A young hiker approaches a natural rock tunnel on Old Rag Mountain. (Jerry Jackson, Baltimore…)
Fall in the Mid-Atlantic region offers a break from the summer humidity, a pause before the cold, gray winter, and lots of great scenery. It's a perfect opportunity to get outdoors for some exercise that doesn't feel like a chore. Whether it is a peaceful walk to watch birds take flight or a hair-raising zip-line ride among the tree tops, these five activities offer an opportunity to put some fresh air and foliage into your fitness routine.
Hike Old Rag
As the Ridge Trail on Shenandoah's Old Rag mountain rises more than 2,500 feet, a steep rock scramble near the top requires hikers to "climb, slide, shimmy and crawl" over the boulders, according to the National Park Service. As a result, Old Rag is one of the few hikes where people without specific rock-climbing skills or equipment "can still get that excitement" said Tony Van Vugt, founder of the website http://www.hikingupward.com. Then, when you make it to the top, "there are 360-degree views from the summit. … In the fall, the leaves are spectacular."
"It is one of those hikes that, if you are a hiker, you just have to do it," Van Vugt said.
With tens of thousands of climbers each year, the 8.8-mile circuit trail is often crowded on weekends and lines form at the narrow crevices where only one person can pass at a time, said Karen Beck-Herzog, a park spokeswoman. Her advice is "take the day off" and come during the week, or at least start early in the morning. She also said hikers should have footwear, food and water for a full-day activity and feel free to ask at the visitors center if they want a suggestion for an easier but still beautiful fall hike.
If you go: Old Rag is in Shenandoah National Park near Sperryville, Va. Entrance fees are $8 per person for those 16 and older. Information: http://www.nps.gov/shen/planyourvisit/old-rag.htm or 540-999-3500.
Bike the C&O Canal
History, nature and exercise come together at the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park. The park covers 184.5 miles along the former waterway that once delivered coal, lumber and grain to communities along the Potomac River. Today the towpath alongside the canal provides what the National Park Service calls "one of the largest biking trails in the continental U.S.," reaching from Georgetown in the District of Columbia to Cumberland.
The path, made mostly of hard-packed dirt with areas of gravel and clay, offers a rugged but peaceful ride with a variety of scenery that includes historic aqueducts and bridges. According to Bike Washington's online guide, the Great Falls area is one of the most popular parts of the park. It offers impressive views of the rapids in the Potomac and a well-worn section of path for comfortable hiking and biking. As the path heads north to Leesburg, Harper's Ferry and beyond, it tends to be rougher and less traveled. These areas offer more shade, an opportunity to see wildlife and access to interesting towns and historic sites, but the ride is more physically challenging.
If you go: Plan your trip with maps and suggestions at bikewashington.org/canal/plan-start.php. Get information about the national park at http://www.nps.gov/choh or 301-739-4200.
A treetop adventure
One great way to see fall foliage is from the tops of the trees.
When you try out the zip lines, rope bridges and "Tarzan swings" suspended over 7 acres at Go Ape Tree Top Adventure in Rock Creek Park, "you are not only getting a physical workout, you are getting to see the forest from a different perspective," said Jennifer D'Agostino, one of the owners. "It is different from 40 feet up in the air. Deer wander through, there are birds of all sorts. It is sort of a unique experience."
Promoting fun, fitness and group bonding, Go Ape has been operating since May 2010. The courses take two to three hours, including safety training, and are not guided, although staff are on hand to help out. The ropes, ladders and narrow walkways offer a work out, but there are options to accommodate people with a variety of physical abilities. Participants must be at least 10 years old, and D'Agostino said the oldest individual to complete a course was 92.
If you go: Rock Creek Regional Park, 6129 Needwood Lake Drive, Rockville. A session costs $55 for adults and $35 for ages 10 to 17. Discounts are available for groups, students and members of the military, fire and police. This weekend, all participants can receive a discount and support a charitable fund. Information: http://www.goape.com or at 888-520-7322.
Bird-watching in Bombay Hook
At Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, which stretches 8 miles along Delaware Bay, the natural beauty of the fall leaves and the marsh grasses turning gold is enhanced by the arrival of huge flocks of migrating birds.