nesting waterfowl.
- Forests of Patuxent Discovery Hike – (1.7 mile) is a self-guided hike, which begins at Goose Pond Trail and uses the Cash Lake, Valley, and Laurel Trails. This discovery hike is marked with numbered posts corresponding to descriptions in the downloadable trail guide .
- Coming soon will be the Wisdom Trail, featuring trailside activities to introduce families to the common birds of the Refuge. Leading from the Visitor Center to the newly named Dr. Chandler S. Robbins Outdoor Education Center, the Wisdom Trail will invite visitors to “walk in Chan’s footsteps” as they explore the Refuge grounds that Chan knew so well. The Outdoor Education Center is a pavilion tucked away in the woods, with displays honoring the life and research of Chan Robbins, the world-renowned ornithologist and esteemed leader of the Maryland Ornithological Society, who spent his entire professional career at Patuxent Research Refuge. The name of the trail honors both Chan and the female Laysan Albatross known as Wisdom, which was banded by Dr. Robbins at Midway Atoll in 1956, and rebanded by him years later. As of this writing (December 2022), Wisdom is still alive and breeding; she is widely thought to be the oldest living bird in the world.
Patuxent’s trails were built to let people enjoy nature without disturbing the environment. Please remember to stay on the trails to avoid damaging the vegetation, and do not enter areas that are marked off-limits to visitors.
For children, the Refuge has a free downloadable app that helps kids explore the Refuge while getting a start at being community scientists. Agents of Discovery is a game that challenges kids to locate and collect missing data while learning about nature.
Patuxent Research Refuge can be considered a significant landmark in the history of wildlife conservation. Some of the world’s most important research related to conservation of birds and other species has been carried out at Patuxent, with wide-reaching effects throughout the country and the world. Some of the better-known projects have included:
- Research on the bioaccumulation of DDT and its effects on egg-shell thinning in birds, which caused severe population declines in top-level predators such as Bald Eagle and Osprey; the Patuxent research, inspired Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, and led to a restriction on the use of DDT, with the ultimate recovery of both Ospreys and Bald Eagles.
- Chandler Robbins and his colleagues published a series of papers documenting the effects of forest fragmentation on breeding success of Forest Interior Dwelling Species. This work is reflected in the layout of the Refuge itself: the entrance drive on South Tract is purposely divided into two narrow one-way routes, separated by a wide forested island, in order to retain unbroken forest canopy over the paved roads.
- Advances in the science of bird banding and later recapture. The most notable example of this research is the Laysan Albatross named Wisdom, mentioned above. But Wisdom is just one example of the millions of birds that have been banded through the USGS Bird Landing Laboratory’s programs, which have been instrumental in establishing an understanding of bird populations and migrations.
- Patuxent is indelibly linked to its role in captive breeding of endangered species in order to restore them to the wild. This work is exemplified by Patuxent’s Whooping Crane breeding program, from 1967 until 2018. This short article on the USGS website was written in 2018, before the program came to an end later that year, when the Patuxent birds were dispersed to other facilities.
- The North American Breeding Bird Survey and the Breeding Bird Atlas are other ongoing projects that arose from the work of Chandler Robbins and others at Patuxent.
A printable checklist compiled by the Friends of Patuxent includes 282 species. Over 260 species have been reported on eBird for the Refuge as a whole. There are eight eBird hotspots at the Refuge, but only one of these is on South Tract:
Given the presence of the teams of US Fish and Wildlife biologists and Eastern Ecological Science Center researchers at Patuxent, the bird populations at the Refuge are arguably the best-studied in Maryland. The deep knowledge of Patuxent’s birds dates back to the seminal 1952 article by Stewart, Cope, Robbins and Brainerd, “Seasonal Distribution of Bird Populations at the Patuxent Research Refuge,” published in 1952. This article provides a baseline for comparison with present-day birds at the Refuge, and the changes in occurrence and population are quite startling (e.g., up until 1941, the Refuge had a small breeding population of Henslow’s sparrows, birds now restricted to far western Maryland and considered a threatened species in Maryland).
Patuxent South Tract is particularly known for its rich population of Forest Interior Dwelling Species. Third-five species of warblers have been documented during migration or as residents, including 15 breeding species (see Friends of Patuxent’s checklist).
Also notable are breeding populations of Wild Turkey, Bald Eagle, Osprey, Wood Duck, Hooded Merganser, Green Heron, Pileated Woodpecker, Warbling Vireo, Willow Flycatcher, and several swallow species. Spotted Sandpipers lurk in the vegetation at the edge of Cash Lake, where a floating boardwalk takes you into marshy habitat.
South Tract is a good place to look for migrant thrushes. warblers, and other songbirds in fall and spring.
In winter, look for a wide variety of waterfowl; American Tree, Swamp, and Savannah Sparrows; and Rusty Blackbirds on the lake shores.
The Loop Trail that runs between the Visitor Center and the causeway between Cash Lake and Lake Redington is paved and wheelchair-accessible, offering excellent viewing over both lakes. Other trails are natural surface and are not wheelchair-accessible. There are wheelchair-accessible restrooms in the Visitor Center and a wheelchair-accessible restroom in the parking area, and also on the far side of Cash Lake at the fishing area. The Visitor Center is fully wheelchair-accessible.
Pets are allowed on leash; pick up after your pet.
The entire Patuxent Research Refuge has been designated as an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society.
Patuxent Research Refuge is part of the US Fish and Wildlife Urban Wildlife Conservation Program, which works to ensure that urban populations have access to wildlife and natural habitats. Through this program, Patuxent partners with local community groups to increase appreciation of local ecosystems.
The non-profit organization Friends of Patuxent works to support the Patuxent Research Refuge and the Eastern Ecological Science Center. The Friends is a membership organization; membership dues and donations are used to support the Refuge and the Science Center, which as government organizations, are not able to accept direct donations from the public.
The Hotchkiss-Harms Herbarium, a collection of plant specimens from the Refuge, is housed at the National Wildlife Visitor Center. The herbarium’s database of vascular plants is available online to the public.
Popular activities at the Refuge include hiking and trail running, fishing, biking ( North Tract), nature photography, and horseback riding (North Tract).
Managed hunting is conducted at North Tract, Central Tract, and in parts of South Tract that are not open to the general public.
The Refuge offers a wide range of ranger-led public programs at both North and South Tracts. Patuxent public programs are small-group interpretive activities designed for individuals and/or families. Some programs are for all ages; some are intended for specific age ranges, including groups as young as 18 months. Typically, pre-registration is required. Programs are free.
Local MOS Chapter:
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.
- The US Fish and Wildlife Service has posted a brief YouTube video that shows aspects of both North and South Tracts at Patuxent Research Refuge. The Refuge’s partnership with Masonville Cove Environmental Education Center in Baltimore is featured in some scenes.
- Agents of Discovery is a free app that youngsters can play outdoors on a smart phone. Through the game, kids locate and collect missing data while learning about nature. The kids are given a mission to locate hidden Challenges and provide the answers that research scientists need to update the Refuge’s database.
Large paved parking lot near the Visitor Center, with a solar-powered recharging station for electric vehicles. Smaller gravel lot at the Cash Lake Fishing Area, accessed through a separate gate on MD Route 197.
From Washington, D.C.: Take Baltimore/Washington Parkway (MD Route 295) North, Exit 22 for Powder Mill Road. Turn right (east) onto Powder Mill Road and go 2.0 miles. Turn right into Visitor Center entrance (Scarlet Tanager Loop). Go 1.4 miles to Visitor Center Parking area.
From Baltimore, MD: Take Baltimore/Washington Parkway (MD Route 295) south to the Powder Mill Road Exit. Turn left onto Powder Mill Road (East). Go 2.0 miles and turn right into Visitor Center entrance (Scarlet Tanager Loop). Go 1.4 miles to Visitor Center Parking area.
From Annapolis, MD: Take US Route 50 West to Exit 11 for MD Route 197/Collington Road and Bowie. Follow Route 197 North for about 7 miles, past Bowie State University. Turn left at Powder Mill Road. Follow Powder Mill Road for about 1/2 mile; then turn left into Visitor Center entrance (Scarlet Tanager Loop). Go 1.4 miles to Visitor Center Parking area.
Prince George’s County: Beltsville Agricultural Research Center (restricted access) ■ Bladensburg Waterfront Park, Colmar Manor Community Park & Anacostia River Trail ■ Cedarville State Forest ■ Fort Foote Park ■ Fort Washington (National) Park ■ Fran Uhler Natural Area ■ Governor Bridge Natural Area ■ Greenbelt (National) Park ■ Greenbelt Lake Municipal Park (Buddy Attick Lake Park) ■ Lake Artemesia Natural Area ■ Merkle Natural Resources Management Area ■ Milltown Landing Natural Resources Management Area ■ Oxon Cove Park & Oxon Hill Farm ■ Patuxent River Park – Jug Bay Natural Area ■ Patuxent River Park – Mount Calvert Historical & Archaeological Park ■ Piscataway MOS Sanctuary ■ Piscataway (National) Park: National Colonial Farm, Boardwalk, Wharf Road/Farmington Landing & Marshall Hall ■ Rocky Gorge Reservoir – Supplee Lane Recreation Area & Duckett Dam ■ Rosaryville State Park ■ Schoolhouse Pond
Anne Arundel County: Davidsonville Park ■ Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary ■ Kinder Farm Park ■ Lake Waterford Park ■ Oxbow Natural Area ■ Patuxent Research Refuge – North Tract ■ Piney Orchard Nature Preserve
Features:BeginnersBicycle Trails (Bikes may be prohibited on some trails)Bird Feeding StationBoardwalkFishingFree - No Entry Fee at Any TimeGift Shop or BookstoreHiking/Walking TrailsNative Plant Garden or Meadow/Pollinator PlantsNature Education ProgramsObservation Platform or TowerParkingPets AllowedRestroomsVisitor Center, Interpretive Displays, ExhibitsWater ViewWheelchair Accessible FeaturesYoung People / Families
Type:Audubon Important Bird AreasNational Wildlife RefugesNature CentersPonds, Lakes, and Reservoirs