Peak Peeks

With a little planning, you can enjoy Maryland's spectacular autumn-leaf show for weeks to come

October 06, 2007|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,sun reporter

Fear not, leaf peepers of Maryland. Although there was less rain than usual across the state this summer, the drought conditions will take only the slightest edge off the glories of your favorite time of year.

"So many factors impact fall foliage - temperature, humidity, soil conditions - that they tend to cancel each other out," says Kenneth Jolly, a forestry expert with the state's Department of Natural Resources. "To the average person, things won't seem much different. Expect the same lovely array of colors [across the state] you're accustomed to."

Though Maryland can't match the showy panoramas of Vermont, New Hampshire and other neighbors to the north, its season lasts longer (usually two full months) and fans out in a generally west-to-east pattern favorable to those following the spreading splendor.

Fall hues ignite first in the mountainous west (Garrett and Allegany counties), where conditions are generally wetter and cooler than elsewhere. Central Maryland, including Frederick, Baltimore and Howard counties, will be next, a crazy quilt of color due to the region's exceptionally mineral-rich soil. The drier, sandier terrain of the Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland will follow. In St. Mary's and Charles counties, as well as Wicomico, Queen Anne's and Dorchester counties on the Eastern Shore, brilliant yellow poplar leaves will intertwine with the perpetual greens of indigenous pines.

"When you think of [Maryland] foliage," Jolly says, "the mountains in the west come to mind, and it's definitely spectacular there, with the maples, black gums and hickories" - all of which have already begun turning. "But each part of the state has its own uniquely colorful forest schemes. Take your time and explore."

Experts can't say exactly when a given region will peak, but the state's manageable size puts countless jaw-dropping drives within easy reach. Advance planners should keep in mind that foliage is at its most spectacular for only several weeks - between mid-October and early November, Jolly says.

Here are a few possible weekend leaf-spotting excursions, generally timed to coincide with the west-to-east progression of the changing colors:

Oct. 13-14 Western Maryland

In Garrett County, about three hours west of Baltimore by car, spotters are reporting vivid reds, yellows and oranges, as leaves on roughly 40 percent of the region's maples and hickories have turned.

One possible excursion: Drive to Deep Creek Lake State Park in McHenry, which rubs against the state's largest freshwater lake and boasts scenic hillsides and six miles of hiking trails. (State Park Road follows the 3,900-acre lake's eastern shore.)

Fifteen minutes west, in Swallow Falls State Park, a short hiking trail leads to Muddy Creek State Falls, one of the state's highest waterfalls. Red maple, black gum and sassafras trees are already turning bright crimson, orange and yellow.

Just south along Herrington Manor Road, 20 log cabins are available for rental in Herrington Manor State Park, which features 21 miles of wooded trails.

Sites in adjacent Allegany County could also be reaching their peak, including Dans Mountain State Park south of Frostburg, where Dans Rock Overlook offers stunning views from 2,898 feet.

Oct. 20-21 West Central Maryland

Take the 29-mile drive from Frederick north to Emmitsburg near the Pennsylvania line. You'll be on Route 15, also known as the Catoctin Mountain Scenic Byway. This road offers many spectacular views.

West of Thurmont along Route 77, 5,000-acre Cunningham Falls State Park boasts a 78-foot waterfall. North of Route 77, Catoctin Mountain is 95 percent covered by regional hardwoods.

Just south of Emmitsburg, visit the National Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes, a historic pilgrimage site on a picturesque mountainside.

Oct. 27-28 Central Maryland and the Upper Eastern Shore

Baltimore County is rife with viewing opportunities. Starting at Northern Parkway in Baltimore City, drive north along Falls Road or York Road and into horse country for views of sprawling, tree-lined estates and farms along just about every connecting route. Near Interstate 83 and Shawan Road, try the miles of trails through hilly Oregon Ridge Park. Or on Ashland Road just east of York Road, in Cockeysville, find the beginnings of the Northern Central Railroad Trail, a crushed-stone hiking and biking path that runs through forested hillsides all the way into Pennsylvania.

About 20 minutes southwest of Baltimore, along the borders of Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties, 14,000-acre Patapsco Valley State Park should be aflame with color, including the valley overlook in the Hollofield area near Ellicott City; a two-mile drive along Orange Grove Road in the park's Avalon section near Elkridge; and Switchback Trail in the McKeldin area near Marriottsville.

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