Kayakers flock to the Washington area for the variety of accessible waterways -- not least the Potomac River's challenging runs near Great Falls. The less adventurous can stick to calmer waters and wider-bottomed canoes, which are harder to capsize. With local parks and outfitters offering trips and rentals, those with little or no experience -- or simply no boat -- need not miss out on the gentle satisfaction of guiding a vessel over a smooth stretch of water.
Several local parks offer paddling tours, including Pohick Bay Regional Park, with four-hour fall color tours around the Mason Neck peninsula. Even first-time canoeists can experience the beauty of this Northern Virginia park by boat after a lesson by a trained guide. Paddlers may see osprey, bald eagles and migratory birds in addition to late-peaking trees along the water's edge. (Oct. 30 from 8 to noon and 1 to 5, Oct. 31 from 1:30 to 5:30, Nov. 6 from 8 to noon and 1:30 to 5:30. 6501 Pohick Bay Dr., Lorton. $25 per person; ages 12 and older. Canoes hold two people. 703-339-6104.)
(Illustration by Christiane Beauregard - For The Washington Post)
If you'd rather see the yellows of the poplars, bronzes of oaks and sycamores, and reds of the maples along the shore at your own pace, rent a boat and explore the part of the Potomac from Chain Bridge to Memorial Bridge, a wide swath of water between stretches of wooded shore. Explore the coves and beaches of Theodore Roosevelt Island or cruise toward the monuments to see some of Washington's familiar sights from a different perspective. The George Washington Memorial Parkway on the Virginia side of the water offers great woodsy views for miles along the Potomac. But if you want to paddle upstream to Chain Bridge, take heed -- the stretch between Great Falls and Chain Bridge can be dangerous. Check river conditions before you head out, especially after it rains; call the National Weather Service at 703-260-0305 (press 1, then 2).
Start your tour near the Kennedy Center at Thompson Boat Center, situated at the southern end of Rock Creek Park. Thompson's rents a variety of vessels, including canoes, kayaks, Sunfish and rowing sculls, starting at $8 an hour or $24 a day. General Manager Gary Weeden calls renting a boat "a good, cheap date -- it's less than a movie." Rentals are usually available through the end of October, weather permitting, as long as the water temperature is above 55 degrees. (2900 Virginia Ave. NW. Open daily from 8 to 6. 202-333-9543.)
STEP BY STEP
The Washington area is mostly below sea level, but it still has enough higher woodlands to offer exalted autumnal color shows.
Local nature centers organize hikes around seeing fall colors. Many of these are low-impact and have educational elements geared toward kids. Karen Marshall, a staff naturalist at Cosca Regional Park's Clearwater Nature Center, says nature hikes allow kids to "see the whole integrated web of how everything in nature is connected." The center offers hikes on Saturday and Oct. 30 for trekkers ages 4 and older. (Saturday and Oct. 30 from 10 to 11 a.m. at the nature center, 11000 Thrift Rd., Clinton. $2. Reservations required, 301-297-4575.)
At Potomac Overlook Regional Park, which abuts the George Washington Parkway and has easy access to the Potomac, there is an educational fall color hike on Nov. 6. Led by a park staff member, the casual, 90-minute hike starts at 2 and is for adults and children 6 and older. Martin Ogle, chief naturalist at Potomac Overlook, says he expects visitors to see brilliant colors in the oaks and black gum trees, and, barring heavy winds, the golds of tulip poplars and scarlets of red maples. The hike is first-come, first-served. (2845 N. Marcey Rd., Arlington. Free. 703-528-5406.)
Close-in forested areas are abundant hereabouts, and many local spots, such as the 446-acre U.S. National Arboretum, have landscapes that reward observation. Says curator Joan Feely, "It's a mosaic of fields and woodlands, where you get a very good view of the woods from far away, and then you can walk right into them." Feely says the best tree canopies are in the areas of the Asian, native plant and azalea collections. (Open daily from 8 to 5. 3501 New York Ave. NE. Free. 202-245-2726.)
Chief Ranger Laura Illige testifies to the convenience and beauty of Rock Creek Park. "People always think you have to go to Shenandoah, but fall color is just five minutes away in Rock Creek Park," she says. "You don't need to drive two hours away!" Illige recommends hiking the Ridge Trail, whose elevation allows hikers to see a panorama of trees below. The park's highest point (more than 400 feet) is by the Rock Creek Park Horse Center and the Nature Center (which are side by side on Glover Road), though good views abound along Beach Drive near the water, where the foliage envelops the burbling creek. (Rock Creek Park Nature Center is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 to 5, 5200 Glover Rd. NW. Free. 202-895-6070.)
For those intent on getting out of town, remote retreats -- some mountainous, wooded and tranquil enough to seem a world removed from the city -- lie just outside the Beltway. One is the aforementioned Patapsco Valley State Park, which runs on both sides of the Patapsco River from Elkridge to Sykesville, Md. In the Avalon area (off Route 1), the wheelchair-accessible Grist Mill Trail, which runs along the river, is covered by a canopy of light-loving, flood plain trees. Along the shore, box elders' red and yellow leaves stand out against the brown of sycamores. On the hills, hardwoods offer light gold tulip poplar and oak leaves and scarlet beech leaves, with redbuds scattered beneath the canopy. In the Hollofield area (off Route 40), you can hike the steep trail to Union Dam, ogle the leaves at the Valley View Overlook, then drive a few miles south for lunch in historic Ellicott City. (8020 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City. Free. 410-461-5005.)