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Virginia, Washington DC, Maryland Fall Foliage and Colors Tours

Things to do / Travel Guide

Washington, Maryland and Virginia Fall Foliage Tours

Click for 2010 Virginia fall foliage report and map, updated every three days.

When Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton agreed on a location for the Capital city, the local forestry most likely did not play a pivotal part in their decision. Nonetheless, DC-area fall foliage fans will discover that there is an advantage to being 500 miles south of New England. It means that they get to enjoy peak fall colors into November, when the trees in Vermont are already long bare.

There are numerous popular fall foliage destinations throughout the DC region. Locals and travelers alike will enjoy the fall colors in Washington, DC itself. They'll also enjoy the colorful foliage just a short drive away, whether they head northwest up the Potomac to Central Maryland, southwards down the Potomac to Mt. Vernon or north to Baltimore. Peak foliage viewing is usually in mid-to-late October, lasting on into early November at lower elevations.

While some DC residents prefer to venture west to the familiar Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park for their fall colors, this section describes some excellent day trips or even long lunch hour breaks closer to Baltimore and Washington, DC. These places are not only rife with lovely fall colors, but also have the advantage of being less crowded and having their colors last into November. Sometimes there's also the added advantage of being able to combine a foliage gazing excursion with any of a number of wine festivals held by the local vineyards and wineries.

For the high end traveler, with a love of water and fall foliage and time to spend a week on the water, American Cruise Lines offers eight day Chesapeake Bay cruises. The trips, starting at over $5000 per couple, sail out of Baltimore in late October.

Washington, DC Fall Foliage Tours

A well planned long lunch hour or morning walk can take you from running the government of the United States to watching trees turn bright shades of scarlet and gold, right in the heart of the District of Columbia. Recommended spots are:
  • Hiking Ridge Trail in Rock Creek Park: The trail reaches the highest point in the park, on Glover Road near the Nature Center. Closer to the creek, foliage views are best along Beach Drive.
  • Theodore Roosevelt Island: Take a hike along the 2.5 miles of trails of this wooded refuge in the Potomac. Access is from the Northbound George Washington Memorial Parkway in Virginia. The Rosslyn Metro Station (Blue and Orange Line) is 15 minutes by foot.
  • The Tidal Basin: The thousands of cherry trees around here, so famous in the spring, put on a nice show in the fall as well. The 5000 trees on DC's famous mall also make this a good spot for a lunch break.
  • National Arboretum: Located in the northeast section of Washington, DC, the Arboretum contains a vast collection of trees that brim with a variety of colors throughout the autumn, with the dogwoods open up the season in late September and the willows still going strong until December. The best foliage displays are in the Asian Collection, the Fern Valley Native Plant Collection, and the Gotelli collection.
  • Take a river cruise on the Potomac leaving from Washington Harbour in Georgetown. See the main sights of the Capitol with fall colors to boot. The cruises are frequent, last under an hour, and cost about $10. Alternatively, you can rent your own canoe or kayak nearby, in front of the Kennedy Center, and explore the beaches and coves of Theodore Roosevelt Island.
  • Walk the side streets of Georgetown or stroll along the Potomac. This is a good idea almost any time of the year.

Washington, DC and Maryland Fall Foliage Tours along the Potomac

Heading northwest from Washington, DC, the Potomac river and the C&O Canal are the Main Streets of fall foliage viewing and continue on all the way up into West Virginia and Central Maryland.

The C&O Canal National Historic Park traces the route of the Potomac all the way to Cumberland, MD, 184 miles from Washington, DC. Bikers and hikers now use the park's old towpath, and parts of the canal are navigable by water. Boat trips are available on certain days of the week through the end of October.

The George Washington Memorial Parkway, a road that provides access to the Virginia side of the Potomac, parallels the first stretch of the route. The drive itself provides scenic views of the Potomac River Gorge, and of the multicolored trees clinging to the cliffs. But leave the sightseeing along the route to your passengers! Drive safely and you'll have plenty of opportunity to get an eyeful of foliage once you reach Potomac Overlook Regional Park. There you can either choose to walk some of the good hiking trails on the Virginia side of the Potomac Palisades or to continue further and walk the wooded trails of Turkey Run Park in McLean, VA. The actors in the foliage show here are gold tulip poplars, red maples, oaks and black gum trees.

Continuing up the Potomac, Great Falls Park with its 15 miles of trails and attraction for serious whitewater fans is a site of surprising beauty, and is quite close to major population centers.

Further upstream, Leesburg is a good starting point for touring the Loudoun wine trail. The rolling hills of Northern Virginia are a perfect place to celebrate the autumn harvest.

Harpers Ferry, West Virginia is where the Potomac and the Shenandoah Rivers meet up with the Appalachian Trail and the C&O Canal. Visitors can enjoy their fall foliage while walking the historic streets of Harpers Ferry, boating on the various waterways, or either hiking or biking the nearby trails.

Central Maryland Fall Foliage Tours (and with the President of the United States)

Odds are that the President of the United States will be enjoying the October fall foliage at Camp David. You can get almost the same experience without spending your life savings on a exhausting, three year election campaign. Camp David is located smack in the middle of Catoctin Mountain Park, right near Thurmont, Maryland. Catoctin and nearby Cunningham Falls State Park are heavily wooded, and the oak, hickory and tulip poplar forest make fall the most popular time of the year for visiting the parks. Add great panoramic views, wildlife, and waterfalls and you are sure to enjoy your time there.

Other popular foliage viewing destinations in Central Maryland are:
  • Sugarloaf Mountain in Dickerson, MD, about an hour northwest of Washington, DC. Sugarloaf is interesting in that it is a monadnock, a mountain remaining after the surrounding land has eroded. This translates to great views in all directions. The trees you'll be looking at are oak, black gum, tulip poplar, eastern hemlock, and black birch.
  • South Mountain State Park. This is located east of Hagerstown, and about an hour and a half from Washington, DC. High Rock is a recommended overlook, accessible by a short hike. The Appalachian Trail crosses this park, and longer hikes would certainly be rewarding as well.
  • Enjoy the colors of the Central Maryland countryside from a vintage 1920's railcar. The Walkersville Southern Railroad trains run out of the historic 19th century railroad station at Walkersville several times a day on October weekends. Fares are under $10 for the hour-long round trip. Walkersville is about an hour northwest of DC.

Virginia Fall Foliage Tours along the Potomac in VA

Venturing south of Washington to Alexandria and Mt. Vernon, Virginia and then further south to Pohick Bay, leaf-peepers can enjoy the fall colors through a variety of activities. Sightseeing cruises can get you to this area from Washington.

In Alexandria, the historical tree lined streets look much as they did several centuries ago. The cobblestones, brick buildings and preserved homes you can visit on a walking tour blend well with the end of October foliage display.

Mt. Vernon, the most visited historical mansion in the United States, is also the site of a quarter-mile trail through George Washington's Oak, and Holly and Laurel forest. Potomac River sightseeing cruises leave from Mt. Vernon, several times a day.

At Pohick Bay Regional Park, near Lorton, enjoy a half-day guided paddling trip focusing on the fall color and wildlife. If you would rather go out on your own, boat rentals are available.

Baltimore, Maryland Fall Foliage Tours

Driving between Washington DC and Baltimore? Take a few extra minutes and go via the 29-mile Baltimore-Washington Parkway. Also known as State Route 295, the parkway, which parallels I-95, is lined by trees and puts on a colorful late-October show. Truckers, unfortunately will not be able to partake of this experience as rigs are banned here.

Just south of Baltimore, the Patapsco Valley State Park extends along 32 miles of the Patapsco River. The following are the recommended fall foliage viewing spots in the different areas of the park:
  • Hollowfield Area (near Ellicott City) – Go to the Patapsco Valley Overlook for the best foliage view. It is the only valley overlook along the river.
  • Orange Grove/Avalon Area (near Elkridge) - Orange Grove Road is the best place for a scenic drive or a 2 mile canoe trip from the Orange Grove Pavilion. As a bonus, visit the historic Thomas Viaduct and the swinging bridge.
  • McKeldin Area (near Marriottsville) – This is the place to be to get the River and Valley Overlook vistas.

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania Fall Foliage Tours

If you plan on visiting Gettysburg, the stretch of U.S. Highway 30 from York to Gettysburg is known for its dense fall foliage. Continuing west, State Route 223 reaches the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Make sure to stop along the way at some of the following State Parks with good foliage views:
  • Codorus State Park, 20 miles east of Gettysburg, where the 26-mile shoreline of Lake Marburg reflects the fall colors and provides boating opportunities.
  • Pine Grove Furnace, 20 miles north of Gettysburg is located in a mountain setting with two small lakes. Boating is available on Laurel Lake. The park has 4 miles of trails through a forest of hemlock and white pine.
  • Mt. Alto State Park, 10 miles west of Gettysburg.
  • Michaux State Forest, 15 miles northwest of Gettysburg. The park is traversed by the Appalachian Trail.