A Walk In The Woods

Hiking: Where better to encounter the glory of autumn than from a leaty trail or a mountain sunimit? Here are five great places to explore.


ON some unspoken day in late summer, in an ancient seasonal ritual, the air cools and summer's lush green landscape begiris to give way to autumn's gilded oranges, golds and reds.

Maples, oaks, beechwoods and sycamores are ablaze with color. Sun-flowers and black-eyed Susans decorate golden fields, and long V's of Canada geese can be seen overhead.

Hiking tralls throughout the area provide the perfect vantage from which to experience this annual progression of natural splendor. Along a woodsy path, with leaves crackling underfoot, or on the way to a picturesque mountain summit, the true spirit of autumn is likely to reveal itself.

Here are five of the very best hikes in the region.

Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge

In late October or early November, the sky above the Eastern Neck Nation-al Wildlife Refuge in Rock Hall on the Eastern Shore fills with tiny black specks. Circling, they drop down in a raucous symphony, yodeling and calling as if greeting long-lost friends, until thousands of tundra swans cover the water like a soft white comforter.

These exquisite birds -- pure white with black legs and bill -- provide one of the region's most breathtaking natural spectacles.

"The area is well known for being a major staging area for tundra swans," says Susan Talbott, outreach planner for the refuge.

They come from summer nesting grounds in the Arctic, spending the winter on the Chesapeake and along the Atlantic coast from New Jersey to North Carolina. Drawn to the refuge for its quiet, brackish coves, the swans especially like to hang out in the choppy gray waters surrounding the bridge that connects the refuge to the mainland, where they float by the hundreds.

For a great stroll, drive beyond the bridge to the trailhead for the 1.2-mile (round-trip) Boxes Point Trail, which leads to Eastern Neck Inlet. "You'll definitely see swans in the cove here," Talbott says.

For another good viewing spot, go farther down the refuge road to the Tubby Cove Boardwalk. This wooden walkway, complete with informative plaques, reaches across a billowy marsh to a tiny wooded island. Here, an observation platform overlooks the Chesapeake -- and most likely, more tundra swans.

While the swans are the main draw, there's plenty more to see here. The refuge staff has documented a peak of 40,000-plus waterfowl on the grounds, with 33 different species having been reported. Among them, the most common is the Canada goose (20,000-plus), as well as a retinue of ducks: canvasbacks, mallards, widgeons, ruddy ducks, black ducks, lesser scaups, buffleheads, pintails, green- and blue-winged teal, oldsquaw and scoters.

In late September and early October migrant songbirds pass through the refuge. Talbott suggests taking the Wildlife Trail, where you may encounter warblers, vireos, thrushes and much more. The trail begins along the main refuge road 1.7 miles from the entrance.

Eastern Neck is also a great place to watch the butterfly migration. Monarchs, easy to identify with their orange and black pattern, fly by from late August to September, while millions of buckeyes and painted-lady butterflies (rust and brown beauties) drift through in September and October.

Hog Rock Nature Trail

There are other trails at Catoctin Mountain Park near Thurmont that showcase autumn's multihued finery, but it's the number of sugar maples that sets this trail apart.

From the trail head you plunge into a world of scarlet, the result of thousands of maple leaves hanging from branches, fluttering through the air and covering the ground. Sharing the canopy, adding splashes of orange and gold, are hickories, birches, black gums and oaks.

If the sun is shining, illuminating the leaves just so, you can't help but feel as if you've entered some kind of stained-glass cathedral.

At the trail head, be sure to pick up an interpretive leaflet that matches numbered posts along the way, helping to identify trees. The nature trail loops through the woods, at about midway reaching the trail's namesake: Hog Rock, the highest point in the park.

Some 1,600 feet below sprawls the flaxen farmland of Monocacy Valley, speckled with the oranges and yellows and reds of pocket woods. Farmers, who once brought hogs to the base of the rock to fatten them up on the nuts of oaks and chestnuts, named the overlook.

The main trail circles back to the parking lot. But you may wish to continue on to Cunningham Falls -- one of Maryland's prettiest waterfalls. To get there, follow the trail down the hillside. When you get to Route 77, cross the road and take the 0.3-mile Cunningham Falls Access Trail to the falls.

Elk Neck State Park

At the southernmost tip of Elk Neck in Cecil County, old Turkey Point Lighthouse stands atop high cliffs, offering vast watery vistas of the Chesapeake Bay. But on chilly autumn days, this spectacular view takes second-seat to the annual hawk migration -- the mid-Atlantic's prime autumn birding event, which sometimes includes hundreds of raptors winging by.

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