WEEK Seven #EXPLORETHERESERVE: MCKEE-BESHERS WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREA
Welcome to #explorethereserve week seven! This week brings us to the amazing McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area, site of centuries of fascinating human history and beautiful natural habitats to enjoy. More than sunflower fields and nature–ancient Native American villages rest here, remains of centuries-old horse traps, the site of what was the world’s largest telescope, and a Potomac River island once used for bootlegging and another island on the National Register of Historic Places. Come explore McKee-Beshers with me!
What is #explorethereserve?
This community outreach project highlights weekly locations with ideas for getting off screens and heading outside to improve mental and physical health, explore our corner of MoCo, and provide inspiration for COVID-safe adventures in and near the Ag Reserve.
Click here to read more about #explorethereserve. Check out past #explorethereserve adventures linked at the bottom of this post.
mckee-beshers wildlife management area
The nearly 2000 acres of McKee-Beshers WMA are bordered by Seneca Creek State Park to the east and the C&O Canal and Potomac River to the south. This resource is managed to support wildlife and offers birding, hiking, dog training, fishing, and hunting opportunities. As you may expect from the name, there is plenty of wildlife here, including deer, turkeys, foxes, songbirds, waterfowl, and more, grounded in a range of habitat from forest to field to marshland. Best known for its beautiful acres of sunflower fields that burst into bloom in July, McKee-Beshers is well-deserving of attention the other 10 months of the year as well.
HUNTING & FARMING
This area has been used for hunting for centuries, first by the Native American tribes in this region who mostly lived below Great Falls prior to European settlement. They called the Potomac above the Falls cohongorotoo. In fact, River Road was once a Native American path. Today, the buried remains of 6 villages lie between White’s Ferry and McKee-Beshers. (See the “Dig Deeper” section near the end of this post for a fantastic Native American Heritage Trail.)
European settler use dates back to 1695 when colonial Maryland Ranger Richard Brightwell claimed this isolated area that he described as a “howling wilderness” to enjoy hunting and fishing. He dubbed it Brightwell’s Hunting Quarter. According to an article in the Monocacy Monocle, Brightwell noted that this area was home to “buffalo, elk, deer, wolves, and wild turkeys.” He also observed that the Seneca tribe had become predominant in the area over time. Historically the area has also been used for farming due to its rich alluvial soils and even today almost 200 acres are leased for agricultural use.
MILLS CROSS TELESCOPE ARRAY
Once home to the world’s largest radio telescope, the array at McKee-Beshers was the site for the 1955 discovery of radio emissions from other planets. Radio telescopes do not look like what you probably picture when you hear the word “telescope”; the 96 acre Mills Cross Array consisted of 66 antennas strung with 5 miles worth of wire.
These fields are just off River Road and were home to the radio telescope array, noted with a historical marker. Today they are a mix of open fields and young forest, with some fields planted in sunflowers as a food source for birds, animals, and pollinators. The sunflower fields’ location rotates each year, so be sure to check the Maryland DNR site before visiting. This spot has become wildly popular in the DC region in the last few years, so you may encounter lots of traffic and crowds if visiting at a popular hour during peak bloom.
Beyond the upper fields that border River Road, the landscape drops into the Potomac floodplain. Here are the green tree reservoirs, 80 acres of forest that are flooded each fall and winter to provide habitat for waterfowl and other migrating birds. During the summer, you may also see water lilies in bloom. The “ponds” at the western end of Hunting Quarter Road are known as “Hughes Hollow” and are a great site for bird watching. Over 245 species have been spotted here and it’s considered a top birding spot in Montgomery County.
You can continue hiking past the ponds through fields, some planted with crops by the DNR to attract wildlife, and through forests. This area can get quite swampy and even flood a bit during rainy weather, so rain boots are recommended. Somewhere in McKee-Beshers lies the Montgomery County Champion Overcup Oak tree.
I found the stone remains of what may be an old bank barn in some overgrowth just off the trail.
Access from the Sycamore Landing lot or take a hiking trail around the ponds area south to the C&O Canal. At mile marker 26.1 you will find the C&O Canal Horsepen Branch hiker-biker campsite, named for the stream it crosses. This odd name dates back to the era of Ranger Brightwell, when men would dig pits to capture wild horses. Occasionally you may still see remaining impressions of these “horse pens.” A Montgomery County Champion Sugarberry tree is at this campsite.
POTOMAC RIVER & MADDUX ISLAND
As you approach the edge of the Potomac, you will notice a few islands midstream. Some of the Potomac’s islands are privately owned and have their own histories; Tenfoot Island was once home to a moonshiner and the remains of Selden Island’s Walker Prehistoric Village is on the National Register of Historic Places. Considered part of McKee-Beshers, Maddux or Van Deventer Island is accessible to the public but can only be reached by boat.
McKee-Beshers VISITING TIPS
There are no bathroom facilities, trash cans, benches, or picnic tables in McKee-Beshers, though there is a portapotty at the C&O hiker-biker campsite. You may like to bring a folding chair or old blanket with you to take a rest. Please be sure to take all trash with you when you leave.
Hiking trails are not marked and some may be in better condition than others. Some parking lots and trailheads have notice boards with maps and others do not–download a copy of the map before your visit.
Accessibility is a challenge here–some areas are close to parking lots (like the ponds at Hughes Hollow, the Sycamore Landing field and C&O access, and Mills Cross field) but there are no paved surfaces.
Click here for the Maryland DNR map of McKee-Beshers. Annually, an additional map with sunflower field locations is also posted since the plantings are rotated each year.
MCKEE-Beshers SAFETY TIPS
Hunting Quarter Road is accurately labeled on the map as a “rough road”–take it easy as you drive along it. The lower part of McKee-Beshers is prone to flooding, including the road itself. Remember–turn around, don’t drown.
Since this is an area used for hunting, keep to marked trails. For added safety, you can wear brightly colored clothing or opt to visit on Sundays, when hunting is disallowed.
OPTIONS & IDEAS FOR WEEK Seven #EXPLORETHERESERVE: McKee-Beshers Wildlife management area
- Bike or drive the Potomac Bottomlands Trail‘s historical and geological sites on this 10 mile loop by Sugarloaf Regional Trails
- Bird watching Depending on the time of year, you may see native species, winter visitors, or migrating birds passing through
- Hike, bike, or horseback ride the trails of McKee-Beshers and the C&O Canal towpath
- Hunting and fishing Visit Maryland DNR website for regulations and more info.
- Stargaze This informative article offers tips and resources for Maryland stargazers
- Volunteer Check out Maryland’s DNR page on giving back for more info.
DIG DEEPER INTO LOCAL HISTORY, NATURE, & CULTURE
- Bread and Beauty: A Year in Montgomery County’s Agricultural Reserve This wonderfully photographed cookbook captures not just the beauty and flavors of the Ag Reserve but its history and people too.
- Field Guide to North American Birds: Eastern Region, National Audubon Society Up your birding game with this guide.
- National Geographic Backyard Guide to the Night Sky Packed with charts, graphics, and helpful tips.
(AFFILIATE MARKETING NOTICE: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. If you purchase a book from any of the Amazon links above, I will earn a small commission fee.)
- Canal Quarters Offers overnights at restored C&O lockhouses, some rustic and others with modern comforts. Edward’s Ferry, Pennyfield, and Swains are in or near the Ag Reserve. Swains is ADA accessible.
- “The History of Montgomery County, Maryland” This digitized 1879 book includes a section on Brightwell’s Hunting Quarter.
- “How One Night in a Field Changed Astronomy“ Read this NASA article about the remarkable astronomical discovery made at McKee-Beshers
- Native American Heritage Trail This Sugarloaf Regional Trails guide traces local Native American history along the C&O Canal from Noland’s Ferry to Seneca
SUPPORT AG RESERVE LOCAL BUSINESSES
While you’re out and about, help support local businesses by stopping in for a snack or meal. Please check operating days and hours via business websites and social media. Many of these are small, family-run operations with funky opening hours/days. I recommend:
- Cafe 107 Grab a quick bite to eat or a coffee
- Calleva Farm Cafe Enjoy a farm fresh breakfast or lunch in the fresh air
- The Healthy Hub Healthy smoothies, energy teas, and light bites
- Mexican Grill Best Mexican food in MoCo
- Rocklands Farm Historic farm, vineyard, and great picnic spot
- Windridge Vineyards Vino and food trucks with a view
LET’S KEEP EXPLORING THE AG RESERVE
New adventures will be posted each Wednesday morning on the Taste Travel Teach website and linked via the Taste Travel Teach FB page. Check out past #explorethereserve spots linked at the bottom of this post.
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Suggestions for upcoming #explorethereserve adventures? Click on the Contact button here.
Thanks for reading and taking part in #explorethereserve. I hope you enjoyed learning, exploring, and discovering more about Montgomery County’s Ag Reserve. See you next Wednesday for a new adventure!
ABOUT TASTE TRAVEL TEACH & CHRISTINE RAI
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Copyright Christine Rai, 2020