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.
Walking in the fresh air on the refuge's five trails offers some low-impact exercise and a chance to spot many different bird species. Over a period stretching into the second week of November, "we get over 100,000 ducks and geese on the refuge," said Tina Watson, an outdoor recreation planner for the refuge. "It is quite spectacular to see."
The 12-mile auto tour route offers views of many different habitats, including freshwater impoundments, salt marshes, mudflats, woodlands and fields. Bird walks, bird ID stations, visitor center exhibits and other educational programs are planned throughout the fall.
The hours before sunset, in particular, offer an opportunity to see hundreds or even thousands of ducks and geese arrive to rest for the night, Watson said, "if you are lucky and the birds are cooperating."
If you go: 2591 Whitehall Neck Road, Smyrna, Del. Cost is $4 per car; multiple visit passes are available. Information: http://www.fws.gov/northeast/bombayhook or 302-653-6872.
Fishing in local rivers
While many people think of spring as peak fishing time, fall offers lovely scenery, less crowds and freshly-stocked waterways in the Baltimore area.
The Patapsco River and the Gunpowder River are two that have recently been stocked with trout, said Keith Lockwood, a fisheries biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources. "They are close, it's lots of fun and there are lots of trout in the water," he said.
In October, Prettyboy and Liberty Reservoirs are good places to catch bass and pike, Lockwood said, noting that fish are very active right now because the water is cooling down. He added: "the scenery is so beautiful up there."
Anglers can get up to date on the latest stocking schedules and find maps to area fishing sites on the DNR Web site. They can also check out Lockwood's weekly fishing report every Wednesday and read information posted by other fishermen on the Maryland Angler's Log.
In addition to the physical benefits of getting outdoors with a rod and reel, Lockwood said he always enjoys the way families or friends seem to relax and connect one-on-one while they are fishing. He said: "I always say we used to catch a lot more than fish,"
If you go: A fishing license is required for any angler over the age of 16. Freshwater licenses cost $7.50 for seven days or $20.50 for the season with added fees for nonresidents and for a trout stamp. Get information on specific fishing areas, conditions and regulations at http://www.dnr.state.md.us/fisheries.
Outdoor safety tips
Tell a friend: Whether you're boating on the bay or camping on Catoctin Mountain, the experts agree: Let someone know where you're going and when you'll be back. Bring a map, and don't go alone.
"Understand where the trail goes, and know what the terrain is going to be like," says Steve McCoy, assistant park manager, Patapsco Valley State Park. If maps or the Internet don't provide enough information, call the park.
Watch out as ever-earlier sunsets creep up on you in the fall, and allow time for camp setup, cooking and cleanup. Check the forecast to know the low for the night and if storms might come.
"As we know in Maryland, the weather can change at the turn of a dime," McCoy says.
Be prepared: The Boy Scout motto applies to everyone.
"Proper preparation and planning is key to having a safe and successful time outdoors," says Sgt. Art Windemuth of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources police. Don't skimp on a first-aid kit. Throw in a whistle, a waterproof light and maybe even a flare. And you can bring a cellphone but don't depend on it.
"Cellphones don't work everywhere in the bay," Windemuth says. Ditto for the mountains. Boaters should double-bag their cellphones. Better yet, he says, use a VHF radio and call DNR police or the Coast Guard on channel 16.
Thwart thirst: Summer's heat makes it easy to remember to hydrate, but people forget amid fall's cooler weather, says Laurie Potteiger, spokeswoman for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Bring at least two liters of water — or half a gallon — per person. "It's always a good idea to take a little more than you need," she says.
Crossing streams: And speaking of water, with this month's record-breaking rainfall of more than 12 inches in Baltimore, watch for normally docile creeks that turn into raging torrents. And Hurricanes Lee and Irene left some low-lying areas underwater for weeks. Where the Appalachian Trail crosses Little Antietam Creek, just south of Route 491, the stream has gotten hazardous after heavy rains. "Normally it's just a little rock hop that you don't think about," Potteiger says. It's usually easy enough to find a safer crossing a bit upstream or downstream.
Better boating: Fall offers some of the year's best fishing, as fish school up and begin migrating. The season brings falling water temperatures, too, from the 70s in September to the low 60s by late October. Prevent hypothermia by dressing in layers, using wool clothing or Thinsulate. Boat batteries drain more quickly in cool weather, so make sure they're fully charged, Windemuth says. Above all, wear a life jacket, he says.
Animals: "Enjoy the wildlife from a distance" with binoculars or a telephoto lens, McCoy says. Whether animals are feeding or nesting or just walking across your path, if you get close enough to change animals' behavior, he says, "you've probably gotten too close." Be careful with food, and store anything flavored or with a scent — even lip balm — in a vehicle overnight.
Fight ticks: Foil ticks by avoiding high grass and shrubs, wearing light-colored pants to make them easier to spot and tucking your pants into your socks, says Scott Smith, a wildlife ecologist with the state Department of Natural Resources. You'll look like a dork, but it beats Lyme disease. Another trick is to keep duct tape in your vehicle, Smith says. Roll it around your hand sticky-side out. Then pat yourself down as you check for ticks — before you get in the car to go home.
"Ticks are just part of doing business," Smith says.
Will Morton, Special to The Baltimore Sun