You can travel back to those times at an historic mill worker’s house, now Laurel Museum, and the opulent Montpelier Mansion where several generations of the powerful Snowden family resided.
Nowadays, Laurel has a welcoming Main Street, the scene of a cheerful street festival every May, while the Laurel Park Race Track (1911) hosts multiple graded thoroughbred races.
To the east, the Patuxent Research Refuge is one of the largest protected expanses of nature in the mid-Atlantic region, at 13,000 hectares.
Defense is also a part of Laurel’s makeup, with Fort Meade next door, and the headquarters of the National Security Agency (NSA) a matter of minutes away.
1. National Wildlife Visitor Center – Patuxent Research Refuge South Tract
You may be surprised that in the middle of this sprawling urban region there’s a National Wildlife Refuge preserving more than 13,000 acres of forest, meadow and wetland habitats.
The Patuxent Research Refuge is an oasis for a stunning diversity of wildlife, from waterfowl during spring and fall migrations to vital pollinators, amphibians, reptiles and mammals.
The refuge is divided into three tracts: North, Central and South, the first and last of which are open to the public. In the South Tract you can make for the National Wildlife Visitor Center, the Department of the Interior’s foremost science and environmental education center.
Hands-on exhibits shine a light on migratory birds, global environmental concerns, animal life cycles and the crucial work carried out by conservation scientists. The center has a lakeside setting, with access to a network of trails, including a two-mile loop around Cash Lake.
2. Montpelier Mansion
Built in the early 1780s, this fine Georgian mansion in Laurel is a National Historic Landmark, and once commanded a plantation covering 9,000 acres.
The house was built by Major Thomas Snowden (1751–1803), who had served in the American Revolution and was descended from Richard Snowden (1688-1763), an early Maryland colonist who co-founded the Patuxent Iron Works in what would become Laurel.
At Montpelier Mansion there’s a trove of artifacts to help you get to know four generations of the Snowdens, as well as the named enslaved people who are documented to have lived here. In this vein, the kitchen exhibit is an interesting snapshot of 18th-century plantation life.
You can navigate the house and 70 acres of grounds on a self-guided tour, while docent-led tours take place on Sundays. The museum is the site of numerous events and programs all year, from history lectures to music programs to holiday candlelight tours.
3. Main Street
Laurel’s historic commercial artery is as pretty as they come, with a close-knit community of retailers, restaurants and other services behind cute clapboard or brick storefronts.
There are little clues to Main Street’s 19th-century industrial past, in the small collection of mill workers’ homes on the west end, one of which now hosts the Laurel Museum.
From pizza to pho, there’s a truly global lineup of restaurants all along Main Street, but especially on the east end towards the MARC station. Another thing to love is the proximity to the Patuxent River, with a trail that runs along the riverbank just a block to the north.
At the west end this will bring you to Riverfront Park and the Laurel Municipal Swimming Pool. Laurel’s flagship annual event is the Main Street Festival in early May, when the street is shut down for a parade, family activities, food, arts and crafts and a whole day of live music.
4. Laurel Museum
The Patuxent River bank at the west end of Main Street is the site of a cotton mill founded by another Snowden, Nicholas (1786-1831).
This mill grew at speed through the first decades of the 19th century, coinciding with a local building boom to house the growing workforce.
The museum for the Laurel Historical Society is in one of the houses that was built in the late 1830s under the supervision of future United States Commissioner of Agriculture Horace Capron (1804-1885).
This is just the place to discover Laurel’s past, with a main annual exhibit updated every February.
Recent themes include the history of dining in Laurel, local healthcare, Laurel life during WWI, important local historical events, the lives of mill workers, the story of Laurel Park Race Track and Laurel during the Civil War.
5. Patuxent Research Refuge North Tract
The North Tract of the Patuxent Research Refuge is even closer to downtown Laurel, at just ten minutes by road.
This portion is much less trafficked than the South Tract, but offers a lot more in terms of outdoor recreation.
There are around 20 miles of trails here for walking, biking and horseback riding, leading to a designated wildlife viewing area and an overlook on the Little Patuxent River.
Now, something to bear in mind is that the land on the North Tract was once an artillery training range until the 1990s, and unexploded ordnance is discovered regularly, so you’ll need to stay on the trails.
There’s a small visitor center at the parking lot with interpretive signs to help you identify the refuge’s wildlife.
6. Granville Gude Park
This park is on the south shore of Laurel Lake, which has been a crucial feature of Laurel since the city’s earliest days.
In 1900 the lake became the source of Laurel’s public water supply system, and today its shores are framed by modern residential developments and commerce along Baltimore Avenue to the east.
Granville Gude Park opened as part of this development in 1984, and has a charming lakehouse that was unveiled two years later.
A paved multi-use trail, more than a mile long, traces the lake, and in summer there’s a concession stand that also rents out paddle boats for the lake.
The park is a fitting venue for many community events, like Laurel’s July 4th Celebration and summer outdoor movie.
7. Laurel Park Race Track
Maryland’s top race track is right here in Laurel, and has hosted thoroughbred racing on the flat since 1911.
This is the headquarters for the Maryland Jockey Club, which was founded in 1743. The track has welcomed many legendary horses, including Seabiscuit and Triple Crown winners Affirmed, Secretariat,Sir Barton, War Admiral and Whirlaway, all of which won races here.
There’s racing throughout the year at Laurel Park, but the most prestigious Grade 3 Stakes and State-bred Showcase Stakes events take place in the autumn and winter months.
Along with live racing the track has a simulcast theater, added during a multimillion-dollar upgrade about 20 years ago.
8. National Cryptologic Museum
The headquarters of the National Security Agency are little more than 10 minutes east of Laurel in Fort Meade.
The affiliated museum is set in the old Colony Seven Motel, just a couple of blocks from the HQ, and opened in 1993.
In these galleries you can pore over thousands of artifacts from the history of cryptology. You’ll discover the game-changing milestones in the history of the profession, as well as the various machines and techniques that may cast a new light on American history.
In the collection there’s a host of rare encryption machines from the WWII era, including a German Enigma machine, a KANA typewriter used at Station Hypo and a C-36 cipher machine. When we wrote this list, the museum was temporarily closed for renovations.
9. Jailbreak Brewing Company
Opened in 2014, there’s a much-loved craft brewery in Laurel, with a large taproom and a kitchen that was added in 2018.
Among the flagship beers at Jailbreak Brewing Company are Doubles (Hazy DIPA), Feed the Monkey (Hefeweizen), Special Lady Friend (American IPA), The Infinite (Amber Ale) and Clearly Righteous (West Coast-style IPA).
Foodworks, the kitchen, is open Wednesday through Saturday for the likes of steak frites, flatbreads, salads, burgers and shareable plates, with plenty of vegetarian and gluten-free options.
If you’re wondering about the beer making process you can take a guided tour of the brewhouse.
10. Laurel Mill Playhouse
Behind one of the historic, century-old storefronts on Main Street is a little theater, providing a stage for local performers and creative talent.
The Laurel Mill Playhouse is home to the Burtonsville Players, a community theater group established more than half a century ago.
Serving the quad county area, this is one of those rare community theatre organizations with its own venue.
Each season is designed to cater to all ages and tastes, and a few selections from the time we wrote this article were The Vagina Monologues, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The War of the Worlds and Willy Wonka, Jr.
11. The Gardens Ice House
At Fairland Regional Park in West Laurel is the largest ice skating hockey facility in the DC/Maryland area.
Open all year, the Gardens Ice House has been around since 1996, and has two NHL rinks, an Olympic rink and an outdoor mini rink (open November through March), that was added just over a decade ago.
The facility is home ice for several teams and organizations, like the Potomac Curling Club, Gardens Figure Skating Club and the Washington Power inline hockey team.
There’s a cafe, pro shop and fitness center, and a schedule filled with public skate sessions, stick & puck, skating lessons and hockey lessons.
12. Dinosaur Park
Close to the Montpelier Mansion southwest of Laurel is a fascinating site maintained by the Prince George’s County Department of Parks and Recreation.
It was here in the mid-19th century that the first dinosaur fossils in Maryland were discovered. These were found by African-American miners extracting iron ore from the clay and date from the early Cretaceous Period, some 115 million years ago.
Dinosaur Park consists of a working paleontological dig, with children welcome to hunt for real fossils on the first and third Saturday of the month. Open daily, there’s a small dinosaur themed playground that dino-obsessed kids are sure to love.
13. Dutch Country Farmers’ Market
One of the largest Dutch/Amish markets in Maryland is located in the east of Laurel on Fort Meade Rd.
With several merchants under one roof, the Dutch Country Farmers’ Market features produce, groceries, prepared foods, and all kinds of treats from Dutch Country.
Think cuts of beef, lamb and pork, Christmas turkeys, cheeses, pickles, fresh soft pretzels, breads, artisanal candy, ice cream, cheesecakes, pastries and all kinds of seasonal fruits and vegetables.
For prepared food you’ve got pasta salads, BBQ, rotisserie and fried chicken, sandwiches and much more.
14. Laurel Golf Center
It’s no stretch to describe this golf attraction on Fort Meade Rd as a family entertainment center.
The main draw for families at the Laurel Golf Center is the 18-hole miniature golf course. This is a great time for kids, but the absence of crazy obstacles makes it a good option for serious players who want to work on their putting.
There’s also a set of seven batting cages, ranging in speed from 25 mph to 75 mph. Finally there’s the driving range, with 50 covered hitting stations.
You can rent an iron or driver by the club, and can get in touch with professionals if you’d like a lesson.
15. Laurel MARC Station
Arrive in Laurel by commuter train and you’ll be met by a dainty, Queen Anne-style station, built in 1884.
Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, this was designed by E. Francis Baldwin (1837-1916), noted for his work for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and churches in the area.
On your way past you could pause for a moment to appreciate the large eaves and bracketwork, and the terra cotta cresting along the ridge of the roof.
Then VP, Joe Biden gave a speech at this very spot in 2009 to drum up support for an economic stimulus package in congress for infrastructure projects in Maryland.
Journey times to Washington and Baltimire on MARC’s Camden Line are roughly the same, at about 40 minutes.