News & Politics

Where to See Autumn Leaves

These walks and hikes, all an easy drive from Washington, show off splendid foliage. Each has something extra, too—great bird watching, a wonderful waterfall, or Civil War lore.

Eight miles of trails wind through Jug Bay Natural
Area, a park that’s home to many aquatic birds.
Photograph courtesy of the Prince George’s County
Department of Parks & Recreation

A Walk for the Birds

If you head to Jug Bay Natural Area for a hike, take binoculars. This wide spot on the Patuxent River in Prince George’s County has extensive stands of wild rice, an aquatic plant that attracts soras, mallards, and wood ducks.

Eight miles of trails crisscross the 2,000-acre preserve. The Black Walnut Creek Nature Study Area gets you close to the pickerelweed, arrow arum, and northern wild rice that form a bird buffet. The trail ends at an observation deck overlooking the river. From here, it’s another one-mile flat hike through mountain laurel to a quiet river-bluff overlook.

Jug Bay is 20 miles southeast of DC, off US 301 in Upper Marlboro. The visitors center (301-627-6074; supplies free trail maps and bird checklists. This is also the start for the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Tour, a driving tour through Patuxent and adjacent Merkle Wildlife sanctuaries.

Waterfalls to Fall For

Andy Nichols of Shenandoah Mountain Guides describes Overall Run in Virginia as “the closest thing to Yosemite I’ve seen on the East Coast.”

From a cliffside perch at the top of this 93-foot falls, a mountainous panorama unfolds westward: Reds and tawny yellows of oak hickories cover Massanutten’s double ridges, and farther off on the hazy horizon looms Great North Mountain.

It’s possible to reach Overall Run from Skyline Drive (mile marker 21), but I prefer a route from outside the park near Bentonville. From here, the Thompson Hollow Trail and Overall Run Trail combine for two miles at a gentle uphill pace. You earn your views over the last half mile on an 800-foot climb to the crest of the falls. Retrace your steps to return, or combine this with Beecher Ridge Trail for an 11½-mile loop.

Bentonville is ten miles south of Front Royal on US 340. A small parking area for up to six cars is on state Route 630/Thompson Hollow Road, marked by a sign that reads access to shenandoah national park/thompson hollow trail. If that fills up, there’s parking along the side of the road before the pull-off.

Call Shenandoah National Park (540-999-3500, for more information. For guided trips to the falls and other park trails, contact Shenandoah Mountain Guides (866-455-8672;

Blue Ridge Views—Closer

In 1862, the Battle of Thoroughfare Gap raged through the woods of the Bull Run Mountains. At one point, Union and Confederate soldiers flanked a narrow trench and shot one another at point-blank range.

This is but one of many stories the mountains hold. Family cemetery plots, ruins of old homes, and historic markers bear silent witness to their history. The hollows of this mountain range were settled and farmed from Colonial times right into the 20th century.

The Bull Run Mountains offer Shenandoah-style views at a fraction of the drive time. An easy 4½-mile day hike starts on Fern Hollow Trail near the ruins of a grist mill. On High Point Mountain (1,300 feet), the route’s highest point, a ragged line of house-size boulders offers views across Fauquier County’s rural communities and patchwork of farms. A return route on Ridge Loop Trail, Quarry Trail, and then Chapman’s Trail passes Colonial-era house foundations and long-abandoned hillside quarries.

The Bull Run Mountains are 40 miles west of Washington via the US 55/Haymarket exit on I-66. Bull Run Mountains Conservancy (703-753-2631; is headquartered on Beverley Mill Drive near the trailhead. A good topographic hiking map and a hiking waiver can be found at a trailhead kiosk or on the Web site.

This article first appeared in the September 2008 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here