By Katie V. Jones

The dog days of summer are upon us. With gas prices at record highs, many people are choosing to spend their vacations close to home. Around Laurel, there are plenty of places to explore for a memorable summer.

Patuxent Research Refuge, North Tract, 230 Bald Eagles Drive, Laurel; South Tract, 10901 Scarlet Tanager Loop, Laurel. 301.497.5887

Every day at noon, volunteers  at Patuxent Research Center release monarch butterflies as part of the South Tract’s Monarch Magic drop-in program. The popular program is designed for all ages and is just one of many free activities that visitors can enjoy at the refuge, whose  north and south tracts straddle Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties.

“There are lots of interesting ways to learn about native wildlife and experience wildlife up close,” said Diana Ogilvie, a park ranger with the refuge.

The North Tract offers 15 miles of trails for walking, biking and horseback riding and has a visitor information station. The schedule of activities during July and August includes several themed bicycle rides, and a photo scavenger hunt on Aug. 13 will send visitors searching for sculptured stones, plants and animals — along with some mystery items. Interactive nature hikes on July 23 and Aug. 27 will focus on local history and pollinators and their habitat.

The South Tract features five miles of walking and hiking trails and has a nature center. Visitors can join in a variety of programs at the center, including a meet and greet with reptiles or native owls, and an introduction to to planting pollinator gardens. The refuge, which is under the auspices of the  U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, hosts a Junior Wildlife Ranger program through the Earth Island Institute (

“They do the activity, and when they complete the book, they get a patch,” Ogilvie said. “There are a lot of activities.”

Many of the programs take place outdoors, Ogilvie noted, as there are still restrictions in place due to the pandemic. Masks are optional, but Ogilvie does recommend  that visitors check with the appropriate county before visiting if they have related concerns. (Anne Arundel County if visiting the North Tract:, or Prince George’s County if visiting South Tract: 

“We are kind of isolated where we are,” Ogilvie said. “People say they’ve lived here 20 years and never knew we were here.”

Dinosaur Park, 13100 Mid-Atlantic Boulevard, Laurel. 301-627-1286

The first and third Saturday of every month, amateur paleontologists of all ages can search for fossils and dinosaur bones at Dinosaur Park in Laurel. While no actual digging is allowed, there is plenty to find by sifting through the dirt if one has a good eye and a little patience — so says J. P. Hodnett, paleontologist and program coordinator at the park, which is under the auspices of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

“It is pretty amazing what people find,” Hodnett said. “The best fossils are found by children under the age of 5.”

The fossils found at Dinosaur Park typically date back some 110 million years ago, Hodnett said, thus predating the Tyrannosaurus rex by 50 million years. Remains of the Astrodon (Astrodon johnstoni), Maryland’s state dinosaur, have been found at the park, as have the remains of the herbivore Priconodon, an armored dinosaur that lived primarily in and around Prince George’s County. In 2014, erosion due to weather revealed a large bone identified as from an Acrocanthosaurus, one of the largest theropods that existed. Plans to excavate around the bone were delayed due to the enormity of the project.

“It was a bigger dig than we thought,” said Hodnett. The excavation is scheduled to resume in the fall.

Visitors may find fossilized fragments of wood and bone, teeth and plants — even turtles. All fossils found here belong to the park, though people who unearth them can receive credit for their finds, Hodnett noted.

The park also has a playground and an interpretive garden. A life-size replica of the dinosaur Deinonychus, or terrible claw, is also on display.

“You never know what you are going to find when you go out there,” Hodnett added.

Montpelier Mansion, 9650 Muirkirk Road, Laurel. 301-377-7817

Built in the 1780s, Montpelier Mansion offers a variety of programs for all ages.

Youth ages 3 to 17 can participate in age-appropriate S.T.E.A.M. programs outdoors including Herb Garden Bingo (ages 3 to 7) and an  adventure hunt f(ages 12 and up).

Programs indoors include the Inspector Pediment Architecture Scavenger Hunt and an exhibit, “All Things Applique and Embroidery,” by the Uhuru Quilters Guild. The exhibit runs through July 31, and the manison’s popular “Ask a Historian” talks are scheduled for July 28, Aug. 25 and Sept. 22. Individuals can explore the ground through self-guided tours, and group tours are available with reservations; Shakespeare in the Park will present “MacBeth” on July 17 at 7:30 p.m. on the mansion’s grounds.