In the Blue Ridge, hikers with knapsacks strapped to backs and heavy-duty boots laced on feet are spending their weekends climbing the tricky Little Devil's Staircase or trudging up the gorgeous but difficult White Oak Canyon trail. On the paved paths of home the joggers in well-cushioned shoes and lighter-than-air silky shorts are shaping up for marathons and races. Languid summer has moved on. Now there's a nip to the air. It makes a body want to be out there, breathing it in -- but not necessarily deep breathing, as in running. A little hand-in-hand or arm-in-arm walk can also go a long way. It takes a lot less planning and absolutely no gear. You don't even need special shoes, although comfortable ones are recommended. It's also good exercise. You work off the same number of calories walking a mile as you do running a mile -- it just takes more time. If you walk at a good clip, you can do a mile in 15 minutes. If you're brisk but not frantic, figure on 20 minutes a mile. And you can't hurt yourself by overdoing. The worse that can happen is that your feet and/or calves will have a pleasant achey feeling the next day. Walking is a diversion that cuts across generations. Your dear old great aunt, here for a week-long visit, may not be able to make it up Old Rag in the heart of the Shenandoahs, but she could certainly trip any of the paths fantastic along the Potomac River or in the depths of local parks. Some walks are more pleasant than others. If you try strolling the cobblestones of Georgetown on a Saturday you'll spend more time walking around people than up the street. But Washington has walks with all the wonders of the countryside. The burnished leaves on the trees in Rock Creek Park are equal in color, if not in number, to those along Skyline Drive. The lapping waters of the Potomac shimmer as brightly as any mountain lake or ocean wave. If you're up for a fall walk, here are five suggestions for country-style walks close to home.
GREAT FALLS, MARYLAND. It's only about five miles from the Beltway but it's light-years away from suburbia. Here where the Potomac plunges down a cataract, the C&O Canal and towpath and a tiny, rustic museum are the attractions. On a beautiful fall weekend, the park and towpath are crowded with walkers, joggers, cyclists and sightseers of every description and size. You will not want for company on the well-traveled routes of Great Falls Park. There is another, quieter walkway at the park that dips through the woods and follows an old trolley-line bed. On the Saturday my son and I walked this route, the canal and park were swarming with people but we passed only one other living soul -- a jogger -- on this interior woodland path. You pick the trail up behind a picket fence that runs the length of the museum. One minute the canal and crowds are within sight and sound and the next minute you are deep in a woods. Follow the blue blazes on the trees and you'll get farther away from civilization. The path is well marked and neatly mulched, soft underfoot and gentle. If you follow the entire 3.2-mile circuit (including a stretch of the towpath) you'll pass gold mining territory and an old iron mine. If you want a shorter walk, follow the path straight back into the woods until you hear the whoosh of traffic. This means you've come about a mile. Turn around and retrace your steps or pick up any of the other paths that crisscross or feed into the main blue trail. All roads lead back to the museum and canal. To reach Great Falls Park, follow MacArthur Blvd through Glen Echo and Cabin John into Potomac. MacA do have to watch out for are bikers, some of whom consider the path through the park their own privileged right of way.) The path comes out of the woods at various intervals, revealing pretty suburban streets and some pretty grand old homes. For casual walkers who don't want to don sneakers, this is a perfect walk. Even leather-bound city shoes can negotiate this walkway. You can reach Rock Creek Park bike and walking path by parking at a turnoff off Cedar Lane between Wisconsin and Connecticut Avenues.
MASON DISTRICT PARK, VIRGINIA. Past the tennis courts and football fields of Mason District Park is a 3/4-mile fitness trail. It is exposed at first -- part of a big empty field -- then darts into the woods. Blackberry bushes line the trail (the good pickings were last month) and the terrain remains gentle and rolling. Now and then there will be a fitness stop, exhorting you to do chin-ups or push-ups or jumping-jacks. You can ignore it and just keep walking or get away from the power of suggestion by taking one of the many feeder trails that shoot off from the main trail. These trails lead through denser woods, across tiny streams and up and down rolling hills. Mason District park is off Columbia Pike in Annandale.
ROCK CREEK PARK NATURE TRAIL. There are hundreds of paths through Rock Creek Park, but if you don't already have your favorite, start with the circuit trail at Rock Creek Nature Center in the District. As fall comes on strong, the leaves are a rhapsody of color. There are numbered stops along the way that point out various joys of nature. This is the perfect path to take small children whose legs don't have much staying power or an older relative who tires easily. The circuit runs less than a mile, and the path has railroad ties, logs and even wooden bridges to help in potentially muddy spots. For those in need, there are bathrooms and benches at the Center. Nature Center Trail is at Military Road and Glover Drive. There is ample parking at the Center.
THEODORE ROOSEVELT ISLAND. In the middle of the Potomac, Theodore Roosevelt Island is one of the more unusual Washington memorials to departed Presidents. In the center of the island there's an imposing monument to T.R., but getting there is where the interest lies. A 1.2-mile-long path circles the island and goes through a forest of oak, maple, elm, dogwood, pawpaw, redbud and bald cypress trees. It also skirts a swamp, a marsh and lowlands before connecting with a path to the T.R. Monument. Along the way you may see ducks and herons as well as the site of the old George Mason house. Guided ranger walks are available for those who want to know more about what they're seeing, but a brochure is available at the entry to the island. Pathways are dirt and wood chips and, after a rain, there may be a muddy patch or two. But this is a path for strollers rather than hikers and even a lazy walker -- or a parent pushing a baby carriage -- can make it around in about an hour. To reach Theodore Roosevelt Island and parking areas, drive north on G.W. Parkway and watch for parking lot turnoffs past the exit for Roosevelt Bridge.