It's been weeks since autumn began its quiet march into Maryland, and the signs of the season are all around.
Dark night rushes in, still earlier each day. Creatures gather food for the coming winter. And robust summer gardens wither under circling October winds.
But the fall color, perhaps the most stunning markers of the time, has just started to appear.
Across the region, forests and groves have begun their annual metamorphoses, and soon their green canopies will become smoky reds, humble oranges and brilliant golds.
Michael Huneke, a project manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' Forest Service, said the state's forests make ideal grounds for the avid leaf watcher.
"The trees in this area have splendid fall foliage," Huneke said.
That's "because of the diversity of species."
Huneke noted that the region's large assortment of trees, including, among others, oak, hickory, yellow poplar, white ash and red maple, make for varied color palettes.
And the area's diverse landscapes, he said, also help to create beautiful and unique viewing opportunities.
"The topography can add to the aesthetics of the situation," said Huneke, who believes that the 2003 color season will be particularly picturesque.
"It should be a good year for Maryland. [The fall changes have] already started," he said.
So get out there and start enjoying the annual spectacle. The peak viewing times are fast approaching, and before you know it, raking season will be here.
The following is a guide to great local and regional leaf-watching spots.
The 207-acre grounds are a perfect backdrop for an afternoon stroll. City horticulturist Bill Vondrasek reports that the Japanese and hedge maples have begun to change, and a variety of other trees are providing good examples of classic fall color.
Cylburn Arboretum is at 4915 Greenspring Ave. For more information, call 410-367-2217 or visit www.cylburnassocia tion.org.
Patapsco Valley State Park
The state preserve spans thousands of acres and extends along more than 30 miles of the Patapsco River. The space has a wide variety of colorful trees, including sassafras, red maple and oak.
Patapsco Valley State Park is at 8020 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City. For more information, call 410-461-5005 or visit www.dnr.state. md.us/publiclands/.
Oregon Ridge Park
Just a short drive from Baltimore, this park has plenty of beautiful fall foliage. Be sure to check out the hiking trails and nature center, too.
Oregon Ridge Park is at 13401 Beaver Dam Road, Cockeysville. For more information, call 410-887-1818 or visit www.co.ba.md.us.
Gunpowder Falls State Park
This greenspace is the largest state park in Maryland, encompassing about 18,000 acres in both Baltimore and Harford counties. Miles of trails will keep you busy throughout the fall season as you enjoy the natural setting.
Gunpowder Falls State Park is at 2813 Jerusalem Road, Kingsville. For more information, call 410-592-2897 or visit www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/.
Great Falls Park
It's worth a drive to this natural wonderland, an 800-acre slice of land that's part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Located in McLean, Va., the picturesque park abounds with fall color and offers plenty of scenic vistas. Walk the trails or gaze upon the banks and rapids of the Potomac River from one of the park's three overlooks. A three-day pass costs $5 per car or $3 for individual hikers or bikers.
Great Falls Park is at 9200 Old Dominion Drive, McLean, Va. For more information, call 703-285-2965 or visit www.nps.gov.
New Germany State Park
Located in the panhandle of Western Maryland, this park is surrounded by the ancient trees of the Savage River State Forest. Its far-off location may make a day trip out of the question, but the park's more than 35 individual camp sites are perfect for a weekend foliage powwow.
New Germany State Park is at 349 Headquarters Lane, Grantsville. For more information, call 301-895-5453 or visit www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands.
Catoctin Mountain Park and Cunningham Falls State Park
Lying to the north and south of Maryland Route 77, these two parks encompass about 10,000 acres of land near Thurmont. A number of tree species can be seen, including oaks, maples and poplars.
Cunningham Falls State Park is at 14039 Catoctin Hollow Road, Thurmont. For more information, call 301-271-7574 or visit www. dnr.state. md.us/pub liclands. Catoctin Mountain Park is at 6602 Foxville, Thurmont. For more information, call 301-663-9388 or visit www.nps.gov.
The nation's arboretum is a green oasis, located amid an otherwise gray urban space in Northeast Washington. It spans nearly 500 acres and features the national grove of state trees and large groupings of dogwoods and maples.
The United States National Arboretum is at 3501 New York Ave., Washington. For more information, call 202-245-2726 or visit www.usna.usda.gov/.
Rock Creek Park