When you look at the options, it almost scares you. There are so many choices. But the fact is, Maryland, the nation's eighth smallest state, has thousands of settings for that late-summer picnic. And most of them are nearby or within an hour or two's drive.
It takes, in fact, 104 pages of the state's latest recreational guide ("Maryland Travel & Outdoor Guide") to list all the top tour possibilities and the wide open spaces.
But you better hurry. Summer is waning, even if the thermometer doesn't show signs of it yet. Only 24 days and three weekends remain before the traditional shutdown of the great American outdoor season after Labor Day. And there's no guarantee the weather will play fair.
But even if summer's greatest glories are fading, there's still plenty of opportunity for that universal family outing -- the picnic.
In the search for vernal dining, it's the timetable that matters -- the ratio of travel time to fun time, that is. To George Williams, the state's tourism director, the timetables are just fine.
"Maryland is so small geographically that you can virtually plan a visit to the ocean and the mountains in one weekend, if you want to do a little driving," he says.
And, he notes, the state's interstate highway system is shrinking drivetimes from one haunt to another. "With the opening of new Interstate 68 [old Route 40-48 west] what used to be a 5- or 6-hour drive is now a 2- to 2 1/2 -hour drive comfortably. It'll open up a whole new area of Maryland that in the past has been perceived as being so far away as to be not visitable," Mr. Williams says.
Park managers try to make their areas accessible without inviting environmental damage, he says. The goal is to "enhance the availability of park facilities to be used and still maintain a sense of preservation of those areas. It's a major part of our tourism program," he says.
Picnic facilities are all but universal in the 44 state parks listed by the Maryland Office of Tourism Development. However, they are heavily used during fair-weather months. Exceptions are the elaborate regional parks of Prince George's and Montgomery counties where picnic grounds are available "only for our campers," according to a park spokesman.
Among national parks and sites within the state, Fort McHenry, Antietam National Battlefield, Assateague National Seashore, Catoctin Mountain Park and the C&O Canal National Historical Park, include picnic areas.
Picnics can be coordinated with visits to late summer weekend festivals that hit high gear this month. Among the debuts are today's Harford County Seafood Festival at Havre de Grace, a peach festival in Washington County's Leitersburg, and the Howard County Fair at West Friendship. One-day seafood fests are planned today at both Cambridge and St. Michaels on the Eastern Shore.
People on short vacations midweek will be in luck because they can hit the parks when there is less competition for tables. Weekend picnic spaces in covered pavilions generally are reserved well in advance and there's often a fee. Finding the usually free tables in open space is less of a chore if you get there early, especially if you plan on an all-day outing.
"We send someone in early to hold a place for the rest of the crowd," says a veteran of family picnics in the Baltimore area. Lake Roland in the north end of the city is a favorite choice for her family and it gets less attention, actually, at this time of the year than it does in the spring or fall when "the walkers" emerge from controlled, covered haunts like the malls.
For free copies of the state's 1991 travel and outdoor guidebook and its events calendar, call (800) 543-1036 or (800) 634-7386. Two weeks are required for delivery.
Reducing risks of eating al fresco
If you plan to go outdoors to dine, take steps to make the al fresco meal free of hazards.
Probably the most prevalent risk is food spoilage that can result in real illness. Oddly enough, some of the riskiest foods to take along often play a role in traditional picnic menus: poultry, shellfish, milk, eggs and anything with mayonnaise. Fresh meats that are undercooked are a risk, too, if they have been under-refrigerated. Contrary to popular opinion, food that smells perfectly fresh can be tainted, so don't even try them.
Here are some tips for preserving your feast:
*Things that you refrigerate should be kept below 40 degrees before loading the car and when in the cooler. Hot foods should be kept hot in thermal containers.
*It's useful to freeze beverages in their containers -- even water -- to take to the picnic site. By the time you are ready to serve, they'll have thawed. (Be sure you use a container that allows the liquid to expand as it freezes.)
*When packing iced food chests, cool them with iced water first, then empty the water and place the ice above the food for the trip.
*Toss out picnic leftovers, don't try to recycle them.