Take a hike

For weekends in the fall, Maryland's outdoors offers an enticing trail mix


Ask Amy Pickwick to take a hike, and this lifelong outdoor enthusiast will gladly oblige - especially in Maryland during the fall.

While the founder and president of the Maryland Outdoor Club treks countless miles along state trails year-round, a fall hike, she says, is something exceptional: crisp air, a color palette of changing foliage, and, generally, fewer "crowds" on trails.

"We do a lot of fall hikes," says Pickwick, 28, a Frederick native whose 3-year-old, Columbia-based hiking club has 3,000 registered members. "You see beautiful scenery, everything from beaches to mountains. A lot of people call Maryland a mini-America."

Indeed, Maryland boasts terrain that includes sandy beaches and mountain peaks, pine forests, hidden valleys and dozens of waterfalls.

William Line of the National Park Service notes the Eastern Shore's Assateague Island State Park and National Seashore with its "sand, salt, wind" and "a connection where the land meets the sea." He contrasts that with the 5,000-acre Catoctin Mountain Park in Western Maryland, which he describes as both lovely and "interesting." ("It surrounds [presidential retreat] Camp David," he points out.)

There are hiking spots that offer history, such as Monocacy National Battlefield in Frederick. The Civil War battle fought here in 1864 prevented a Confederate advance that saved the nation's capital.

Veteran hiker and journalist Leonard M. Adkins has detailed some of his favorite state hiking destinations in the book, 50 Hikes in Maryland (Backcountry Guides, 2000). The Virginia resident is a hiking globetrotter who's covered trails in Europe, the Caribbean and Canada. Still, he gives Maryland high marks, noting its "sense of stewardship for the land."

So for this weekend, or any weekend this fall, here are four great - and greatly varied - hiking spots. Put on your boots, fill your canteen and go.

Susquehanna State Park

Massive rocks and what Adkins' book calls "open meadows and deep forests" help define the 15 miles of trails that make up the varied topography of this river valley in Harford County. Trails with names like "Land of Promise" are coded by color, and their ratings range from easy to difficult.

Look for surprises along the way. For instance, the two-mile Ivy Branch Trail crosses through farm fields; the Susquehanna Ridge Trail's three miles boast stunning views of the Susquehanna River Valley; and the Deer Creek Trail, a little over two miles, shows off towering trees.

For families and disabled people, the Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenways Trail, between the Conowingo Dam and Stafford Road at Deer Creek, is a fine flat trail that's also accessible.

Catoctin Mountain Park/ Cunningham Falls State Park

Catoctin Mountain, near Thurmont, gets its name from an early American Indian tribe, the Kittoctons, who once lived at the foot of the mountain. In the 1950s, the land was divided into two parks - one federal, one state - each about 5,000 acres.

Hikers have plenty of room to roam along nine picturesque trails. A word of caution: Some, like Old Misery Trail, are aptly named. At least half of these trails are steep, rocky and strenuous, and sometimes have elevated footpaths (46 steps up the Catoctin Furnace Trail). Still, your reward will be sweet if you take a path such as the Cliff Trail, one that leads to a 78-foot cascading waterfall.

Assateague State Park/Assateague Island National Seashore

If you love the sand and sea, try this 37-mile barrier island on Maryland's Eastern Shore. There's a certain mystique about the island, owing in part to its famous wild ponies.

"In the [children's] novel, Misty of Chincoteague, the pony Misty was leaving his home to swim to Assateague," says Line of the National Park Service. "The ponies make that swim every year at the end of July."

Besides ponies roaming free, this undeveloped land teems with marine, terrestrial and other wildlife: seagulls, crabs, swallows and sandpipers, to name a few. Hikers can travel along remote shoreline for up to 25 miles one way. The trek is sandy, with insects aplenty, but the pristine natural beauty of the site - "one of the most primitive hikes in all of Maryland," according to Adkins' book - makes it well worth it, Adkins says.

Swallow Falls State Park

If the idea of stumbling upon a breathtaking waterfall and feeling its misty spray after a hike sounds appealing, then you can't go wrong at Swallow Falls.

This mountain park in far Western Maryland - named for the tree swallows that once nested there in great number - boasts four separate falls visible to hikers.

This brief trail (just over a mile) takes hikers through thick forests of tall white hemlocks and pine and abundant plant life. If you need a bit of rest, find a seat on the flat rocks situated above and below the base of the falls. It's a nice perch as the Youghiogheny River flows by.



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