Road Trip

Sunflower Power

Sunday, July 16, 2006

WHERE: McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area in Poolesville.

WHY: The highest point in the District, a real country store and acres of sunflowers.

HOW FAR: About 20 miles or 50 minutes.

Sunflowers. Oodles of them. And they're not in Tuscany or Provence. Sunflower fields grow right along the Potomac River at the McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area in Montgomery County.

"It's a f ield of happiness," said Kathy Steuer, of Darnestown, a regular visitor. "They are beautiful, exquisite. . . . It's definitely worth going to see."

The state grows thousands of sunflowers at McKee-Beshers and several other wildlife management areas. But it doesn't grow them for beauty. It plants the fields primarily to lure doves -- which come after the flowers are mowed down -- for hunting season in September. For the few weeks each year when the fields glow yellow (the peak is this week), they're perfect for hikers, artists and birders alike.

"There's nothing that takes my breath away after all my years in the business more than a field of sunflowers in full bloom," says Larry Kleingartner, executive director of the National Sunflower Association.

This region doesn't produce as many sunflowers as the Midwest, so fields can be harder to find. But McKee-Beshers is one of the best spots, and it's a straight shot out of the District on River Road.

Our journey begins at Fort Reno. Most people seem to agree that it's the highest natural point in Washington, though they don't concur on the exact spot or height -- let's just say it's not much more than 400 feet. Whatever its elevation, there's another nifty reason to visit this landmark: free outdoor concerts Mondays and Thursdays at 7:15 p.m. through Aug. 17.

Outside the Beltway, two-lane River Road starts to swing by massive lawns and grand houses. You'll pass two of the area's famous domiciles: the football-shaped house that architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed for one of his sons, and the infamous mansion of Washington Redskins' owner Dan Snyder, who got in hot water by chopping down some riverside trees on his estate. You can only glimpse the entryways to these private abodes, but it's fun to know where they are.

By the time you reach the sharp left turn at Route 112, River Road has transformed into a downright rural road. That's when you'll spot the family-owned Poole's General Store. You can get almost anything at this rustic retailer, including proprietor Frances "Billie" Poole's homemade pork barbecue. She also sells 50-pound bags of sunflower seeds for birds or planting for $14.99. (A tiny bag of the edible variety costs you 50 cents.)

Just a tad past Poole's is McKee-Beshers. The first of its four fields -- just a short curved path from the parking lot -- is filled with four-foot sunflowers and stretches on for about five football fields! Another similar-size field, at the corner of River and Sycamore Landing roads, boasts pie-sized flowers that reach a foot taller. While you're gazing at the sunshiney faces, look closely at a flower head and you'll spy tiny yellow flowers spiraling around the center. Then watch for yellow and black goldfinches flying in wavelike patterns over the flowers. Butterflies, hummingbirds and bees adore them, too.

The brilliant yellow flowers are "breathtaking," said Kim Holcher of Rockville. She and her husband stumbled upon a soon-to-peak field last week while taking their dogs for a run. "I'm coming back." she said. "It's too good not to." Barbara J. Saffir

Road Trip maps are available online at www.washingtonpost.com/roadtrip, as are addresses and hours of operation (be sure to check before you go). Have an idea for a trip? E-mail roadtrip@washpost.com.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company