Beyond the Skyline
Thursday, September 13, 2007; 12:00 PM
When area foliage begins to turn, Washingtonians head for the hills. The hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, that is. Every year, thousands of cars make the three-hour snail's-pace journey along the Shenandoah's windy Skyline Drive, stopping dutifully at all of the photo-op spots. While the Shenandoah is one of the best places in the area to bask in fall colors, it certainly isn't the only one. Soon, leaves will change all over the region, so hop on a bike, set off in a boat or take to the trails in pursuit of the golden leaf.
Hiking trails abound in this region, but some of the best can be found in Harper's Ferry. Hike up to Jefferson Rock for a view of the yellow and red trees surrounding the river.
Leaf-gazers might also consider Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland. An 80-minute drive from Washington, the park offers 25 miles of trails, all of which lead through the woods. Hikes in the park can last anywhere from 30 minutes to seven hours, so staff at the Visitor Center can help hikers design a walk that suits their needs.
Virginia's Sky Meadows State Park, along the Appalachian Trail, offers one-to-two-mile walks for the more casual hiker. The middle of October is usually the best time to go and that coincides with the park's annual October Fall Farm Fest Weekends.
Boats offer a different way to tour the trees. For a unique view of the leaves surrounding the Potomac at Georgetown, seek out a rental at Thompson Boat Center or Jack's Boathouse. Staff at Thompson advise arriving at the boathouse before 9:30 a.m. on weekends as boats are likely to sell out.
Thompson rents single kayaks for $8 per hour and $24 per day and rents double kayaks (popular with parents of young children) for $10 per hour and $30 per day. Canoes, which can hold two parents and a child, are available for $8 per hour or $22 per day. At Jack's, the type of boat does not matter; rates are $15 for the first hour and $10 for each additional hour, or $35 per day.
Further upstream, Fletcher's Boathouse rents canoes, kayaks and bright red rowboats to be used on either the Potomac or the C & O Canal. Rowboats are $11 per hour or $20 per day. Canoes are $11 per hour or $22 per day. Kayaks are $8 per hour or $24 per day.
Outside of the city, the marinas at Pohick Bay Regional Park and Burke Lake Park are open on weekends until the end of October. Rowboats and motorized boats are available for rent at each place. Sailboats, kayaks and canoes are available at Pohick Bay.
Lake Needwood, a popular Montgomery County rental boathouse, offers rowboat, canoe and pedal-boat rentals on weekends through the end of October.
The Mount Vernon Trail is one of the closer bike trails to Washington, winding alongside the George Washington Parkway all the way to the first president's former home. Bikes are available for rent at the Washington Sailing Marina. Rates for mountain bikes are $6 per hour and $22 per day.
Thompsons Boat Center also rents bikes that you can use to tour Rock Creek Park or the C & O Canal. All-terrain bikes rent for $8 per hour and $25 per day. Cruisers rent for $4 per hour and $15 per day.
Skyline Drive is the ultimate fall drive, but plenty other area roadways offer glimpses of gold.
In our own backyard, take the George Washington Memorial Parkway from Alexandria to the Beltway. The short drive (approximately 30 minutes) offers beautiful views of golden trees along the Potomac River. Another Virginia option is to take Route 50 through Middleburg toward Wincester. The greenery amid the horse farms turns red and yellow in fall.
Head north on Route 15 past Leesburg for a glimpse of Loudoun County life before the strip malls set in. Many area farms will be open to the public on Oct. 20-21 as part of the self-guided Loudoun Farm Color Tour.
In Maryland, Route 15 offers another lovely drive: from Frederick to Gettysburg, Pa. For those wanting a longer weekend trip, try the cross-state drive from Frederick to Deep Creek Lake. The highways on the first part of the trip don't offer anything special, but as you get deeper into the state, particuarly along Route 68, the views are worth the drive.
Leaves in this region generally reach their peak in mid-October, but rainfall and other factors may speed or slow the process. These hotlines offer updates on where to find the region's best foliage.
Shenandoah Valley: 800-434-5323
U.S. Forest Service: 800-354-4595
For more information on leaf-viewing, check out this recent Washington Post article.
For all of our admonitions above, a fall trip to Skyline Drive is truly stunning. There really isn't a way around getting caught in the leaf-gawking traffic, but try leaving D.C. very early (like 6 a.m. early). Also, instead of entering the roadway at Front Royal (mile 0.6) or Thorton Gap (mile 31.5) -- popular entry points for Washingtonians -- take Route 29 to Route 64 and get on at Rockfish Gap (mile 105.4) in Waynesboro, Va. Heading north instead of south relieves some of the congestion.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated from a September 2006 version.