Cycling Blackwater Refuge to Hoopers Island

by Jim Rapp

Naturalist Jim Rapp will tell us about cycling through the Chesapeake marshes from Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge to Hoopers Island.

Dorchester County's country roads gently turn and twist through flat, vast coastal marshes and over scenic Chesapeake waterways. The roads near Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge are well paved and ideal for cycling. You'll be rewarded with Bald Eagle sightings too numerous to count, history and heritage in every village along the way, and stunning sunsets.

The views you'll enjoy have remained nearly unchanged since Captain John Smith explored the region 400 years ago. In 1822, Dorchester County's own Harriet Tubman was born here, and later led slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad through the same landscape you can explore today.

To help plan your cycling adventure, download or order the Dorchester County cycling guide, which can be found at You can also stop at the Visitor Center in Cambridge, located on the Choptank River at the east end of the Route 50 bridge. The friendly tourism staff can assist you with planning your itinerary.

This cycling guide offers routes for serious distance athletes and leisurely family trips. Off busy Route 50, most of Dorchester's roads are lightly traveled.

One popular 45-mile loop begins at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and courses through the marshes and tidal guts down to Hoopers Island, or -- as the locals pronounce it -- Huhppers Island. The area is named for Henry Hooper, who settled his family here in 1699.

These three small islands, located southwest of Blackwater and separated from the mainland marshes by the Honga River, are connected by causeways. Working watermen villages were established here in the mid-1600s, just a few decades after Captain John Smith created the first detailed map of this area, now known as the Heart of Chesapeake Country. Most families living here today still have deep connections to the Chesapeake and the economy sustained by crabbing, oystering and fishing.

From the parking lot at the Blackwater Visitor Center, cycle along Key Wallace Drive and Golden Hill Road until you reach Hoopers Island Road.

Along this route, you'll pass the restored Tubman Chapel and St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church. Standing in 18 feet of water about three miles west sits the Hoopers Island Lighthouse, first lit in 1902. It is one of only five lighthouses constructed in the Chesapeake during the 1900s, and is the only cast-iron caisson lighthouse in Maryland with a watch room and lantern on the tower. Caisson lighthouses were developed in the late 1800s as a cheaper, more efficient alternative to screwpile lighthouses, and were better able to withstand harsh Chesapeake weather.

While we're on the subject of harsh weather: these low-lying islands are subject to high tides and storm surges that cause occasional flooding on the roads. Use caution when planning your trip.

If you're able to avoid high water, howling winds will likely be your only impediment to a pleasant ride through Hoopers Island. With no trees or structures to shield you from the winds that whip over the water and marsh, your ride can quickly go from calm and breezy to a 25-mile per hour sustained headwind.

The effect can be demoralizing. Your focus shifts from breathtaking scenery to breathtaking pedal pumping. You begin to ponder just how long it would take you to walk your bike back to Blackwater. Cycling in a headwind can cause you to work twice as hard to go half as far.

To avoid discouragement and despair, follow these tips to help counteract the effects of cycling into a strong Chesapeake wind:

Wear tight, form-fitting clothing and keep your outer layer zipped. Wind can turn your loose-fitting jacket into a billowing sail that will add drag and slow your ride.

Get low and gear down: you can lower your wind resistance by riding in a tucked position. Pedaling in a lower gear will cost you a little speed, but you'll increase your endurance on a long ride.

If you're riding in a group, lower your energy output up to 20 percent by taking turns drafting. Check out the wind direction as you ride and draft to the side away from the wind and behind your companions.

OK. Back to the road. Hoopers Island Road eventually becomes Hoopersville Road, which you can follow to the end and retrace your 22 and 1/2-mile route back to Blackwater. If you've brought binoculars, scan the open water from the bridges between the islands in late fall for waterfowl. Chesapeake marshes provide critical wintering habitat for ducks, geese and swans, and there's no better place to view these birds than this part of Dorchester County.

One beautiful duck you're likely to find here in late fall and winter is the Redhead. These diving ducks breed in the northern prairies of the U.S. and Canada. After the summer breeding season, some Redheads migrate to the Chesapeake Bay. While wintering here, they feed on wild rice seeds, submerged bay grasses, mollusks, and aquatic invertebrates.

These ducks are appropriately named, particularly the male of the species. Male Redheads have a glimmering red head and neck with a black breast. The back feathers fade from black to dark gray. The bill is light blue with a white band behind a black tip. Female redheads have a reddish-brown head, neck and breast, with a buffy white throat and a faint white eye ring.

The redhead population in the Chesapeake has been on the rise for the past several years, and they can now be seen with regularity from stops along Hoopers Island. Each winter, aerial survey teams from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources make visual estimates of waterfowl along the Chesapeake Bay shoreline. The 2015 survey estimate for Redheads was 32,200, which was the highest number recorded since the mid-1970s. For comparison, only 4,700 Redheads were counted in 2011.

While cruising back to Blackwater from the end of Hoopersville Road, you've likely worked up an appetite. There are a few restaurants where you can stop and enjoy local seafood, including the Island Grille, Palm Beach Willie's, and Old Salty's Restaurant. If you reserve a tour in advance, you can also visit the original Phillips Seafood Company, which started packing Chesapeake blue crabs here a century ago and has grown to become the most famous name on the planet for all things crab. You can also visit the Hoopers Island Oyster Aquaculture Company and learn about the science behind modern oyster farming.

Back at Blackwater, you can finish with a four-mile cool down ride along the Wildlife Drive and look for Bald Eagles and rare Delmarva Fox Squirrels. If you're still hungry, load your bike on the rack and drive back to Cambridge. The town has grown as a foodie destination and boasts more than 20 restaurants, with everything from a microbrewery to a Zagat-rated French restaurant. You've definitely earned those calories after cycling 45 miles in the Heart of Chesapeake Country.

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