THE GORGEOUS colors of fall can be an exhilarating sight, seen from a car or bus window. But pleasant as such a viewing can be, it leaves most of the senses uninvolved, when they could be enjoying it too. To my mind, the fullest and most rewarding engagement with the autumn leaves comes from walking among them.
The eyes of the walker on a wooded trail can revel in wrap- around color. For the ear, there is the rustling sound of leaves underfoot and the soft patter of others landing. The foot feels their springiness and the nose smells the musky scent of the dying leaves -- and sometimes sneezes in response. (With a little imagination and a mouth partly agape, some say, the atmosphere of fall can even be tasted, but this is best tried when there are no passers-by.)
I have never been content simply to look at fall leaves if there is a possibility of fuller contact. I grew up in the Middle West among splendid elm trees of the kind that graced Saturday Evening Post covers in the fall. I went to a college on the Missouri River, where wooded bluffs turned glorious colors. Later, living in Austria, a short walk from the Vienna Woods, we had an otherwise nondescript stucco house that was blessed with an opulent covering of vines whose leaves turned a brilliant crimson in the fall, evoking murmurs of "Herrlich!" from awestruck Viennese passing by. But I had just as much fun when the "magnificent" leaf cover fell to the ground; I would shuffle through them in their ankle-deep splendor.
On a meticulously laid-out trip west a few years ago, my wife and I were driving from Flagstaff, Arizona, to the Grand Canyon on a tightly scheduled 24-hour train stopover. We unexpectedly found the aspens in the Kaibab National Forest at the height of their golden autumn beauty. The Grand Canyon could wait; those wonderful aspen had to be walked through to be fully enjoyed.
Many of my favorite places for viewing the fall colors on foot, however, are close to home. One of the most beautiful, and easily among the most convenient, is the C&O Canal. In many places, the trees form a canopy over the towpath, virtually surrounding the walker in color. Fallen leaves float on the water in attractive, photogenic patterns, and often the trees open to provide scenic vistas of the Potomac River and the wooded shores of Virginia. One especially scenic section is the mile- and-a-half between Carderock and the Old Angler's Inn, both of which have large parking lots. (Note, however, that portions of the canal between Carderock and Brookmont downstream have been drained to allow repairs of leaks.)
Other nearby places to hike and see the autumn leaves are the trails of Rock Creek Park (maps are available at the Nature Center off Military Road); Glover-Archbold Park, which extends from Van Ness Steet NW to the C&O Canal; Prince William Forest Park off I-95 near Triangle, Virginia, and Louise Cosca Regional Park in Clinton, Maryland.
Sugarloaf Mountain, off I-270 at the Montgomery-Frederick County border, has scenic trails and lots of trees, as do Catoctin National Park and the adjoining Cunningham Falls State Park, just west of U.S. 15, north of Frederick.
Skyline Drive, in the Shenandoah National Park, an hour west of the Beltway, offers the most spectacular fall views -- but also some of the most horrendous traffic at the height of the color. Here are a couple of suggestions for avoiding the traffic:
Enter the drive at Thornton Gap, on U.S. 211, and go no farther than the parking lot at the Panorama service area, just south of the entrance. Take the 3.7-mile roundtrip trail that starts at the parking lot and goes, with some moderately arduous climbing, to Mary's Rock, which provides a 360-degree view, far better than any you can get from the traffic-clogged auto overlooks.
Or, keep your car completely out of the park and drive to one of the many trails into the park that begin outside it. There are trailheads with parking at several locations off Virginia Route 231, south of Sperryville, including some that connect with the beautiful White Oak Canyon trail or the strenuous, boulder- strewn route to the top of Old Rag, which has few trees itself but offers rewarding views.
Afterwards you can stop at one of the dozens of apple stands along U.S. 211 near Sperryville and stock up on freshly picked Staymans or Winesaps or other locally grown apples, and cider.
Detailed directions to Skyline Drive trails can be found in either of these two useful books: "Guide to Skyline Drive" and "Appalachian Trail Guide to the Shenandoah National Park," available at book stores or through the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, 1718 N Street NW.
HIKING HITHER AND YON
A number of local groups put together walking trips. Here's a look at those organizations and sampling of their outings.
AMERICAN YOUTH HOSTEL trips require advance registration. Call Potomac Area Council, 783-4943, for newsletter.
APPALACHIAN MOUNTAIN CLUB has mostly Saturday trips. Call 296-6494 or 703/938-3679.
CAPITAL CLUB outings, usually Sundays by bus leaving 1424 K St. NW at 8. Call 522-2764 or 686-6338.
CENTER CLUB often has two outings a weekend, most using car pools. Call 301/949-2418 or 301/891-2369.
DIAL-A-HIKE, 547-2326, gives information on Sierra Club outings in the Washington area.
MARYLAND MOUNTAIN CLUB has easy strolls Sundays & Wednesday. Call 301/592-8746.
PENTAGON PACESETTERS -- has schedule of upcoming events. SASE to Pentagon Pacesetters, P.O. Box 46089, Pentagon, Washington, D.C. 20050- 6089.
POTOMAC APPALACHIAN TRAIL CLUB tape recording of upcoming outings & worktrips, 638-5306.
POTOMAC BACKPACKERS ASSOCIATION has backpacks in foliage areas most weekends. Call 836-2921.
PRINCE WILLIAM FOREST PARK has hikes with rangers, orienteering sessions. Call 703/221-2104.
SIERRA CLUB Patuxent Group treks mostly in West Virginia or monitoring the Patuxent River. Call 301/490-1978.
WANDERBIRDS go to scenic areas Sundays by bus leaving 17th & K Streets NW at 8. Call 301/468-9055 or 301/294-0014.
WILDERNESS WALKS has backpacks in George Washington National Forest, other scenic areas. Call guide Al Schneider, 301/972-1582.