FOR THOSE whose winter vacation won't include a Caribbean island, nearby state and national parks offer treasure troves of the weird and wonderful from bygone eras. The parks commemorate battles, fortunes made and lost, long-gone means of livelihood. Some recall mysterious legends and eerie phenomena. In the stillness of their woods, you can find what the Quakers call "a quality of silence." There's no better time for that than now, when the parks are empty and you're alone in the domain of forgotten souls.
If your timing is right and your belief in legends strong enough, you may even conjure up a spirit or two. But even if you don't, at this time of year you can at least see the forest through the trees -- and many other things hidden by summertime foliage.
Here are some offbeat parks close at hand.
GATH'S EMPTY TOMB -- In 1884, George Alfred Townsend, a then-famous author, lecturer and Civil War correspondent, chose the rolling hills of Maryland for his country retreat. Townsend's beloved estate, named Gathland after his pseudonym Gath, was to be his final resting place. But today, his tomb -- inscribed with the simple sentiment "Good night, Gath" -- stands empty, guarded by a few empty soda bottles. Old age and infirmity overtook Townsend, and he never returned to Gathland after 1906. He died in 1914 at age 73, and his daughter sold the estate, lock, stock and tomb. He was buried next to his wife in Philadelphia instead.
His tomb and estate were long neglected until the state acquired the property in 1949. Gath's guest house is now a museum containing Gath memorabilia; Gath Hall is the Visitors Center and park headquarters. The Civil War Correspondents Arch, built by Gath in 1896, looms over the entrance to this gem of a park.
GATHLAND STATE PARK -- Open 10 to dusk in winter, 8 to dusk April to October. Visitors Center and museum open 10 to 6 on weekends and holidays, May to September; other times by appointment. Pets are prohibited, although leashed pets are permitted on the Appalachian Trail, which crosses Gathland State Park. 301/293-2420. To get there: Take I-270 north to I-70, then take the Middletown exit west of Frederick, which is Alternate U.S. 40. At Middletown, turn left on Maryland Route 17 and go eight miles to Burkittsville. At Burkittsville turn right on Gapland Road for one mile. The park is at the top of the mountain.
VIRGINIUS ISLAND TRAIL -- A "ghost" island just one- quarter mile south of Harpers Ferry Historical Park, Virginius (and its town) vanished many years ago. To find out why, walk to the Harpers Ferry Historical Association bookstore a few blocks away on High Street in Harpers Ferry proper and pick up the "Virginius Island Trail" pamphlet (bookstore hours: 9 to 4:45 daily, summertime weekends 9 to 6). Numbered stakes on a 11/2-mile trail correspond to pamphlet sections tracing the flora, fauna and fortunes of Virginius.
Try to figure out why "puzzle rock," a 60-pound chunk of shale, is lodged 30 feet above the ground in a giant mulberry tree. Walk through old water tunnels that diverted river water to island factories. Find the most-asked-about tree, the paulownia, which bears wildly beautiful lavender flowers in spring and clusters of Pac-man-shaped pods in fall and winter. Then try to find paulownias in other parts of Harpers Ferry (Clue: Look near the hotel, Hilltop House).
Evocative ruins along the trail hint at the last century's bustling activity. A tiny circle of stones is the only remnant of Mrs. Emily Child's well. The empty, massive stone sluices of the paper pulp mill once held four working water wheels. As the pamphlet says, "Man, once dominant here, is but a visitor today."
Virginius Island Trail begins at the far right corner of the lower level visitors parking lot off Shenandoah Street. A cutoff trail reduces the length of the walk by one fourth.
HARPERS FERRY HISTORICAL PARK -- Visitors Center and buildings are open 8 to 5 daily. Grounds are open 24 hours; parking lot closes from midnight to 6 a.m. Leashed pets are permitted. 304/535-6371. To get there: Take I-270 north to I-70, then take Route 340 west for about 20 miles. Turn right at the sign for Harpers Ferry National Historical Park onto Shenandoah Street.
FORD & MARYLAND MINES -- The only visible testimonies to Maryland's "gold fever" are the eerie ruins of the Ford and Maryland Mines, two of the largest and longest-operated local gold mines. They were closed in 1917 and 1940 respectively, so the most activity you'll see now is an occasional leaf drifting into the abandoned shafts.
Old-timers claim to have heard footsteps and other unexplained sounds at the Maryland Mine, site of a 1906 explosion that killed one man. So beware of ghosts known locally as "tommyknockers."
Remains of the Maryland Mine -- the shafts, water tower and an outbuilding -- are a few yards into the woods at the left side of the intersection of Falls Road and MacArthur Boulevard (right at the entrance to the C&O Canal National Historical Park). The Ford Mine is a two-mile round-trip hike and can be reached via the fire road at the end of the park parking lot.
C&O CANAL NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK -- Open dawn to dusk, year round. Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center and Museum open 9 to 4 year round. Leashed pets permitted. 299-3614. To get there: Take Beltway exit 41 marked Great Falls and drive toward Carderock on the George Washington Parkway about one mile. Turn left onto MacArthur Boulevard, which runs into the park.
THE CHARCOAL TRAIL -- They say the "ghosts" of the woodsmen who worked for Catoctin's iron furnace (1776-1904) can still be found in the forests of Catoctin Mountain Park and neighboring Cunningham Falls State Park, if you know how to look. Restored sites on the Charcoal Trail -- an easy, half-mile, self-guided hike -- recreate the long-forgotten lives of the rugged loggers and charcoal-makers, or colliers, who lived and worked in the isolated forest. The tiny, mud-walled collier's hut; the wood-hauling sled, stacked and ready for dragging; and the unlit charcoal pits on the trail seem to wait patiently for the return of the woodsmen who left 80 years ago.
Signs on the trail tell of their life and work and provide clues for finding the remains of the 100-year-old huts of charcoal- makers, "coaling roads" that brought the fuel to the furnace, and the old charcoal pits. No one knows for sure how many there are or where they are to be found in the 10,000-acre forest. After your hike, look for ironworkers' 19th-century stone homes, now residences, in the village of Catoctin Furnace, and the nearby ruins of the furnace itself along U.S. 15.
CATOCTIN MOUNTAIN PARK -- Daylight hours year round. 301/293-3377.
CUNNINGHAM FALLS STATE PARK -- 10 a.m. to sunset (winter); 8 a.m. to sunset (April through October). 301/271-7574. Visitors Center for both parks in Catoctin Mountain Park; hours 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Leashed pets permitted in Catoctin Mountain Park, only on trails in Cunningham Falls State Park. To get there: Take I-270 to U.S. 15 north approximately 20 miles on 15 north, west on Route 77 for two miles to the visitors center. To get to charcoal trail, right on Park Central Road for one mile; the trail begins at Thurmont Vista parking lot.
Matildaville's main street is now a leaf-strewn path in a quiet forest. Deserted for more than 150 years, the town once served as a trading center and stop-off point for barge operators plying the old Potowmack Canal. The waterway operated unprofitably for 26 years (1802-1828), even though no less a figure than George Washington masterminded the Potowmack Canal Company in 1784. Matildaville's businesses -- an iron foundry, inn, gristmill and sawmill -- eventually folded, and the residents moved away. By 1830, the town -- named after the first wife of Revolutionary War figure Lighthorse Harry Lee -- was abandoned. Today, fragments of an inn, the canal superintendent's house, the spring house and iron foundry are all that's left. Monthly history walks (call for dates and times) recreate Potowmack Canal days and the characters of Matildaville: Matilda Lee; the inn's proprietress, Widow Myers; and the canal builders and barge operators. Weekly tours -- each Saturday at 11 a.m. -- cover the history of the Potowmack Canal. For further information, call 759-2915.
GREAT FALLS PARK, VIRGINIA -- Park hours 9 a.m. to dusk daily; Visitors Center 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in winter, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. April through October. Leashed pets permitted. To get there: Take Beltway Exit 13 onto Old Georgetown Pike toward Great Falls for four miles. At the first light, turn right onto Old Dominion Drive to Great Falls Pak.
THE CHOATE MINE
Mine owner and Baltimore paint manufacturer Isaac Tyson made a tidy fortune when he opened the first chromium mine in the U.S. in 1828 -- 20 years after the important paint ingredient was discovered in the shallow rocky soil of Baltimore County. Tyson's mines, which enjoyed a near monopoly on the world's supply until a larger source was discovered in New Zealand, shut down around 1880 and reopened briefly during World War I when chromium was needed in the manufacture of steel.
Visitors today can stand before the ruins of the Choate mine, one of many that operated on the scrubby landscape described as a remnant of Maryland's prairies. Just past the debris-filled entrance is a dark, forebidding passageway. Splintered and skewed timbers support the fragile mine (which can be viewed from the entrance only). Black traces of chromium can still be found along the trails after a heavy rain. If it can be picked up with a magnet, it's chromium.
The unusual mine is in a park with an unusual name -- Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area; as one legend has it, the last Union soldier to leave the area during the Civil War pronounced himself "delighted" with the cakes and pies residents gave troops bivouacked there. But a more ephemeral resident still lingers, the ghost of murderer John Berry, who was hanged near the scene of his crime in 1752. On moonless nights he supposedly haunts Berrys Hill, highest point of Soldiers Delight.
Trails start from the Soldiers Delight parking lot and overlook on Deer Park Road. The mine entrance is about a hundred yards from the parking lot and is most easily reached by the half-mile red trail.
SOLDIERS DELIGHT NATURAL ENVIRONMENT AREA, MARYLAND -- 10 a.m. to sunset in winter; 8 a.m. to sunset in summer. Leashed pets permitted. To get there: From the Baltimore Beltway take Exit 18 West toward Randallstown, which is Route 26 or Liberty Road. Go seven miles west on Liberty Road, right on Deer Park Road to parking area and overlook. For further information, call 301/922-3044.