Nature's fall show An outbreak of color: Baltimore's older stream valley parks, preserved to be wild, provide plenty of fall foliage to admire.


If you missed Vermont and the blazing maples on its hillsides, take heart: There is a ready outbreak of fall color and walking trails within the Baltimore Beltway.

Some of Baltimore's older stream valley parks, created and preserved to be wild and left alone, provide walkers and lookers with the fluorescent yellows, burnt oranges and crimsons normally reserved for post cards and kitchen calendar pictures.

Baltimore's stream valley parks include Herring Run, Leakin-Gwynns Falls and Stony Run-Wyman Park. Druid Hill and Robert E. Lee parks also have major walking trails.

Throughout the day, a steady steam of walkers crosses North Baltimore's Robert E. Lee Park, better known as Lake Roland. This tract, which is owned by Baltimore City but located in the county, was once the watershed for an early, but now unused, water supply system.

The city dammed Jones Falls (the dam's original limestone-clad valve house has been retained) to create a reservoir that is also fed by Roland and Towson runs. Soon a large curving pond formed and was linked to the city via a Jones Falls Valley tunnel. The 1861 system operated by gravity and water pressure. It also didn't work too well. By 1915 it was discontinued and became an expensive ornament, popular with ice skaters, boaters and fishermen.

Come late October, the lake's banks are lined with tulip poplars, maples, oaks, ash in colors that include dull ochers, rusts, tans, sunshine yellows and Halloween oranges. One hillside, just off to one side of the Central Light Rail Line's bridge, is at its peak of fall color.

The show here is not all on the trees. The park has scattered stands of bittersweet, an entwining shrub that blossoms with small red-orange seeds surrounded by yellow fruit. More common is the vine called Virginia Creeper, which is green in the summer but has changed into bright hot spots of color. The chipmunks and squirrels dart around. There are also sightings of red fox here.

Determined walkers often discover the remnants of the old Greenspring Valley branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad in the woods here. Old crossties and rusty rails pop up along the Lake Roland's western edge. Because the railroad needed to run on a flat surface, the former right of way makes a good path.

Gwynn Falls meanders through Northwest and West Baltimore. This park system is the city's largest natural preserve. For a mix of trees and architecture, there is nothing like the village of Dickeyville on Wetheredsville Road. The only thing missing from this cluster of 1840s white clapboard houses and Presbyterian church is a New England area code. There's an old dam just down the hill from the village and some excellent fall gardens surrounded by paling fences.

Other neighborhoods -- Windsor Hills, Walbrook, Hunting Ridge and Ten Hills -- jut into this stream valley. Look for the mature hardwood trees planted by conscientious gardeners in these parts. Leathery-leaf oaks and straight-as-a-yardstick tulip poplars thrive here.

For many city residents, the place to admire great groves of trees and experience some solitude is Druid Hill Park. Most mornings at dawn, the regular walkers and a few runners circle the reservoir lost in thought or talk. The park now shows some splashes of yellows and reds amid the vast expanse of green. The best color days may be just ahead.

Herring Run Park in Northeast Baltimore bends and twists all the way from Mount Pleasant Golf Course through Morgan State University to Lauraville, Mayfield, Arcadia, Belair-Edison and Armistead Gardens.

The trick here is to get down to the level of the stream bed and start walking. Although surrounded by some fairly dense residential development, the park is clean and home to many varieties of wildlife.

More than one local observer has spotted a fox darting across Belair Road at Shannon Drive. There are also raccoons and rabbits.

Stony Run is a fairly timid stream that slices through North Baltimore. Its headwaters are near Roland Park and the Orchards, and it passes through the Tuxedo Park, Evergreen, Tuscany-Canterbury, and Remington-Hampden communities. In some spots there are good walking paths along the right of way of the former Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad, which hasn't run here since 1958.

Try starting at West 33rd Street and Remington Avenue. Walkers will be in a dell of ancient trees (some fine gray-barked ash trees here), while high-rise apartment dwellers along University Parkway are breathing manufactured air.

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