A WALK IN THE WOODS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ON some unspoken day in late summer, in an ancient seasonal ritual, the air cools and summer's lush green landscape begiris to give way to autumn's gilded oranges, golds and reds.

Maples, oaks, beechwoods and sycamores are ablaze with color. Sun-flowers and black-eyed Susans decorate golden fields, and long V's of Canada geese can be seen overhead.

Hiking tralls throughout the area provide the perfect vantage from which to experience this annual progression of natural splendor. Along a woodsy path, with leaves crackling underfoot, or on the way to a picturesque mountain summit, the true spirit of autumn is likely to reveal itself.

Here are five of the very best hikes in the region.

Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge

In late October or early November, the sky above the Eastern Neck Nation-al Wildlife Refuge in Rock Hall on the Eastern Shore fills with tiny black specks. Circling, they drop down in a raucous symphony, yodeling and calling as if greeting long-lost friends, until thousands of tundra swans cover the water like a soft white comforter.

These exquisite birds -- pure white with black legs and bill -- provide one of the region's most breathtaking natural spectacles.

"The area is well known for being a major staging area for tundra swans," says Susan Talbott, outreach planner for the refuge.

They come from summer nesting grounds in the Arctic, spending the winter on the Chesapeake and along the Atlantic coast from New Jersey to North Carolina. Drawn to the refuge for its quiet, brackish coves, the swans especially like to hang out in the choppy gray waters surrounding the bridge that connects the refuge to the mainland, where they float by the hundreds.

For a great stroll, drive beyond the bridge to the trailhead for the 1.2-mile (round-trip) Boxes Point Trail, which leads to Eastern Neck Inlet. "You'll definitely see swans in the cove here," Talbott says.

For another good viewing spot, go farther down the refuge road to the Tubby Cove Boardwalk. This wooden walkway, complete with informative plaques, reaches across a billowy marsh to a tiny wooded island. Here, an observation platform overlooks the Chesapeake -- and most likely, more tundra swans.

While the swans are the main draw, there's plenty more to see here. The refuge staff has documented a peak of 40,000-plus waterfowl on the grounds, with 33 different species having been reported. Among them, the most common is the Canada goose (20,000-plus), as well as a retinue of ducks: canvasbacks, mallards, widgeons, ruddy ducks, black ducks, lesser scaups, buffleheads, pintails, green- and blue-winged teal, oldsquaw and scoters.

In late September and early October migrant songbirds pass through the refuge. Talbott suggests taking the Wildlife Trail, where you may encounter warblers, vireos, thrushes and much more. The trail begins along the main refuge road 1.7 miles from the entrance.

Eastern Neck is also a great place to watch the butterfly migration. Monarchs, easy to identify with their orange and black pattern, fly by from late August to September, while millions of buckeyes and painted-lady butterflies (rust and brown beauties) drift through in September and October.

Hog Rock Nature Trail

There are other trails at Catoctin Mountain Park near Thurmont that showcase autumn's multihued finery, but it's the number of sugar maples that sets this trail apart.

From the trail head you plunge into a world of scarlet, the result of thousands of maple leaves hanging from branches, fluttering through the air and covering the ground. Sharing the canopy, adding splashes of orange and gold, are hickories, birches, black gums and oaks.

If the sun is shining, illuminating the leaves just so, you can't help but feel as if you've entered some kind of stained-glass cathedral.

At the trail head, be sure to pick up an interpretive leaflet that matches numbered posts along the way, helping to identify trees. The nature trail loops through the woods, at about midway reaching the trail's namesake: Hog Rock, the highest point in the park.

Some 1,600 feet below sprawls the flaxen farmland of Monocacy Valley, speckled with the oranges and yellows and reds of pocket woods. Farmers, who once brought hogs to the base of the rock to fatten them up on the nuts of oaks and chestnuts, named the overlook.

The main trail circles back to the parking lot. But you may wish to continue on to Cunningham Falls -- one of Maryland's prettiest waterfalls. To get there, follow the trail down the hillside. When you get to Route 77, cross the road and take the 0.3-mile Cunningham Falls Access Trail to the falls.

Elk Neck State Park

At the southernmost tip of Elk Neck in Cecil County, old Turkey Point Lighthouse stands atop high cliffs, offering vast watery vistas of the Chesapeake Bay. But on chilly autumn days, this spectacular view takes second-seat to the annual hawk migration -- the mid-Atlantic's prime autumn birding event, which sometimes includes hundreds of raptors winging by.

An official hawk watch has taken place at Elk Neck since 1994. Some days you may see 20 an hour, and every now and again, you get a bonanza of activity.

"One day 5,000 birds were counted," says park manager Gary Burnett.

The grand passage of raptors -- which may be journeying as nearby as the mid-Atlantic states in the case of a red-tailed hawk or as far away as Peru for a broad-winged hawk -- lasts from September to early December.

In late September or early October, watch for broad-wings. They often migrate in flocks, making for exciting viewing. Sharing the skies, especially on blustery days, are bald eagles, as well as ospreys and American kestrels.

In October, thousands of sharp-shinned hawks, slightly larger than blue jays, fly along with Cooper's hawks, red-shouldered hawks (which wing by through Thanksgiving) and northern harriers.

The only way to reach the lighthouse is by the short, easy Turkey Point Trail, which leaves from the Turkey Point parking area at the end of Route 272. Follow the gravel road beyond the gate, where it soon becomes the trail.

You will cross overgrown meadows and woods of dogwood, maple, oak, hickory and ash that ignite in autumn finery. At the woods' edge, watch for migrating songbirds, including warblers, flycatchers, vireos, tanagers, thrushes, orioles, finches and swallows.

About a mile from the parking area, you come to the lighthouse (closed to the public), the incredible view and the splendid raptor show.

From the lighthouse, the trail proceeds west, skirting the cliffs, then dips down to the bay's edge; boulders lining the waterfront provide the perfect picnic perch. The trail then loops back through more autumn-bedecked woods -- watch for more songbirds -- and returns to the main lighthouse trail. Here, complete the 1.5-mile loop by turning left to return to the parking area.

Hawksbill Mountain, Shenandoah National Park

From high atop Shenandoah National Park's loftiest peak, at 4,051 feet, you have the perfect view of the annual hawk migration. Beginning in mid-September, these raptors come floating down the ridgeline, taking advantage of the thermals that rise off the mountains.

As at Elk Neck State Park, a progression of different kinds of hawks visit throughout the autumn season -- first come the broad-wings in late September or early October, followed by sharp-shinned, Cooper's, and red-shouldered hawks.

Since the late 1980s, Hawksbill has been a release site for captive-bred peregrine falcons, so there's always the chance of seeing one or two of these bluish-gray birds of prey.

Also, Shenandoah offers some of the best leaf peeping around -- a fact not lost on the multitude of cars that pack Skyline Drive during peak color weekends (usually the second and third week of October).

A good way to beat the crowds, and to get even better views than those along the drive, is to hit the trail. Several routes climb up Hawksbill, all of which wind through resplendent woods. The shortest -- and most difficult, with its rocky, steep ascent -- is the 1.7-mile round-trip that begins from the Hawksbill Gap parking area on Skyline Drive, between mileposts 45 and 46. It switchbacks up the mountain, reaching the flat summit in about 0.8 mile.

For a longer (2.1 miles round-trip), but easier ascent, leave your car at the Upper Hawksbill parking area and follow the Hawksbill Summit trail into a pretty oak forest. After 0.7 mile you'll come to a dirt fire road; turn right and climb another third of a mile.

Both trails come to Hawksbill's summit, where Byrd's Nest No. 2, a stone shelter, stands. Before you, a line of cliffs drops steeply, offering dramatic views of the Shenandoah Valley some 3,000 feet below.

Continue to the northernmost brow of the peak, where there awaits an observation platform and its nearly 360-degree view -- the perfect venue to watch the hawk show and to admire the tapestry of rolling ridges shimmering in rich autumn color.

Jug Bay Natural Area / Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary

Beginning in early September, a menagerie of migrating birds flocks to Jug Bay. More than 250 species have been recorded at this widening in the Patuxent River near Upper Marlboro in Prince George's County, and everywhere you look, there are birds.

"Jug Bay is a unique habitat in Maryland, a tidal freshwater marsh," says naturalist Greg Kearns. "There are few places left in Maryland like this."

The diversity of habitats -- fields, forest, swamp, wetlands -- is the reason why so many different bird species are drawn here, Kearns explains.

The area has several different trails. The best autumn hike -- the one that leads to the majority of birds -- is a mile loop that begins by taking off through the Black Walnut Nature Study Area.

From the park office, find the flagpole and descend the stairs to a pier over the river. Then walk up the road to a wooden gate on the left and enter the study area. A boardwalk hovers above a marshy area alive with bird life.

"All kinds of species use the marsh to stop over," Kearns says. "I could name 50 or more." Among them are the secretive least bitterns, northern harriers, different warblers and swamp sparrows.

At the T-intersection go left; you will come to the river, edged with wild rice -- a favorite of birds migrating along the waterway and food for as many as 25,000 waterfowl during the winter.

Amble beneath a colorful canopy of sycamores, beeches, oaks, maples and other mixed hardwoods, finally coming to an observation blind overlooking the river.

Backtrack along the trail, but at the trail junction, rather than returning on the right, go straight into the woodlands -- the domain of woodpeckers, white-tailed deer and gray squirrels.

Pass by another observation tower, this one for woodland creatures, and then cross tiny Black Walnut Creek. Follow the trail up the stairs to a flat area and the W. Henry Duvall Tool Museum. From there, finish the hike by walking up the gravel road, back to the park office.

Adjacent to the natural area is the Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary, a veritable winter resort for Canada geese. Founded by conservationist Edgar Merkle, the sanctuary grows corn, millet and other grains favored by the geese.

The birds arrive from eastern Canada in mid-October and stay until late February or early March. It's a beautiful rural setting, with a stately red barn, majestic oaks and rolling farm fields overlooking the Patuxent.

Several trails wind through the woods, but the best autumn viewing comes just along the dirt road that goes through the refuge -- you'll probably see hundreds of Canada geese eating and sleeping in the fields, floating and splashing on the river.

The road -- which begins at the entrance to the Jug Bay Natural Area, circles Croom Airport, then crosses Mattaponi Creek into Merkle -- is part of the 4-mile Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Driving Tour. Passing educational displays, observation towers and scenic overlooks, it crosses fields where food is grown for the geese, as well as a boardwalk above Mattaponi Creek, where an observation tower allows more bird-watching. The road is open to cars on Sundays between noon and 3 p.m.; the best experience, however, is by foot or on a bike.

Merkle also has a visitor center, where you can learn about the area's birds, wildlife and plants. Picture windows overlooking the sanctuary provide hours of bird-watching fun.

WHEN YOU GO ...

Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, 1730 Eastern Neck Road, Rock Hall, Md. 21661

Phone: 410-639-7056

Open: Daily

Fee: None

Getting there: From the Bay Bridge, take U.S. 301 to Route 213 to Chestertown, then take Route 20 west and south to Rock Hall. Follow Route 445 south to the island. After 6.1 miles, the road crosses a wooden bridge, connecting the mainland with the refuge.

Nearby points of interest: Rock Hall is a charming waterfront town. Its Waterman's Museum (20880 Rock Hall Ave.; 410-778-6697) has historical photographs, carvings and other exhibits on crabbing, oystering and fishing on the Chesapeake.

Hog Rock Nature Trail, Catoctin Mountain Park, 6602 Foxville Road Thurmont, Md. 21788

Phone: 301-663-9330

Online: www.nps.gov / ncro /

cato

Open: Daily (Park Central Road closes in winter

Fee: None

Getting there: From I-70, take Route 15 north, past Frederick. Exit on Route 77 west and follow signs for Catoctin Mountain Park. In 2.5 miles, at the junction with Park Central Road, you'll reach the Catoctin Mountain Park Visitor Center.

Elk Neck State Park, 4395 Turkey Point Road, North East, Md. 21901

Phone: 410-287-5333

Open: Daily

Fee: None

Getting there: From Baltimore, take I-95 north to Route 272 south (Exit 100) 11 miles through the town of North East, continuing to the Turkey Point parking area at the end of the road.

Nearby points of interest: The small waterfront town of North East has antiques and crafts shops and is a fun place to explore.

Hawksbill Mountain, Shenandoah National Park, Luray, Va. 22835; Harry F. Byrd Sr. Visitor Center at Big Meadows, mile 51 along Skyline Drive

Phone: 540-999-3500

Open: Daily

Fee: $10 per vehicle.

Getting there: From the Washington Beltway, follow I-66 west for 24 miles to U.S. 29, and head south about 10 miles to Warrenton. Follow U.S. 211 west about 35 miles to the park entrance, just beyond Sperryville. Drive to the Hawksbill Gap parking area at mile 45.6 or Upper Hawksbill parking area at mile 46.7.

Jug Bay, 16000 Croom Airport Road, Upper Marlboro, Md. 20772

Phone: 301-627-6074

Open: Daily

Fee: Special-use permits required for all activities are available at the park office. $5 per car for Prince George's and Montgomery County residents; $7 for nonresidents.

Getting there: From the Baltimore Beltway, follow Route 3 south to U.S. 301 south. Then make three lefts: on Croom Station Road, Croom Road and Croom Airport Road.

Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary, 11704 Fenno Road, Upper Marlboro, Md. 20772

Phone: 301-888-1410

Open: Daily

Fee: $2 per vehicle

Getting there: From the Baltimore Beltway, follow Route 3 south to U.S. 301 south. Turn left on Croom Road and follow to St. Thomas Church Road; turn left and continue to Fenno Road. Follow signs to the sanctuary.

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