PARKS ARE a refuge when the stresses of city life get too intense. Washington and nearby Virginia and Maryland abound with parks offering mountains, waterfalls, gentle meadows or the scars of history. Here is a list of some favorites:
VIEWS FROM THE TOP
Signs of civilization are but distant glimmers on the horizon from the many overlooks along the 105-mile-long Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah National Park. The views here can be stunning, particularly in the fall, but the weather and the traffic have to cooperate. Nearer to Washington, Sugarloaf Mountain stands a comparatively small 1,280 feet above the neighboring plain, but a visitor can drive to the summit or hike the mountain's many trails to get a view in all directions. You won't be the first to admire it, for Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to acquire the land for a presidential retreat. Its owner refused, but did direct FDR to the mountain property now called Camp David. The Skyline Drive can be picked up in Front Royal, Virginia. Sugarloaf stands sweetly on Thurston Road, in lower Frederick County. Take I-270 to Md. Route 109, then go southwest to Thurston Road, where you turn right.
HEELS & WHEELS
The prettiest run in the area is the Mount Vernon Bike Trail, which stretches 17 miles from the Memorial Bridge to George's place, paralleling the George Washington Memorial parkway. For joggers as well as bikers, it's hard to beat Rock Creek Park or its Maryland neighbor, Rock Creek Regional Park. The only problem is that paved trails are nonexistent in some parts of the park, and weekday traffic can be heavy. On weekends, the Parkway is taken over by two-footers and two-wheelers when sections are closed to automobile traffic -- including Beach Drive from Broad Branch north to Joyce Drive and from Sherrill Drive to the Maryland line. Another popular spot is the towpath along the C&O Canal, but joggers and cyclists must compete with the many walkers.
ROCKING & ROILING
If a waterfall is measured by how much the scene can overwhelm a viewer, then Great Falls is tops. For the best view of the water as it surges through sheer rock walls and then plunges down a curving chute, you want the Maryland side. Drive out MacArthur Boulevard to Great Falls Park. Cross the canal near the lock, walk downstream for about 200 yards and then take the path to the giant rocks overlooking the falls. (A viewing platform was destroyed by floodwaters.) Be careful, and while you stand there, remind yourself that you are in a major metropolitan area. Downstream from the falls, quiet pools broken only by imposing rock islands will provide a place for quieter meditation.
LIFE AMID THE BEARS
Yes, there are those among us who consider a tent, campfire, cold water and the near presence of wild animals to be a relaxing way to spend a weekend. The Shenandoah National Park in Virginia has placed its campgrounds a day's hike apart. On clear nights, it is said, Shenandoah lives up to its Indian name: "Daughter of the Stars." In Maryland, mountain camping can be had at Deep Creek Lake in Garrett County and Catoctin Mountain Park and Cunningham Falls State Park on U.S. 15 near Thurmont.
TAKING THE BAIT
The Chesapeake Bay and the numerous rivers in Maryland and Virginia offer many fine opportunities to fish, but perhaps the most overlooked spots are right in downtown Washington. The Potomac River has been cleaned up, and the resultant harvest of gamefish is the reward. Another hidden intown delight is Constitution Gardens, on the mall northeast of the Lincoln Memorial, where you can catch bream and bass (but only if you fish before 7 a.m. when the crowds arrive).
If the above-ground scene is getting to you, visit the nether world. But how do you compare caves? Two of the most popular are in Virginia: Skyline Caverns in Front Royal, and Luray Caverns in Luray. Both offer tours of varying lengths, with guides. One of the more interesting subterranean spots around, however, is right here in Washington. In fact, it is under the Lincoln Memorial. The huge cavern, which can be seen on a tours leaving several times an hour, was formed during the original excavation of the memorial. It has the usual -- stalactites and stalagmites -- but you can also see the huge concrete columns supporting the memorial.
DIG UP THE PAST
It's a staple with school children, and Calvert Cliffs State Park on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland's Calvert County will give you an opportunity to pick up a fossilized shell or shark's tooth. You cannot dig in the cliffs, but scavenging in the rubble at its base is allowed. You can reach the park from Routes 2 & 4 south of Lusby.
The Bay is a vast wintering ground for many species of migratory waterfowl. The best places to photograph and admire the waterfowl are the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, on Route 445 south of Rock Hall, Md.; the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, off Route 335 in Church Creek, Md.; the Merkle Wildlife Management Area (From Upper Marlboro, take U.S. 301 south to Route 382, left there and left again on Saint Thomas Church Road to the park); and the Roaches Run Waterfowl Sanctuary, on the George Washington Parkway not far from National Airport.
Rock Creek Park has both a nature center as well as a planetarium. Try Turkey Run Farm, which recreates colonial life on a 100-acre farm (on Virginia Route 193 inside the Beltway), or the Carroll County Farm Museum, at 500 South Center Street in Westminster, Maryland, where farm life a century later than Turkey Run's is reenacted. Most parks have education programs for children and adults; in general, all you need to do is ask at the office.
PARKS WITH A PAST
The list is long, but among the best: Jamestown, Williamsburg, Mount Vernon, Monticello, Ash Lawn, Fort McHenry, Yorktown, Antietam, Gettysburg, Manassas. These names and more echo through the nation's past. If you have to pick just one, visit Williamsburg.