In autumn, Indian legends say, the fierce hunter Orion slew the Gret Bear. Its blood, dripping on trees, turned the leaves red; and when the hunter cooked the bear, fat sputtered from the pot and turned other leaves yellow.
Each fall, the legend is relived in the skies and recalled in the flaming red and yellow of the leaves.
Leaves can't be predicted to peak in color at a precise moment, whether you decide to hunt west on the Skyline Drive or in Maryland's Garret County or north into Frederic County and up into Pennsylvania. The leaves need cool nights and just the right amount of rainfall, and a strong wind can blow them off the trees before anyone has time to appreciate them. This week's foot of snow on the Skyline Drive is not going to affect the color, a park offical said.
So leaf festivals will go on this weekend anyway, and there are still old mansions to visit along the road, and places to stop and eat Brunswick stew or pick apples.
With all the commotion on their behalf, maybe the leaves will cooperate.
Virginia -- Along the Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park is predicting the colors to peak for two weeks, starting the middle of next week. Any visit there and then should reward leaf-hunters in oaks, hickories and maples. There are all kinds of ways to get to the Drive -- and so many stopping-off places, watering holes and side-tracks in between that you may decide not to fight the traffic after all.
If you drive to the Drive by U.S. 50 through Middleburg, you can stop at Glenwood Park, where horse-lovers are holding their Virginia Fall Race Meeting on Saturday at 2. To get to the park, turn right at the only stoplight in town. If you forget a picnic lunch, there are three places at or near the light that will feed you: The Coach Stop, L'Auberge and Red Fox Tavern. If you turn left at the light you're heading for Meredyth Vineyards: Go 2 1/2 miles down county road 776, turn right and go 2 1/2 more miles down county road 628 to the vineyards. They give tours daily from 10 to 4. Phone: 703/687-6277.
If you choose Route 7 and the countryside, there are famous old mansions to visit near Leesburg. Morven Park will be holding its annual carriage drive and competition on Sunday at noon. Admission ( $2 adults, $1 children) includes a tour of the carriage museum and a guided tour of the mansion, which evolved from a fieldstone farmhouse. A governor of Virginia, Westmoreland Davis, lived there. (It's on Morven Park Road, at the western end of Leesburg.) Then down U.S. 15 from Leesburg, the gardens are lovely in the fall at Oatlands, a classical revival mansion on 261 acres of rolling farmland. (Admission is $1.50 adults, 75 cents students, under 6 free.)
From there you can meander back along Route 7 to Winchester to pick apples at places like the R&T Packing Company (703/869-1357), Fruit Hill Orchard (703/662-2483 or 2938), Punkin Ridge Orchard (703/662-3121) or, Stephens City, Rinker Orchards (703/869-1499). Winchester itself has lots of history: Sheridan's headquarters, Stonewall Jackson's headquaters, the Tomb of Lord Fairfax and "Abram's Delight," built by a settler in 1754. And this Friday, Saturday or Sunday, you may be able to pick up an antique at the Winchester Quota Club's 16th annual sale, in the War Memorial Building (East, Cork Street Extended, between U.S. 50 and Route 7).
Then from Winchester, shun I-81 and take U.S. 522 south to Front Royal at the top of Skyline Drive. The town will be holding its annual Festival of Leaves Saturday, 10 to 5, and Sunday, noon to 5. At the Chamber of Commerce, 501 South Royal, buy a ticket ( $2 for adults) that covers all happenings: crafts show, antique engine show, bazaar, quilt show, booksale. Phone: 703/635-3185.
You can also take U.S. 211 (closer to home it's U.S. 29/211) to Shennadoah and festival-hop on the way. About seven minutes from Centreville on Route 645, the little town of Clifton (population about 175) celebrates itself Sunday from noon to 6. The 12th annual Clifton Day will offer a flea market tailgate sale, barbecued chicken dinners, free rides on a railrod siding and an old-fashioned bandwagon. Phone for directions: 631-1081. (Rain date is October 21.)
On the way to the Thornton Gap entrance to the Drive is Washington, Virginia. It calls itself the oldest of the 28 towns in the United States named for George Washington; in fact, he laid it out in a survey. Next weekend, Washington holds its annual House Tour and Dried Flower Sale headquatered in the Trinity Episcopal Parish Hall. Hours: October 20, 11 to 5; October 21, 1 to 5. The $5 ticket for home-wanderers includes tea. Phone: 703/987-8224. And Washington is the home of "The Inn," a French country restuarant where reservations are definitely recommended: Phone 730/675-3800.
By taking U.S. 211 through Sperryville, you can enter the Drive at Thornton Gap or go on to Luray Caverns on the other side of the mountains. If you really do end up on the drive and want to stretch your legs, for some great views hike 1 1/2 miles on Stony Man Trail (milepost 41.8) on the north entrance road to Skyland Lodge.
Farther south -- through Sperryville by Route 231, then right on Route 670 -- is Syria. Here, Graves Mountain Lodge is churning apple butter and serving up Brunswick stew for as long s it lasts. Saturday and Sunday noon to 4, and next weekend, too. Stroll in the flea market, or pick your own apples in the orchard. (The lodge is all booked up.) Phone: 703/923-4231.
But maybe you'd rather not drive all this way -- the pilot would certainly see more scenery riding on the gray line tour to the Skyline and Luray Caverns. Buses leave at 9 every Sunday morning from 1000 12th Street NW, for a nine-hour trip; they also guide passengers through Bull Run Battlefield and a hunt-country estate. It's $28.35 a person, and the folks at the sales office say if you show up half an hour before departure time, they'll get you on the buses. But for reservations, call: 789-5900.
Non-drivers have other alternatives for leaf-watching.Gray Line also offers a one-day trip to Williamsburg, Wednesdays and Saturdays: It leaves at 7:30 a.m., returns at 11 p.m. and costs $35.25. Williamsburg's color peak would be a bit later than Washington's. South to Fredericksburg, Amtrak has an afternoon trip that crosses the Rappahannock several times.
One last place in Virginia, and people usually forget about it, is Prince William Forest Park, down I-95 near Quantico. The park doesn't have spectacular overlooks, but a wealth of beautiful trees anyway. (Naturalists show how to measure their growth in a program at the nature center Sunday at 10. Phone: 703/221-2420.)
MARYLAND -- Close to home, at Great Falls, this is the perfect time to take a ride on the C&O canal barge, which stops running for the season at the end of October. It runs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 11:30 to 5:30, every two hours. (They're holding leaf identification and pressing -- remember leaves? your excuse for leaving the house? -- in the Tavern Saturday at 2.)
For a pilgrimage through Marland in search of fall's scenes, you can get in an autumn mood by picking your own pumpkins in Butler's Orchard, and visit "pumpkinland" in the fields to see the life-cycle of the famed squash. Take I-270 north toward Frederick, get off at the Damascus exit and follow the signs to the orchards.
Maryland's Frederick County never looks better than at this time of year. In the southernmost part, Sugarloaf Mountain offers a fine overlook of the Monocacy River Valley. (Reach the little mountain by taking the Comus exit off I-270.) There's New Market for antiquing and Frederick, which you can spend an afternoon wandering on foot. (Pick up information at the tourist center, open 9 to 5 at 19 East Church Street.) Rose Hill manor, at 1611 North Market Street, will be holding its fourth annual Farm Museum Festival and Kinderfest Saturday, 10 to 5, and Sunday, noon to 5. It's free. Phone: 301/663-8687. And there's a farmer's market Saturdays from 8 to 2 on the Frederick Fairgrounds, East Patrick Street.
Camera buffs can wax pastoral at three of Maryland's old covered bridges, north of Frederick off U.S. 15. One is eight miles from Frederick, near Lewistown on Utica Road; one a mile of thurmont, just east of U.S. 15, on Roddy Road; and the third is three miles east of Thurmont just off Route 77 on Old Frederick Road.
Anyone in the neighborhood of Thurmont this weekend can't miss the Catoctin Colorfest. To celebrate the leaves, all the local communities have something going -- Blue Ridge Summit, Catoctin furnace, Creagerstown, Emmitsburg, Lewistown, Eyler's Valley, Graceham, Sabillasville and so on. eThey're having church suppers, or flea markets, craft sales, square-dancing and a bull roast. The center of all this communal bustle is Thurmont, and if you're just passing through, may as well stop for pancake-and-sausage breakfast Saturday or Sunday, 7 to 11, in the large pavillion of the community park. It's on Route 806, reachable by the first Thurmont exit as you go north on U.S. 15. You can learn more about the festival there, or at Catoctin Park Vistor's Center, 301/824-2574.
That's the area north of Frederick. There are several state parks worth visiting northwest of Frederick, too. There are scenic overlooks in Gambrill State Park, off U.S. 40. To fine George Washington Monument State Park, take I-70 northwest from Frederick. The high point there is, of course, the G.W. monument, a 30-foot stone tower that sees over Boonesboro on the west and Middletown Valley on the east. The park offers a museum of local relics and miles of hiking on nature trails.
Still farther west off I-70 is Fort Frederick State Park, home of a French-and-Indian War fort and a plantation of deciduous trees and conifers. fA great variety of trees from all over the world were planted here "in the late '20s and early '30s," says state park historian Ross Kimmel, "as an experiment to see how they would do in a North American climate." The trees did very well, thank you, and this is the probably the best season to visit them. Other attractions there are boat rentals and the C&O canal; and nearby Big Pool is a popular fishing spot. You can reach Fort Frederick by the Big Pool exit off I-70.
In western Maryland's Garrett County, out Oakland way, they're expecting good colors this weekend for the Autumn Glory festival. From Cumberland to Oakland -- especially the section along Route 135, past Deep Creek Lake -- is a beautiful fall drive with overlooks.
"The old B&O used to run special trains to Oakland," says Amtrak's travel editor, train buff John McLeod. "They used to have thousands of people. It was kind of a community thing: The trains would stop and church ladies would serve the passengers dinner. They would make trips around the lake." You cn still get a train to Oakland -- but it runs at night.
If you drive the 3 1/2 hours to Oakland this Friday, you may make it in time for the Maryland State Five-String Banjo and Fiddler's Championship at 7 in the Southern High School Gym. Saturday and Sunday, 10 to 5, there's a local crafts show at the Volunteer Fire Department on Second Street, and Sunday at 10, an antique car show and sale in the National Guard Armory. (For details on other activities, check with the festival headquarters in the courthouse, 301/334-3888.)
WEST VIRGINIA -- The trees are turning in berkeley Springs, and just in time for its annual apple butter festival, starting Saturday at 9:30 with a parade, and Sunday, noon with a hymn-sing. If that's too tame, there's a beard contest, a tattoo contest, an apple bake, a turtle race, bluegrass and Dixieland music, 156 crafts booths, and, last but not least, apple-butter-making all day long. Reach the town by taking I-270, then I-70, to Hancock, Maryland, then go south six miles on U.S. 522 to downtown Berkeley Springs, where it's all happening. Phone: 304/258-3738.
If you just want to go to Harper's Ferry and back, Amtrak does that run from Union Station on weekends.
SOUTH-CENTRAL PENNSYLVANIA -- Here are a few short hops into the Keystone State. No sense making a career out of leaf-watching, but we wouldn't want to leave out Pennsylvania. It's bad enough we're ignoring New England.
The National Railway Historical Society is waiting until October 28 for its autumn colors tour, from Washington to Strasburg, Pennsylvania. Take in the Susquehanna River Valley by electric train, then change to the Strasburg Rail Road for an old-time steam-train ride from Leaman Place to Strasburg. The Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania there is included in the fare, which is $39 for adults and $35 for kids. Call Ed Rockett, 942-0112.
Here's another way to get to Pennsylvania not under your own steam. Greyhound will carry you as far north as Sunbury in one day: Leave Washington 9:15, arrive Harrisburg 12:45, arrive Sunbury 2:45, always looking out the windows. Return bus leaves Sunbury at 5:10. But why not spend the afternoon in Harrisburg? That way you see a fair amount of Susquehanna River Valley scenery, lunch in Harrisburg, leave at 3:10 and you're home in time for dinner. While in Harrisburg, you can tour the state capital and the William Penn Museum next to it on Third and North Streets, and, on Locust Street near the capital, eat at Lombardo's where the local politicians hang out. (Another bus leaves at 7.)
If you happen to drive to Harrisburg, it's not that much farther to Hawk Mountain Santuary, where every fall all manner of birds, but especially raptors, hitch their way south on the updrafts along the Appalachians. You don't hve to know much about birding to climb up and watch. From Harrisburg, take I-78 to Route 61 exit; turn right on Route 895 to Hawk Mountain. Phone: 215/756-6961.
The foliage can be magnificent at Gettysburg, and through the battlefield you can take a bus tour that narrates the scenery in stereo. A double-decker bus (you can take pictures from the top) leaves the tourist center every two hours, 9:30 to 4. Phone: 717/334-6296.
Ten miles north of Gettysburg, Adams County Harvest Festival will continue this weekend in the South Mountain Fairgrounds, just north of Arendtsville on Route 234. Phone: 717/677-9413. The Jaycees offer 39-mile scenic valley tours through orchards and back through history, on lands where the Indians used to live.