Assateague National Park

At dusk in early September, wild ponies cross the waters at the old ferry landing in Assateague National Park. Nature and water trails on the island lure visitors. (Sun photo by Algerina Perna / September 6, 2003)

Looking for an Eastern Shore fix this fall but can't decide between the beach or the bay? The Beach to Bay Indian Trail gives you a little bit of both -- and a lot in between.

The 131-mile route links Smith Island to Ocean City and Assateague through country roads, hiking paths and waterways. The trail, looping through Princess Anne, Crisfield, Pocomoke City, Snow Hill and Berlin, includes stops at mansions, museums, one-room schoolhouses and a remarkable 19th-century "living" village.

The pathway, which celebrates its 10th anniversary next month as Maryland's first National Recreation Trail, is a gem not only because of its historic attractions but also because of its wondrous natural setting. (Who knew one of the nation's northernmost bald cypress forests, so eerie and otherworldly, was tucked down on the Lower Shore?)

Perhaps best about the trail are the locals you meet while you're on it. Folks like Wanda Milbourne and Peggy Atkins, line-dancing fans, bridge partners and, on Mondays, the perky guides of a Crisfield walking tour.

Or ninth-grader Chelsea Lane Tyler, a Smith Island waitress who commutes to school on the mainland with about 20 other kids on a cruise boat named the Chelsea Lane Tyler. (Yes, it's named after her; the captain is Chelsea's grandfather.)

Or 76-year-old Norma Miles, the passionate director, as was her mother before her, of the historic Costen House in Pocomoke City. "I told her one day, 'Don't die and leave me with that Costen House, Mother.' "

Then there's Kathy Fisher, half the brain trust behind the trail system that winds through Somerset and Worcester counties. Fisher, executive director of Furnace Town Living Heritage Museum near Snow Hill, says the trail -- marked with distinctive brown state highway signs -- initially was created to keep tourists from getting lost in the rural reaches of the two counties. It was also a way to tie far-flung attractions into a nice, tidy package.

"A marketing strategy, yes," confesses Fisher. The trail's historic linchpin: A path as it was used centuries ago by tribes of the Algonquin nation, including the Assateagues, Pocomokes, Manokins and Acquinticas, who migrated seasonally between the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay.

There are lots of ways to experience the trail -- by car, boat and on foot. If you're staying at the beach, it's easy enough to pick off a few of the sites as day trips. Or consider taking a longer look, as my husband and I did in late July during a three-day getaway; I wish we had had a week.

A suggestion: If you're going to explore the trail on a longer-term basis, Pocomoke City is a good place to plant yourself. It's centrally located -- nothing on the trail is more than a 40-minute drive. And it's got plenty in the way of lodging -- brand-name motels, a couple of them pet-friendly; at least one B&B; and Pocomoke River State Forest and Park, which offers some year-round campsites along with rustic "mini cabins."

Also, be warned that a few of the attractions are seasonal, and even those museums that are open all year have odd hours. It's best to check listings in advance.

So get your trail map (details below) and select your launching point. And don't worry about doing the trail in any particular order; we didn't. Here are the highlights:

Crisfield

Crisfield may not grab you visually, but this watermen's community has a history and a heart that make it a must-see. For an insider look, take the escorted walking tour that departs from the J. Millard Tawes Historical Museum. Gray-haired gal pals Milbourne and Atkins, our guides, were entertaining and informative and really delivered the goods.

(This is vintage Milbourne commenting on the museum's elaborate embroidered ship portraits sewn by 19th-century Royal Navy sailors: "Imagine men having the patience to do something like that.")

Best yet, the hourlong tour includes a walk through a seafood processing plant, where we saw workers cleaning, sizing and wrapping soft-shell crabs for fresh and frozen delivery. Their destination that day: Los Angeles and Sparks, Nev. All of this from a little town where the crab pickers, as they have for generations, sing hymns while they work.

If you visit on a Wednesday, our guides reminded us, be sure to swing by Main and Ninth, also known as Charlie Adams Corner. The 70-year-old Adams, a Cris-field fixture, has been selling the local weekly, The Crisfield Times, from that corner since 1939. The Crisfield Trolley, running Monday through Saturday, does a loop of the town as well as Janes Island State Park, where the state, through October, rents canoes and kayaks to explore the tidal salt marsh, one of the waterways on the Beach to Bay Trail. The trolley, which costs just 50 cents, departs from the Tawes Museum at 1 p.m. for a heritage tour that includes the workshop of noted decoy carvers Lem and Steve Ward.

For good eats: the Captain's Galley and the Watermen's Inn on Main Street. An interesting way to buy a six-pack: The Slip In, a beer and soda drive-through.

Smith Island