IT'S BEEN a tough year for trees. First, months of drought and leaf-curling temperatures, then waves of torrential rain. This stress did take its toll, with some trees in the Washington area losing up to 30 percent of their leaves, but the late rains have helped save the annual show of color.
"We could still have a spectacular autumn," said Dr. Marc Cathey, retired director of the U.S. National Arboretum and president emeritus of the American Horticultural Society. "The foliage is pretty well set. We've had a tremendous amount of leaf drop ... a third of the leaves have fallen off. But this fall, the color is still dependent on night temperatures."
The conditions needed for a picture-perfect autumn, Cathey said, are bright, sunny days and cool nights.
At Shenandoah National Park and in Western Maryland's Garrett County, where the mountain elevation practically guarantees cool nights, the fall foliage is at its peak of color now. And at other mountain and lowland parks, the foliage is expected to peak over the next two weeks.
The fall foliage forecast goes like this:
Peaking now: Shenandoah National Park, Garrett County.
Peaking over the next week: Catoctin Mountains, Shenandoah River State Park, Sky Meadows State Park, C&O Canal National Historic Park (west of Shepherdstown), Sugarloaf Mountain.
Peaking near the end of October: Mason Neck State Park, Prince William Forest Park, C&O Canal National Historical Park (east of Shepherdstown), Rock Creek Park and the entire Washington area.
Here is an overview of these places and their annual color fashion show:
Catoctin Mountains -- This mountain area in central Maryland has two parks: the 5,700-acre Catoctin Mountain Park and the 4,946-acre Cunningham Falls State Park. The parks are north and south of Route 77 just west of Thurmont. The forests are easily accessible, with more than a dozen marked and maintained hiking trails and six campgrounds or lodging areas. The hiking trails guide visitors to waterfalls, an old sawmill and other wonders. For more information about park facilities and activities, call 301/271-7574 for Cunningham Falls State Park and 301/663-9330 for Catoctin Mountain Park.
Garrett County -- Visitors are lured by more than 70,000 acres of public lands, magnificent forests and wild rivers in state parks -- Big Run, Casselman, Deep Creek Lake, Herrington Manor, New Germany and Swallow Falls -- and three state forests -- Garrett, Savage River and Potomac. If exploring the backwoods is too much of a challenge, just enjoy a picnic on the shore of Deep Creek Lake. Call the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce at 301/387-4386 for lodging, tourist or festival information.
Fall foliage festivals include the 32nd annual Autumn Glory Festival, Friday through Sunday in downtown Oakland and surrounding areas. The festival features the Maryland State Banjo & Fiddle Championships, parades, an Octoberfest, arts and crafts, antiques and music. Call 301/387-6171. And the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad is offering Fall Foliage Excursions this Saturday and Sunday from Cumberland, Md. (elevation 640 feet), to Oakland (elevation 2,363 feet), a 110-mile roundtrip. Trains depart from the Amtrak station in Cumberland Saturday and Sunday at 9 a.m. The fare is $45; children $37.50. For information and reservations, call 800/872-4650 or 301/759-4400.
Shenandoah National Park -- When the fall foliage is at its peak of color, Skyline Drive, the park's main thoroughfare, begins to resemble the Woodrow Wilson Bridge at rush hour -- lots of cars, little movement. During this period, the park attracts more than 100,000 visitors. But there are ways to avoid the rush. Go in the middle of the week, when traffic is lighter. If that isn't an option, drive south on U.S. 29 to Warrenton and then west on U.S. 211 to the Thornton Gap entrance, or drive farther south on U.S. 29 to Charlottesville, turn west on U.S. 250 to Rockfish Gap, and then enter the park and take Skyline Drive north. You'll be going against the traffic. Park admission is $10 per car, good for a week ($5 per pedestrian or bicyclist). For park information, call 540/999-3500; for lodging, call 800/999-4714.
Sky Meadows State Park -- This 1,862-acre park is on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The park offers hike-in primitive camping at 12 sites, fishing, interpretive programs, six hiking trails and access to the Appalachian Trail. An "In Touch With Nature" program, where participants can touch natural objects -- deer skulls, antlers, turtle shells, vulture feathers and the like -- is offered Saturday. And a campfire with stories and songs Saturday from 6:30 to 7:30 ends the day (marshmallows and sticks provided; bring a chair or blanket). On Sunday from 2 to 3:30, visitors can take part in a leaf-print workshop (50 cent fee). And on Oct. 23, visitors can learn how to preserve those beautiful leaves during a free workshop from 2 to 3:30. A moonlight walk will be held Oct. 23 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Take U.S. 50 west to Route 17 south and drive two miles to the park. Admission is $1 per car, Monday through Friday, $2 weekends. Call 540/592-3556.
Mason Neck State Park -- This 1,814-acre park on a peninsula is flanked by two bays and the Potomac River. The park also connects to a 2,000-acre National Wildlife Refuge. The park offers more than three miles of hiking trails, elevated walkways through marsh areas and a visitor center with exhibits on the plant and animal life of the area. The park is at 7301 High Point Rd., Lorton. Admission is $1 per car weekdays, $2 weekends. Call 703/550-0960.
Prince William Forest Park -- This 18,000-acre park offers a visitor center, tent campsites, group tent campground, a travel trailer village, individual cabins and 35 miles of hiking trails. The paved Park Scenic Drive has a dedicated bike lane for four miles. Mountain bikers may want to go off-road on the 10 fire roads in the park. Regular activities include ranger-led tours and talks. Admission is $4 per vehicle (hikers and bikers free); the park pass is good for three days. The park is at 18100 Park Headquarters Rd., Triangle, Va. Take I-95 south to the Triangle exit, then drive west on Route 619 to the park. Call 703/221-7181.
Shenandoah River State Park -- This 1,604-acre riverfront park features scenic views of Massanutten Mountain to the west and the Shenandoah National Park to the east. The park also has 5.6 miles of frontage on the Shenandoah River, campgrounds, hiking trails, picnicking areas and interpretive kiosks. Admission is $2 per vehicle, $3 on weekends. The park is on Daughter of Stars Drive in Bentonville, Va., located between Luray and Front Royal, 70 miles from the Beltway. Take I-66 west to Front Royal (Exit 6, Route 340). Turn left (south) on Route 340 and drive through Front Royal. Shenandoah River Park is eight miles below Front Royal. Watch for the large sign and turn right onto Daughter of Stars Drive. The entrance station is up the hill. Call 540/622-6840.
The Shenandoah Valley Hot Air Balloon and Wine Festival at Historic Long Branch in Millwood, Va., is Saturday and Sunday from 11 to 5 (balloon launches at 7:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.). The festival features more then 30 hot air balloons ascending (weather permitting), crafters, wine tasting, antique fire engines and more. Admission is $5 per person or $20 per carload. Take U.S. 50 16 miles west of Middleburg and turn left on Route 624. Call 888/558-5567.
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park -- The park offers spectacular views of two river gorges, the John Brown Museum, a wetlands exhibit, a Black Voices Museum, a Civil War Museum, historic reenactments and other activities. Harpers Ferry is located on Route 340, about 65 miles northeast of Washington. The most scenic way to get there is by taking Route 7 west from the Beltway past Leesburg, bearing right on Route 9 and continuing to U.S. 340 and Charles Town. Then head north to the park. Call 304/535-6298.
Farther west in the small town of Romney, W.Va., the Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad offers three-hour narrated excursions of the South Branch of the Potomac River from the station on Route 28, 1.5 miles north of Route 50. The train departs Saturdays and Sundays at 10 and 2, Mondays at 1, Tuesdays through Thursdays at 10 and 2 and Fridays at 1, through Oct. 31. Fares are $46 and $50 for all ages for a seat in a first-class car; seats in a coach car are $20, $19 seniors and $12 children 3-12 (younger free). Take U.S. 50 east of Winchester to Romney and follow signs to the train station. Call 304/424-0736 or 800/223-2453.
Charles Town holds its Heritage Association Wine & Craft Festival Saturday and Sunday from 10 to 6 on the front lawn of the Charles Town Race Track. Call 304/535-2627 or 800/848-8687. And in nearby Martinsburg, the Mountain State Apple Harvest Festival is Friday through Sunday and features a parade, arts and crafts, sports, square dancing and more. Call 304/263-2500.
Rock Creek Park -- Visitors can hike, bike or drive Beach Drive to see the foliage in this thickly forested urban park. Beach Drive is closed to motor vehicles on Saturdays and Sundays, from Broad Branch Road to the D.C. line, leaving the stretch between those points open to bikers, hikers and 'bladers. Planned activities include programs at the Nature Center on Glover Road south of Military Road NW. The Nature Center has a planetarium, exhibit hall, self-guided nature discovery trails and a discovery room for younger visitors. Admission is free to the park and center. Call 202/426-6829.
C&O Canal National Historical Park -- This park stretches from Georgetown to Cumberland, Md., a distance of 184.5 miles. Visitors can enjoy the foliage while hiking or biking the canal-side trail, or kayaking or canoeing its waters. Another way to enjoy the canal and the fall foliage is by taking a canal boat ride. Rides are offered at two locations: from 1035 Thomas Jefferson St. NW at 11, 1 and 3 Saturdays and Sundays and at 3 Wednesdays through Fridays, through Oct. 31, call 202/653-5190; and from the Great Falls Tavern at 11710 MacArthur Blvd, Potomac, at 11:30, 1:30 and 3 Saturdays and Sundays; at 9:45, 11, 12:15 and 3 Wednesdays through Fridays, through Oct. 31, call 301/299-3613. Fares are $7.50 adults, $6 seniors and $4 children 4-14 (younger free). Admission to the C&O Canal National Historical Park in Great Falls is $4 per car.
Elsewhere in the District, a Fall Festival will be held Saturday from 11 to 4 at Fort Dupont Park, at Minnesota Avenue and Randle Circle SE. Activities include arts and crafts, storytelling, hayrides, pumpkin painting, a percussion workshop and demonstrations by the QuarterMasters Drag Racing Team. Call 202/426-7723.
If you want to take a drive close to Washington, try the George Washington Memorial Parkway, which stretches from the Beltway in Great Falls, Va., to Mount Vernon. Avoid it during the mornings and afternoons weekdays because of the rush-hour traffic. The park takes you through Alexandria (where it becomes Washington Street), a perfect place to stop for lunch or dinner.
For a one-day fall-foliage tour of the countryside, drive Route 7 west from the Beltway to Winchester, Va., and back. Or you can lengthen the trip by taking U.S. 11 south from Winchester through the Shenandoah Valley to either Strasburg, Va. (and Route 55 east and back), or New Market, Va. (and back by Route 211 east and U.S. 29 north to I-66).
U.S. 50 west of the Washington metropolitan area offers not only some stunning views of autumn colors but also the pleasure of browsing through the shops in Middleburg, the capital of Loudoun County's horse country, and Upperville. U.S. 50 will take you through the village of Aldie, which is holding its Harvest Festival Saturday from 10 to 5, featuring food, bluegrass music, Civil War camps, antiques and more. Call 703/327-4246. Loudoun County is holding its Farm Color Tour of the Loudoun Valleys on Saturday and Sunday from 10 to 4. Visitors may tour 19 privately owned farms; enjoy hayrides and petting zoos; see llamas, buffalo, goats, horses, turkeys and cattle; take a hayride; test their skills at navigating a corn maze; or just sample some Virginia wine. Admission is free to the farms during the self-guided driving tour. Pick up a tour brochure at any library in Loudoun County; at the visitors center, 108-D South St. SE, Leesburg; or at Ida Lee Park, 50 Ida Lee Dr. in Leesburg. Call 800/752-6118 or 703/777-0400.
In Maryland, one of my favorite fall destinations is Sugarloaf Mountain. Take I-270 north to the Comus exit and drive southwest on Route 109, then turn right on the Comus Road (Route 95) and continue to the park entrance. The summit and other lookouts offer striking views of the foliage and the Maryland countryside. Marked hiking trails will guide you through the forest.
For Updated Forecasts:
Call these hot lines and tourism offices or visit these Web sites:
Pennsylvania: 800/325-5467. Web site: www.experiencepa.net/autumn/
Maryland: 800/532-8371, Option 2. Web site: www.dnr.state.md.us
Virginia: 800/434-5323 (LEAF). Web site: www.virginia.org (and then do a search for "foliage")
West Virginia: 800/225-5982. Web site: www.state.wv.us/tourism/fallcolo/
Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive : 540/999-3500, Option 6. Web site: www.nps/gov/shen.
Blue Ridge Parkway (Virginia portion): 828/298-0398. Web site: www.nps.gov/blri/ n