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 consists of three tracts: South Tract in Prince George’s County, North Tract in Anne Arundel County, and Central Tract, which overlaps both counties. North and South Tracts are open to the public but Central Tract, which houses 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 Research 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 and 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 support wildlife research. Today most of the research on the refuge is conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) through the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Two of the notable programs within the Research Center are the Bird Banding Laboratory and the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Read more about the science programs at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.
South Tract’s 2,600 acres houses the National Wildlife Visitor Center, a state-of-the-art building with displays about wildlife and projects at the Refuge, an area 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, and restrooms. Just outside the Visitor Center is a native plant and pollinator garden with a bird feeding station 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 leaves the visitor center gallery 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 leads to Cash Lake, Valley and Laurel trails. This discovery hike is marked with numbered posts corresponding to numbers in the downloadable trail guide . The trails were built to let people enjoy nature without disturbing the environment. Please remember to stay on the trails to avoid damaging the vegetation.
About 220 species have been reported on eBird. The official checklist for Patuxent Research Refuge includes 270 species.
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 spot to look for migrant thrushes and warblers 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.
Large paved parking lot near the Visitor Center. A solar-powered recharging station is available for electric vehicles.
The trail 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. ◾ The non-profit organization Friends of Patuxent works to support the Patuxent Research Refuge and Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. ◾ The refuge offers a wide range of public programs at both North and South Tracts. Patuxent public programs are small-group interpretive activities conducted by staff and volunteers. The programs are designed for individuals and/or families. Some programs are “all ages”. Some are intended for specific age ranges including groups as young as 18 months. Typically, registration is required. Programs are free. Check monthly schedules. ◾ The entire Patuxent Research Refuge has been designated as an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society. ◾ 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 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 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: Bladensburg Waterfront Park, Colmar Manor Community Park & Anacostia River Trail, Fran Uhler Natural Area, Governor Bridge Natural Area, Greenbelt (National) Park, Greenbelt Lake Municipal Park (Buddy Attick Lake Park), Lake Artemesia Natural Area, 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, Kinder Farm Park, Lake Waterford Park, Oxbow Natural Area, Patuxent Research Refuge – North Tract, Piney Orchard Nature Preserve
Bottomland DeciduousConifersHedgerowsUpland Deciduous Old Fields, Shrubby Meadows Forested SwampFreshwater Marsh or FloodplainFreshwater Pond, Lake, or ReservoirRivers & Streams
BeginnersBicycle Trails (Bikes may be prohibited on some trails)Bird Feeding StationBoardwalkFishingFree - No Entry FeeGift Shop or BookstoreHiking/Walking TrailsLake, Pond, Bay, River, OceanNative Plant Garden or Meadow/Pollinator PlantsNature CenterObservation Platform or TowerParkingPets AllowedRestroomsVisitor Center, Interpretive Displays, ExhibitsWheelchair Accessible FeaturesYoung People / Families
Audubon Important Bird AreasNational Wildlife RefugesNature CentersPonds, Lakes, and Reservoirs