Many of us opt to take in fall's annual color show with the traditional drive in the mountains. But the cocoon of a vehicle can circumscribe the experience. On a recent hike in Patapsco Valley State Park, my friends and I followed the trail's soggy twists and turns to a rocky outcropping perched above a lovely vista of forested hills. The view was picturesque, yes, but the ambient noise underscored the mood: the sound of the swollen Patapsco River rushing by below, the trees creaking and leaves rattling in the wind, the scuffling of squirrels as they made their way through the underbrush. You won't hear that sitting in traffic on Skyline Drive.
Consider the crunch of a leafy carpet underfoot. The sharp whiff of vegetation decay after a rain. The cool breeze that makes you zip your fleece and quicken your pace. Besides, do you really want to see those brilliant scarlets and golds though a bug-splattered windshield?
(Illustration by Christiane Beauregard - For The Washington Post)
This is the perfect time to get out and see fall's colors up close. The fall foliage in the Blue Ridge Mountains is at its height, with the colors moving from higher elevations to lower. In general, the leaves in central Maryland and Virginia will peak in mid- to late October, with the colors along the Eastern Shore reaching their full potential in early November.
The intensity of those scarlets and golds depends on a simple meteorological recipe: Moderate rainfall, warm days and cool nights add up to the loud reds, oranges and yellows that make autumn forests so compelling. Last year's leaves were a disappointment, partly because the relentless summer rains deprived tree roots of oxygen. High winds didn't help either. "Most of the leaves were blown off in [Hurricane] Isabel," says Joan Feely, curator of the Native Plant Collection at the U.S. National Arboretum. This year, she says, the colors are likely to be more vivid.
And although the summer visit by the 17-year cicadas left clumps of brown leaves dangling from branches, it did the trees no lasting harm. Sue Salmons, resource management specialist at Rock Creek Park, says the insects actually prune the trees, improving their overall health -- and increasing the chance of spectacular fall colors. "It should be beautiful," Salmons says.
Whether you like to float, pedal or amble, go with a group or go it alone, you need not go far to take in fall's colors. You provide the will, we provide the way.
ROW, ROW, ROW
Now that summer's rapacious mosquitoes and oppressive heat have dissipated, there's all the more reason to take in the leaves along the region's waterways, many of them tree-lined and navigable by amateur paddlers. Alternatively, many local parks offer naturalist-led boat tours that allow passengers to sit back and enjoy the scenery.
One of these is aboard a pontoon on the Anacostia River. At Bladensburg Waterfront Park in Prince George's County, naturalists give guided tours of the river for nature-lovers of all ages. The main attraction of the rides is typically the water's wildlife, but the leaves' changing colors are an added bonus in the fall. The Anacostia is home to a variety of animals, including fishing birds and the glut of box turtles seen on a recent afternoon. "It was like the turtle convention center here," says park naturalist Nancy VanDerveer. Turtles aren't the only things present in profusion. "As the leaves start to change, you start noticing more details, like the Virginia creeper that's turning red right now," she says.
The 45-minute tours are scheduled through October and will continue into early November if the weather is good. Though the park doesn't take reservations, visitors should call ahead to confirm the schedule. (Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at noon, 4601 Annapolis Rd., Bladensburg. Free. 301-779-0371.)
Another option is an early morning pontoon ride on Lake Needwood in Montgomery County's Rock Creek Regional Park. Pack your binoculars, dress for the morning chill and bring a towel to sit on as a naturalist points out the lake's flora and fauna; park officials say you can expect to see deer eating breakfast, turtles sunning, water birds fishing or beavers gnawing away. Want some exercise before unwinding on the boat ride? Early birds can hike or bike the 22-mile Rock Creek Trail from the Medical Center Metro station in Bethesda to the lake. (Pontoon ride, Monday and Oct. 18 from 8 to 9 a.m. 15700 Needwood Lake Cir., Rockville. $3. Reservations required, 301-924-4141.)