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Visible from Mount Aventine and through the sycamore trees, the Washington Monument pops above the horizon about 20 miles due north. Bald eagles glide high over the quiet Potomac River. A rhythmic sound - the only sound - comes from a woodpecker drumming away at a distant tree.

This close to Washington, D.C., the quiet that permeates Chapman State Park is refreshing. All the city noises and distractions are absent from the park, allowing its few visitors solitary walks through intensely colored woods and along the Potomac River shores.

Unknown to most Marylanders, it isn't even listed as a state park in the Department of Natural Resources' Web page of public lands.

It could have been much different.

In 1998, one builder planned to build 2,400 houses on the land, neatly carving out a marina around a nearly 200-year-old cemetery. Intruding into the quiet, wooded area of upscale homes would have been road construction and traffic, thousands of people and, inevitably, the chain stores of the world. However, nearby neighbor-activists jumped on the plan, and they eventually convinced Maryland to purchase the 2,100 acres of prime river land.

But $28 million purchased only the land.


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Developing the woodlands, trails and the historically important Mount Aventine home and outbuildings into a complete state park is another task. Everyone, including the activist-neighbors and the purse-holding politicians, agrees that funds are tight.

Maryland isn't spending many dollars to upgrade the two different properties divided by Chapman's Landing Road, now called Governor Parris N. Glendening Natural Environment Area and Chapman State Park. And that could be a good or bad thing, depending on one's point of view.

For walkers and wanderers who seek quiet and relaxation, Chapman Forest (the general title for both properties and named for the original owner) is much like it was prior to the purchase. A tiny parking lot holds only a half dozen cars outside a locked gate. Walkers pass through an always-open door and then hike a quarter mile to Mount Aventine or one of the trails - the 2.5-mile coastal woodland walk or the marsh walk.

Most visitors live nearby, some walking to the park from their homes. Wandering past the stately Mount Aventine mansion, its white paint peeling off like scales on a fish, visitors usually take an old and rarely used road down to the Potomac River, a quarter mile or so beyond the house.

From there, turn left past an eagles' nest to the marsh trail that skirts the marsh busy with ducks and herons. Or, take a right and catch the woodland walk. This leads directly under another eagles nest. Both nests were active this year, and either the parents or their youngsters are often spotted flying over the river. Or maybe sitting in an evergreen tree right next to Mount Aventine.

Both paths are narrow (stay in single file to minimize harm to the walks) and poorly marked. Search the tall sycamores and low papaw for some of the 68 species of birds in the forest.

Eventually - many years and dollars away - the state plans to develop Mount Aventine into a visitors center and a place for special occasions, such as weddings and seminars. A small house near the entrance will become a caretaker's residence. Some of the most decrepit outbuildings will be refurbished, but some will be destroyed.

But Mount Aventine, built in 1840, will be the centerpiece. An earlier house was destroyed by fire. With its eight fireplaces, five bedrooms and six bathrooms, Mount Aventine was occupied by Union troops in the Civil War to spy over the Potomac River.

The last Chapman to live in the home was in 1892. The original owner was a friend of George Washington - Mount Vernon is just 5 miles away - and George Mason. A Hungarian countess last owned the property but it was sold after her death in 1984. The state then bought it in 1998.

It hasn't changed much since then. Maybe that's why Sierra Club magazine in April called Chapman Forest one of 10 places in the United States that "will stir your soul" and a place "you just gotta see."

TO GET THERE

From York, Chapman Forest is a little more than two hours away, or 120 miles. Take Interstate 83 south around Baltimore on Interstate 696 to Interstate 95. Take that around D.C. to Exit 3A, and the Indian Head Highway and Route 210. Drive south 14 miles, through the traffic light at Route 227. Just a mile past the light, bear right onto Chapman's Landing Road. The sign for Mount Aventine is 1.6 miles farther on the right. Park in the small lot but away from the gate so state personnel can access the property.

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ON THE WEB

For more details, visit http://www.chapmanforest.org.

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