An article in the Oct. 8 Weekend section misstated the elevation of the Washington area; most of the region is above sea level, not below. (Published 10/9/04)
Many of us opt to take in fall's annual color show with the traditional drive in the mountains. But the cocoon of a vehicle can circumscribe the experience. On a recent hike in Patapsco Valley State Park, my friends and I followed the trail's soggy twists and turns to a rocky outcropping perched above a lovely vista of forested hills. The view was picturesque, yes, but the ambient noise underscored the mood: the sound of the swollen Patapsco River rushing by below, the trees creaking and leaves rattling in the wind, the scuffling of squirrels as they made their way through the underbrush. You won't hear that sitting in traffic on Skyline Drive.
Consider the crunch of a leafy carpet underfoot. The sharp whiff of vegetation decay after a rain. The cool breeze that makes you zip your fleece and quicken your pace. Besides, do you really want to see those brilliant scarlets and golds though a bug-splattered windshield?
This is the perfect time to get out and see fall's colors up close. The fall foliage in the Blue Ridge Mountains is at its height, with the colors moving from higher elevations to lower. In general, the leaves in central Maryland and Virginia will peak in mid- to late October, with the colors along the Eastern Shore reaching their full potential in early November.
The intensity of those scarlets and golds depends on a simple meteorological recipe: Moderate rainfall, warm days and cool nights add up to the loud reds, oranges and yellows that make autumn forests so compelling. Last year's leaves were a disappointment, partly because the relentless summer rains deprived tree roots of oxygen. High winds didn't help either. "Most of the leaves were blown off in [Hurricane] Isabel," says Joan Feely, curator of the Native Plant Collection at the U.S. National Arboretum. This year, she says, the colors are likely to be more vivid.
And although the summer visit by the 17-year cicadas left clumps of brown leaves dangling from branches, it did the trees no lasting harm. Sue Salmons, resource management specialist at Rock Creek Park, says the insects actually prune the trees, improving their overall health -- and increasing the chance of spectacular fall colors. "It should be beautiful," Salmons says.
Whether you like to float, pedal or amble, go with a group or go it alone, you need not go far to take in fall's colors. You provide the will, we provide the way.
ROW, ROW, ROW
Now that summer's rapacious mosquitoes and oppressive heat have dissipated, there's all the more reason to take in the leaves along the region's waterways, many of them tree-lined and navigable by amateur paddlers. Alternatively, many local parks offer naturalist-led boat tours that allow passengers to sit back and enjoy the scenery.
One of these is aboard a pontoon on the Anacostia River. At Bladensburg Waterfront Park in Prince George's County, naturalists give guided tours of the river for nature-lovers of all ages. The main attraction of the rides is typically the water's wildlife, but the leaves' changing colors are an added bonus in the fall. The Anacostia is home to a variety of animals, including fishing birds and the glut of box turtles seen on a recent afternoon. "It was like the turtle convention center here," says park naturalist Nancy VanDerveer. Turtles aren't the only things present in profusion. "As the leaves start to change, you start noticing more details, like the Virginia creeper that's turning red right now," she says.
The 45-minute tours are scheduled through October and will continue into early November if the weather is good. Though the park doesn't take reservations, visitors should call ahead to confirm the schedule. (Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at noon, 4601 Annapolis Rd., Bladensburg. Free. 301-779-0371.)
Another option is an early morning pontoon ride on Lake Needwood in Montgomery County's Rock Creek Regional Park. Pack your binoculars, dress for the morning chill and bring a towel to sit on as a naturalist points out the lake's flora and fauna; park officials say you can expect to see deer eating breakfast, turtles sunning, water birds fishing or beavers gnawing away. Want some exercise before unwinding on the boat ride? Early birds can hike or bike the 22-mile Rock Creek Trail from the Medical Center Metro station in Bethesda to the lake. (Pontoon ride, Monday and Oct. 18 from 8 to 9 a.m. 15700 Needwood Lake Cir., Rockville. $3. Reservations required, 301-924-4141.)
Kayakers flock to the Washington area for the variety of accessible waterways -- not least the Potomac River's challenging runs near Great Falls. The less adventurous can stick to calmer waters and wider-bottomed canoes, which are harder to capsize. With local parks and outfitters offering trips and rentals, those with little or no experience -- or simply no boat -- need not miss out on the gentle satisfaction of guiding a vessel over a smooth stretch of water.
Several local parks offer paddling tours, including Pohick Bay Regional Park, with four-hour fall color tours around the Mason Neck peninsula. Even first-time canoeists can experience the beauty of this Northern Virginia park by boat after a lesson by a trained guide. Paddlers may see osprey, bald eagles and migratory birds in addition to late-peaking trees along the water's edge. (Oct. 30 from 8 to noon and 1 to 5, Oct. 31 from 1:30 to 5:30, Nov. 6 from 8 to noon and 1:30 to 5:30. 6501 Pohick Bay Dr., Lorton. $25 per person; ages 12 and older. Canoes hold two people. 703-339-6104.)
If you'd rather see the yellows of the poplars, bronzes of oaks and sycamores, and reds of the maples along the shore at your own pace, rent a boat and explore the part of the Potomac from Chain Bridge to Memorial Bridge, a wide swath of water between stretches of wooded shore. Explore the coves and beaches of Theodore Roosevelt Island or cruise toward the monuments to see some of Washington's familiar sights from a different perspective. The George Washington Memorial Parkway on the Virginia side of the water offers great woodsy views for miles along the Potomac. But if you want to paddle upstream to Chain Bridge, take heed -- the stretch between Great Falls and Chain Bridge can be dangerous. Check river conditions before you head out, especially after it rains; call the National Weather Service at 703-260-0305 (press 1, then 2).
Start your tour near the Kennedy Center at Thompson Boat Center, situated at the southern end of Rock Creek Park. Thompson's rents a variety of vessels, including canoes, kayaks, Sunfish and rowing sculls, starting at $8 an hour or $24 a day. General Manager Gary Weeden calls renting a boat "a good, cheap date -- it's less than a movie." Rentals are usually available through the end of October, weather permitting, as long as the water temperature is above 55 degrees. (2900 Virginia Ave. NW. Open daily from 8 to 6. 202-333-9543.)
STEP BY STEP
The Washington area is mostly below sea level, but it still has enough higher woodlands to offer exalted autumnal color shows.
Local nature centers organize hikes around seeing fall colors. Many of these are low-impact and have educational elements geared toward kids. Karen Marshall, a staff naturalist at Cosca Regional Park's Clearwater Nature Center, says nature hikes allow kids to "see the whole integrated web of how everything in nature is connected." The center offers hikes on Saturday and Oct. 30 for trekkers ages 4 and older. (Saturday and Oct. 30 from 10 to 11 a.m. at the nature center, 11000 Thrift Rd., Clinton. $2. Reservations required, 301-297-4575.)
At Potomac Overlook Regional Park, which abuts the George Washington Parkway and has easy access to the Potomac, there is an educational fall color hike on Nov. 6. Led by a park staff member, the casual, 90-minute hike starts at 2 and is for adults and children 6 and older. Martin Ogle, chief naturalist at Potomac Overlook, says he expects visitors to see brilliant colors in the oaks and black gum trees, and, barring heavy winds, the golds of tulip poplars and scarlets of red maples. The hike is first-come, first-served. (2845 N. Marcey Rd., Arlington. Free. 703-528-5406.)
Close-in forested areas are abundant hereabouts, and many local spots, such as the 446-acre U.S. National Arboretum, have landscapes that reward observation. Says curator Joan Feely, "It's a mosaic of fields and woodlands, where you get a very good view of the woods from far away, and then you can walk right into them." Feely says the best tree canopies are in the areas of the Asian, native plant and azalea collections. (Open daily from 8 to 5. 3501 New York Ave. NE. Free. 202-245-2726.)
Chief Ranger Laura Illige testifies to the convenience and beauty of Rock Creek Park. "People always think you have to go to Shenandoah, but fall color is just five minutes away in Rock Creek Park," she says. "You don't need to drive two hours away!" Illige recommends hiking the Ridge Trail, whose elevation allows hikers to see a panorama of trees below. The park's highest point (more than 400 feet) is by the Rock Creek Park Horse Center and the Nature Center (which are side by side on Glover Road), though good views abound along Beach Drive near the water, where the foliage envelops the burbling creek. (Rock Creek Park Nature Center is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 to 5, 5200 Glover Rd. NW. Free. 202-895-6070.)
For those intent on getting out of town, remote retreats -- some mountainous, wooded and tranquil enough to seem a world removed from the city -- lie just outside the Beltway. One is the aforementioned Patapsco Valley State Park, which runs on both sides of the Patapsco River from Elkridge to Sykesville, Md. In the Avalon area (off Route 1), the wheelchair-accessible Grist Mill Trail, which runs along the river, is covered by a canopy of light-loving, flood plain trees. Along the shore, box elders' red and yellow leaves stand out against the brown of sycamores. On the hills, hardwoods offer light gold tulip poplar and oak leaves and scarlet beech leaves, with redbuds scattered beneath the canopy. In the Hollofield area (off Route 40), you can hike the steep trail to Union Dam, ogle the leaves at the Valley View Overlook, then drive a few miles south for lunch in historic Ellicott City. (8020 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City. Free. 410-461-5005.)
The Washington area boasts many excellent biking trails, with a range of settings and terrain. There are flat, paved trails for novices; hilly paths for more experienced -- and stronger -- riders; and rugged, off-road trails for adrenaline junkies. For those who like to pedal in packs, there are several area groups that head out to see autumn's splendor.
Bike the Sites, a local outfitter that rents bikes and leads bike tours of the area, offers fall foliage excursions along the C&O Canal for up to 15 riders ages 9 and older. The three-hour trip starts at 2 Sunday afternoons through October and costs $30 for adults, $5 less for kids and those who bring their own bikes. If you'd rather head out on your own, mountain bikes rent for $7 an hour, tandems for $10. The rental hours are daily from 9 to 6. Reservations can be made at www.bikethesites.com, by calling 202-842-2453, or by visiting the ticket office at the Old Post Office Pavilion (1100 Pennsylvania Ave. NW).
If you have a mountain bike or a hybrid, consider the nature tour at Patuxent River Park on Oct. 16 from 10 to 1. A staff naturalist will guide bikers (adults and children 8 and older) along the park's trails, pointing out fall's effect on the park's forested areas and wetlands. (16000 Croom Airport Rd., Upper Marlboro. $3, prepayment required at time of reservation. 301-627-6074.)
Opportunities for self-guided trips are abundant in the area -- it takes little more than a bike and a sense of adventure to see the leaves on two wheels. For beginners, Rock Creek Park is a great place to tour without undue exertion. It can get crowded on the weekends, but the scenery is terrific. On a recent early evening ride on the National Zoo trail, I screeched to a halt when I saw a blue heron fishing in the creek for its supper. Just off the path, two deer placidly grazed. And I was only minutes from busy Connecticut Avenue and 16th Street NW.
Rock Creek Park's Laura Illige recommends Ross Drive for fall color, noting that its hills make it a bit less crowded than the multi-use hike-bike trail that winds along the creek. On weekdays, be alert while riding, because the bike trails include stretches of road and cross some busy streets. On weekends, though, Beach Drive is closed to traffic. But don't be a menace: Biking on any of the unpaved footpaths is strictly prohibited.
For a more challenging ride, serious mountain bikers swear by the Schaeffer Farm Trail Area, in Montgomery County's Seneca Creek State Park. The trails were designed specifically for bikers, though hikers also use them. The single-track dirt routes offer alternating vistas of hardwood forests and fields. There are trails for all ability levels, though expect some spills if you're a real newbie. Pick up a trail map at the visitors center. (The park is open daily from 8 to sunset. 11950 Clopper Rd., Gaithersburg. Free. 301-924-2127.)
Another top spot is Wakefield Park in Annandale, which has five miles of single-track gravel trails. Though there are some challenging hills for mountain bikers, those who wish to test their BMX mettle can try the courses at Wakefield's new skate park. (Open 3 to 10 Monday through Friday, noon to 9 Saturday and 9 to 9 Sunday. 8100 Braddock Rd., Annandale. Free. 703-321-7080.) Across Braddock Road, Lake Accotink Park also has gravel and asphalt bike trails that wind along the banks of several streams. (7500 Accotink Park Rd., Springfield. Free. 703-569-3464.)
Christina Talcott is a member of the Weekend staff.