Home Page, Site Index, Search, Help

Go to Fall Colors Package

Go to Outdoors Section

Go to Washington World Section

Go to Sports Section

Fall Colors Close to Washington

By Kevin McManus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 4, 1996

Each year brings two emphatic reminders that Washington is a city of trees. The first reminder, in April, is gorgeous and modestly scaled and involves flowering cherries at the Tidal Basin.

The second one, in late October, involves oaks, elms, maples, poplars, hickories, paw paws, willows and persimmons. It, too, is gorgeous. But there's nothing modest about it.

Quite the opposite, in fact: Washington's autumn foliage display materializes on an extravagant scale. It stretches out widely and uses incandescent golds, scarlets and purples to remind us that, yes, absolutely, this is a city of trees.

Curious, then, that so many urban types associate autumn colors with long drives. On October Saturdays and Sundays, they point their cars toward Skyline Drive, Sugarloaf Mountain, the Catoctin area, Harpers Ferry or even central Pennsylvania.

Those are lovely places, and we're not about to suggest you ignore them.

We do, however, recommend that you explore some other terrain on your leaf-peeping forays. On days when a long trip doesn't make sense, think short. Think local. Think Rock Creek Park, National Arboretum, George Washington Parkway, Huntley Meadows. Veteran nature watchers describe these and other local places as dazzling (and convenient) in autumn.

Rock Creek Park
The October hues of Rock Creek Park are hard to miss even if you're dashing through Northwest Washington. Some of the best vantage points are bridges that carry traffic over the park at treetop level.

Down in the lush valley, you can see a nice display by driving along the parkway (or Beach Drive, Park Road, Ridge Road or Ross Drive). On foot, you've got your choice of dozens of trails, some flat and wide and others steep and narrow. Particularly attractive are the spots where the creek reflects the colors of the trees overlooking the water.

"Just the combination of beautiful, mature trees and the creek and some really nice rock outcroppings almost makes you think you're in the mountains," says Stephanie Mason, a naturalist at the Audubon Naturalist Society (ANS). "It's really a great place for fall color."

The Rock Creek Nature Center is at 5200 Glover Rd. NW; 202/426-6829.

National Arboretum
Natural woods occupy much of the 444-acre National Arboretum tract. A good place to get started is at the Capitol columns area near the administration building. Look east 200 yards toward the azalea collection, framed by a colorful forest canopy.

"It's got hickory, oak, beeches, maples. It's a really nice view," says Joan Feely, curator of the native plant collections. "And then behind you there is Fern Valley, which has some of the nicer big maples."

At the east end of the arboretum are Asian Valley and the Gotelli Dwarf Conifer Collection. "Mixed in with the evergreens are wonderful plants that have good fall color -- Japanese maples and crape myrtles," Feely says. In these two spots you can also see a variety of ornamental grasses that color up vividly in the fall.

The arboretum has a large, pleasant picnic area near the center (in the National Grove of State Trees) as well as 10 miles of roads, so you can see a lot by car or on foot. Feely's advice: Arrive early. "If you can get here before 2 p.m., it's really quiet. It's always most beautiful in the morning."

The arboretum is at 3501 New York Ave. NE; 202/245-2726.

Theodore Roosevelt Island
"You've got almost everything there," says Marc Cathey, president of the American Horticultural Society. "All the oaks, the maples, the elms, the ashes, the tulip poplars. And then it has two very special plants that most people don't see in their natural habitat: paw paw and spicebush."

The island feels wild, even though it's within a 10-minute drive of downtown Washington. And when you hike on its nature trails, it feels spacious, even though it comprises only 88 acres.

To get to it, drive north on the George Washington Parkway and watch for the island exit just north of the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge. Park in the lot and walk over the footbridge to the island.

George Washington Parkway
"The best place to see fall color, bar none, is on the George Washington Parkway at Fort Marcy," says the Horticultural Society's Cathey. Here's why: hilly terrain, broad vistas, a variety of trees and plenty of parking.

Driving north in the Fort Marcy area, look for two scenic overlooks on the right. The first is about a mile and a half north of Key Bridge; the second is two miles up from the bridge. You'll have to go up to Route 123 before you can turn around and head south.

You'll want to go south because, from the parkway, you can see great foliage practically all the way down to Mount Vernon. In many places, "it's a tunnel of trees," says Cathey. "You get the Potomac River [on the left] and you get turns and twists" -- and several pull-offs as well. The parkway, indeed, is more arboreally intensive than just about any other stretch of road in the region.

Huntley Meadows Park
South of Alexandria, this park lies close to the busy Route 1 commercial strip. Follow a trail to the park's middle, though, and you'll swear you're out in the wilderness.

"It's pretty nice in the fall because the forested wetland area has a lot of black gum and sweet gum and red maple," says the ANS's Mason. "They turn various hues of red and purple. And the marsh starts turning brown, as the cattails and the sedges turn brown. There's a real nice contrast between the marsh and the woodland areas."

Huntley Meadows has fauna to complement the flora. Bluebirds nest in the snags in the swamp areas. Blue herons appear everywhere. And until the first frost, you'll see butterflies and dragonflies galore.

The park is at 3701 Lockheed Blvd., Alexandria; 703/768-2525.

Route 619 in Prince William County
Between Prince William Forest Park and Quantico Marine Corps Base runs Route 619. "It's a two-lane road and it's a lot of fun to drive because it's not engineered," says Nicky Staunton of the Virginia Native Plant Society. "It has a lot of loops and ups and downs." And, of course, it's tree-lined.

You can pick up Route 619 at Exit 150 off I-95. Follow it south to the Potomac River. Then double back and head north on Route 619. Just beyond Prince William Forest Park, Route 619 briefly joins Route 234 before splitting off to the left. Stay on Route 619, Staunton says, and you can have a scenic ride all the way over to U.S. 29.

If you have time for side trips, drive the slow, leafy routes through the Quantico base and Prince William Forest Park. Both are lovely in autumn.

Manassas National Battlefield Park
After your cruise along Route 619, turn east on U.S. 29 (Lee Highway) and follow it a few miles to Route 234 (Sudley Road). Turn right and look on the left for the entrance to Manassas National Battlefield Park.

The park is lined with trails that are pretty in autumn. In the visitors center you can get a brochure with a map of these trails and descriptions of their historical significance. Staunton recommends the Stone Bridge and Deep Cut trails, and says the whole Chinn Ridge area (west of the visitors center) is worth a visit.

About six miles southeast of the park, in the Clifton area, the Virginia Native Plant Society's Staunton notes, is a network of interesting country roads reachable from Ox Road (Route 123). These include Clifton Road (Route 645), Henderson Road (Route 643), Chapel Road (Route 641) and Wolf Run Shoals Road.

The visitors center at Manassas National Battlefield Park is reachable at 703/361-1339.

Great Falls
"On the Maryland side, the best place really is the Billy Goat Trail," the ANS's Mason says. "You have to be pretty sure of foot and sure of height. It's not for the faint-hearted. But once you're out there on the Potomac Palisades and can look over Mather Gorge to the Virginia side, you get just magnificent views at the peak of fall color."

On the Virginia side, check out the falls from the two overlooks within an easy walk of the Great Falls Park visitors center. And hike along the River Trail, which follows the Potomac along its bedrock terrace. "It's pretty high up," Mason says, "and there are several places where you can get out and look over the edge again and see a nice vista of fall color."

National Park Service, Great Falls Tavern, 11710 MacArthur Blvd., Potomac, 301/299-2026; Great Falls Park, Old Dominion Dr., Great Falls, Va., 703/285-2966.

Damascus Recreational Park
One of the finest color displays in upper Montgomery County can be seen on the Magruder Branch Hiker Biker Trail, in Damascus Recreational Park. The four-mile paved path ends at a turnaround spot near Damascus High School. The access point, by foot or bicycle, is off of Kings Valley Road.

"About the first two miles of it are very spectacular," says Denise Gibbs, a staff naturalist at Black Hill Regional Park in Boyds. "It goes through upland forest and fields, and also along a stream, so there's a lot of diversity as far as plant life goes."

Gibbs also recommends a couple of other "upcounty" spots. One is Rachel Carson Conservation Park, off Zion Road, east of Laytonsville. "It's a nice place to just walk," she says. "It's been left in a pristine state, and there's a lot of diversity there: forests, ponds, streams and other wetland areas." Parking is limited; look for a pull-off on Zion Road just south of Sundown Road.

The other spot is the farthest northern tip of Little Seneca Lake at Black Hill Regional Park. The view of the trees from the water is breathtaking, Gibbs says. There are no boat rentals, so you need to bring your own canoe, kayak or rowboat (no gasoline motors permitted). For a $3 fee, you can put the boat in at a ramp at the park's center.

Black Hill Regional Park, 20930 Lake Ridge Dr., Boyds; 301/972-9396.

Blockhouse Point
"The Potomac River and the forests along it are very good in many places," says Mark Garland, a naturalist with ANS. "A spot that's really nice is Blockhouse Point, right along the C&O Canal between Pennyfield Lock and Violettes Lock, about 18 miles up from Georgetown. It's a low remnant ridge that the river cuts a gorge through, and there are very nice vistas there."

You can reach the point via the canal tow path (enter from Violettes Lock Road or Pennyfield Lock Road, both of which intersect River Road) or a trail that runs through Blockhouse Point Park. That trail, which takes you through rolling hills to an overlook, is accessible from River Road. Look for a parking area and kiosk on your left as you drive northwest from Travilah Road.

Brookside Gardens
At this Wheaton park, mums, dahlias, rhododendrons and azaleas capture at least as much attention as trees do. Thirty-five of the facility's 50 acres are under cultivation, and the rest are wooded. Exploring it all requires a stroll along a network of paths.

"We have maples and oaks that will start turning as soon as the cold hits," says Barbara Oxman, horticulturist and librarian at the facility, which is situated within Wheaton Regional Park. Especially conspicuous are the Japanese maples and burning bush shrubs, which both turn bright red, and the lone ginkgo tree, which turns a brilliant yellow.

Two ponds on the grounds have small islands with structures (a pavilion and an imitation Japanese tea house) where you can contemplate the scenery. There's no picnicking at Brookside Gardens, but a short walk will take you next door to Brookside Nature Center, where there are picnic tables.

Brookside Gardens is located at 1500 Glenallen Ave., Wheaton; 301/929-6510.

Patuxent River Park
This Prince George's County park has 2,000 acres of mostly second-growth forest, dominated by tulip poplars and red maples. Autumn colors shine.

"We have about eight miles of hiking trails and a half-mile loop of boardwalk that goes through the marsh and swamp," says Greg Lewis, park manager. "People can also rent canoes, and see the foliage by river." Canoe rental costs $10 a day.

One of the park's draws is migrating waterfowl -- Canada geese and a dozen varieties of ducks. On October afternoons, you can often see them flying around looking for food.

Patuxent River Park is at 16000 Croom Airport Rd., Upper Marlboro; 301/627-6074.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post

Back to the top

Home Page, Site Index, Search, Help