The fleeting beauty of fall is reflected throughout Southern Maryland this week, and not just in out-of-the-way nooks of nature. A drive along several main routes can yield autumn surprises--a crayon box of leaves colored burnt sienna, gold, tangerine, magenta, aubergine and at least five shades of green.

But look fast, the expert and the experienced say. It's just a matter of days before that pleasant nip in the air grows icier and the lovely spectrum of leaves falls to the ground, making way for winter.

Will Williams, a Department of Natural Resources forest ranger stationed in Leonardtown, said colorful foliage will be around for another three weeks, but will peak in the coming week. The region narrowly missed a brown and dreary autumn on account of lingering dryness.

"Trees are shutting down for the year. They're resting, still trying to recover from the drought," Williams said. "Had we gone another couple of weeks without rainfall, we would've been looking at camouflage."

Instead, the oaks turned red, poplars yellowed and maples changed to orange as usual. The spectacular shades are a result of the diversity of species in the tri-county area, which is still about 40 percent forested, Williams said.

Leaves change colors when days shorten and temperatures cool, signaling to trees that it's time to go dormant. Cells form a wall along the leaf stem that connects to the twig. This causes chlorophyll--a plant's dominant pigment--to fade, allowing the next strongest color to take center stage.

"The reds, yellows and oranges are always there," Williams explained. "It's just that the green is dominant, so that's what you see."

For the past few weeks, drivers and hikers have looked out over rolling terrain dotted with farmhouses and weathered tobacco barns that burst with character. Roadside vendors peddle summer's last fruits and jars of pure honey. A bundle of freshly cut flowers goes for $5 and overhanging branches meet in tangles of color across Maryland's narrow rural routes.

Williams said he notices a lot more Virginia and Washington license plates on Southern Maryland roads this time of year, mainly day-trippers who don't want to deal with the congestion along the brilliantly hued Skyline Drive west of Washington.

Clerks at Murphy's Store in Port Tobacco get so many questions from passersby this season that they now claim to be the "certified unofficial information center of Charles County." The all-purpose store on Route 6 is a stone's throw from the area's historic courthouse, one-room schoolhouse and plenty of multihued foliage along Chapel Point Road.

"I see people stop to take pictures of barns and little scenic places," said Heather Jones, whose parents own Murphy's. "It's a hilly region so you go up and down and see all the trees."

Within a month, leaves will fall to the ground to expose stately trunks that will eventually become whitened with snow. Williams predicted that trees will "green up" again by the first week of May.

Local Leaf-Viewing

Some of Southern Maryland's finest vantage points for brilliantly colored fall foliage:

* Follow Route 6 all the way from Charlotte Hall to Nanjemoy for a relaxing drive across the Zekiah Swamp and other notable landscapes.

* Take Route 234 from Leonardtown to its intersection with Route 301 in Charles County. This drive also passes through a protected area of Zekiah Swamp and past several century-old farms.

* Route 4 south to Prince Frederick winds through some of the hilliest parts of Calvert County, providing plenty of breathtaking views.

* Drive to Coltons Point, off Route 234 in St. Mary's County. This route offers a waterfront vista with St. Clements Island in the distance.

* For a quick dose of autumn, follow Chapel Point Road from Port Tobacco to Bel Alton, twisting through a brief but beautiful stretch of countryside and historic landmarks.

* Myrtle Point is a rustic destination just north of Route 4 after crossing into St. Mary's County from Solomons.

* Route 225 from La Plata to Indian Head is a lazy, shady drive with lots of overhanging branches and glimpses of the Mattawoman Creek.

* Farmland and the outskirts of the Mattawoman Creek protected area make a jaunt down Bumpy Oak Road worthwhile. It's especially pretty where it crosses the train tracks near the Maryland Airport.

* Sprawling Amish farms and a lovely old church are highlights of a drive down Trinity Church Road off Route 6, east of La Plata.

CAPTION: The golden hues of autumn enhance a reflection at Gilbert Swamp Run in Newport in Charles County.

CAPTION: Colorful leaves float near a boat in Wherritts Pond in St. Mary's County.