This very well may be the last week to bask in our fleeting fall foliage season. While the height of the tree-bound color scheme may be in the rearview mirror, what lies before us is the underrated moment to experience the fall palette in muddled oranges, yellows and reds as a ticker-tape carpet for you to kick up, a la Charlie Brown-Great Pumpkin-style on trails paths, sidewalks and the like.
What follows are some quick last-minute spots to catch the blooming of fall.
Baltimore on the edge
For those who are time-strapped, may we suggest some of Baltimore and Baltimore County’s quick hits?
Leakin Park may be known as the third largest urban wilderness this side of the Mississippi, but it’s also Baltimore’s most overlooked park. Check out the trailhead off of Windsor Mill Road, no more than a half-mile walk, and the uninterrupted view of this urban valley looks uncannily like a West Virginia hollow.
North Point Park, near Sparrows Point, has access to the bay, but the short trail known as the Black Marsh Trail will quickly immerse you in Maryland’s tidal wetland life. Eagles, otters, geese and ducks love this place. There is a short spur to the observation deck that overlooks a thicket of wetlands, or you can push on along the main trail for another quarter mile and you’ll be meandering around the driftwood along a wooded bay shore.
Lake Roland. These days Lake Roland is no secret and getting parking along Falls Road won’t be easy, but there is a backside trail with a cropping of mature oaks and maples that is rather astounding if you can remember you’re no more than two miles out of the city. From the Falls Road trailhead take the well-traveled red trail, but just before you get to an abandoned trestle bridge glance left and you’ll see another trail (known as the “alternate red trail”) and venture that way. There you might get a bit more isolation and see some monster-sized trees, the biggest of which features a natural grotto, big enough to sleep in — not that you would want to. This may be one of the largest trees in the Baltimore area.
Hop in the car for a short drive
Here are a few spots about 40 minutes out of Baltimore.
Alberton Trail, Ellicott City. Take Route 40 West past the Beltway as if going to Ellicott City, but turn right on Rogers Avenue, not towards Ellicott City. Turn right on Old Frederick Road which will change to Hollifield Road, turn left on Dogwood Road and you’ll see Alberton Trail Parking (use GPS for this). This will get you closer to the ruins of the old mill town.
Lost town of Daniels. The designation “lost town” should be enough to draw the curious. Founded in 1829 to support a cotton mill — then known as Elysville — Daniels was a classically insular factory town with the mill owning everything from a bowling alley to the local food store. But in 1968, the owner opted to close the town, which turned out to be fortunate. Four years later, Hurricane Agnes washed most of the foundations away. Today, not much remains except for the ruins of a church, a few graves, some intriguing foundations and rotting cars. But plenty of woods have grown in. Now that you’re out there, Ellicott City, nestled along the Patapsco River, awaits. Grab some food along its stone-front Main Street, walk the bridge over the Patapsco River, and then take the first left on Oella Road to access the uphill but well maintained trolley trail that is 1.25 miles to the Benjamin Banneker Museum.
Harpers Ferry offers fall foliage vistas as classic as anything you can find within a day’s drive. Wedged between the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, Harpers Ferry provides a ridiculous variety of views from the mellow Chesapeake and Ohio towpath along the waterway to the more endurance-requiring Maryland Trail at the Harpers Ferry State Park, where you can also see some Civil War ruins mixed in.
If you are feeling rustic and adventurous and not in too much of hurry, you can experience how John Brown may have headed to Harpers Ferry to meet his fate trying to start the Civil War that ignited three years after his execution. Instead of taking the quick GPS suggested route into Harpers Ferry, take the Greenbrier State Park exit and work south along Boonsboro Mountain Road to Boonsboro and take Alt 40 East to Route 67. Then head south and pick up Trego Mountain Road to the John Brown House and Farm, also known as the Kennedy Farm (GPS) where the abolitionist and his followers bunkered down for a few months before heading to Harpers Ferry. (Note: the house is being restored but the grounds are open.)
Shepherdstown. This time of year, particularly if the weather proves decent, expect crowds along this rustic getaway route, especially in Harpers Ferry. Shepherdstown, while no secret either, offers a soft-landing alternative after the hiking, with a cozy college town of stone and brick homes wedged together with stores and cafes like The Blue Moon Cafe and a brewery, Bavarian Brothers Brewing.
Make a day of it and head out of town
Not all of fall’s enchantment lies along the hills and valleys. Maryland’s Eastern Shore offers a sense of endless autumn hues along its marshes that has drawn worldwide visitors for decades. Putting in the 66 miles or so from Baltimore will give you a lot of bang for your gasoline buck.
First up: The Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge has preserved that Eastern Shore tidal-primordial feel that inspired writers, hunters and an entire waterman culture, some of which is sadly lost. With 32,000 acres of marshland preserved, The Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge offers a birder’s paradise with some interesting varmints thrown in, including the sika deer (they bark!), and the more common white-tailed deer, which apparently merely bleat, snort or grunt. The refuge provides an auto tour, bike routes, and, on weekends, birder tours.
Also out in this scenic sweet spot in Dorchester County is the awe-inspiring 47-acre Harriet Tubman State Park on 4068 Golden Hill Rd.
The downloadable, well-marked road tour could easily take more than a day. One of many stops is the site of Harriet Tubman’s childhood home, marked with a roadway sign at 2978 Greenbrier Rd. in Cambridge, Maryland. There may not be any visible traces of her home, but the vista of the field and the treeline stretches out with a sense of mission, like absorbing the first few lines to a vital chapter in American History.
Northern Central Railroad Trail, Glencoe. Theoretically the NCR Trail, which starts at Ashland and runs 41 miles to the Pennsylvania border and then on to York, Pennsylvania, is an enchanting ride under the boughs. But any handicapper would bet that the fall weekends will be packed, basically turning a bike ride in the woods into a tedious commute.
Instead we recommend throwing the bike in the car and driving up Interstate 83 to Exit 24, turn right onto Belfast Road, turn right again on York Road, and then left at Glencoe Road. This meandering country lane no doubt validates the moniker, “The Rolling Hills of Maryland.” Check out the trailhead for the bike trail about a mile in.
If it’s filled, stick to the car and drive the Lower Glencoe Road, which follows the Big Gunpowder Falls, as it sways back and forth between horse farms and 18th-century estates. The road is only two miles long before emptying back out onto York Road. No matter, take York left back to Glencoe and this time go past the parking lot up a hill of stone homes and farmhouses with woods crowding the road like nutty bicycle fans at the Tour de France.
As the hill plateaus, check out the beautiful row of Maples along a split-rail fence and the air is about as fresh as you’ll ever inhale. Keep going to Carroll Road, going left will take you to Old York, once thought to be a Native American trail. Take a right and it will take you across horse meadows to Sparks Road. Take a right and plunge back down to another trailhead and see if you can get your bike ride in there.
Charles Cohen is a freelance journalist, filmmaker and digital storyteller. He is a Baltimore native.