What’s your favorite season? Mine is Fall.
I love the cool air, sleeping with my windows open at night, and the start of hockey season (Go Caps – 2018 Stanley Cup champs!).
However, my favorite thing about Fall is the beautiful colors of the changing leaves.
The big question every year: When will the leaves be at peak in my area?
Determining the ideal time frame for peak “leaf peeping” is both an art and a science. The color of the leaves and length of time we have to enjoy fall foliage each year is affected by factors such as temperature, sunlight, rainfall, and the elevation of the trees.
However, there are some who have figured it out. Below is a screenshot I took from the Fall Foliage Prediction Map on the Smoky Mountains website. According to their prediction, the leaves in the DC area will be at or near peak in late-October.
To estimate when leaves will be at peak in your area, go to the map, place your mouse on the circle on the bar below it, and slide it to the right. The colors on the map will change as you move it.
One of my favorite ways to enjoy the leaves is to go for a walk or hike. It allows me to get some fresh air, Vitamin D, and exercise while admiring the dark burgundy, deep orange, and brilliant gold leaves around me. If I’m not up for a hike, a bike ride or nice scenic drive works, too.
Where are the best places to see the changing leaves around the DC area?
Below are some suggestions.
= WASHINGTON, DC =
If you want to get outdoors and lose yourself in nature, check out Rock Creek Park, a 1,754-acre city park that bisects northwest Washington, DC. Hikers can enjoy over 32 miles of hiking trails and either create their own hike or take a hike suggested by the NPS.
Visitors can learn about the park through the Cell Phone Audio Tours accessible by phone (not app) simply by calling 202-730-9307 any time they get to a “Dial and Discover” sign throughout the park.
Entrance Fee: FREE!
October is the perfect time to visit the U.S. National Arboretum. It is conveniently located in northwest DC and accessible by either car or Metro train (the closest metro stop is Stadium-Armory on the Blue and Orange lines).
In addition to the variety of trees planted throughout the grounds, visitors can enjoy a variety of flowers and plants. The Arboretum also has a mobile app (available for both iOS and Android) to help guests navigate the vast grounds by foot using a digital map; you can also download and print a map of the grounds.
Entrance Fee: FREE!
= MARYLAND =
Located in the mountains of Western Maryland, Catoctin Mountain State Park offers a forest composed of oak, hickory, and tulip poplar trees whose leaves turn brilliant colors in autumn. Throughout October, visitors can participate in one of the Fall Color Hikes led by a Park Ranger.
If you’d prefer to go it alone, you can download the East Trails Hiking Map. There are hikes appropriate for all difficulty levels from easy to strenuous.
Entrance Fee: FREE!
The “C&O Canal” runs 184.5 miles from Georgetown north all the way to Cumberland, Maryland. Hiking and biking are great ways to see the park; check out these maps to choose the best route for you. Along the canal, there are several visitor’s centers and lock houses to check out.
Entrance Fee: FREE! (unless you enter via the Great Falls entrance of the park. Then, you’ll have to pay either a $15 vehicle entrance fee or a $7 bicycle or on-foot entrance fee)
Another great State Park is Cunningham Falls State Park. Just past Frederick, this park is tucked away in the Catoctin Mountains and has 2 sections:
- The William Houck Area (a few miles west of Thurmont) – featuring a lake, waterfall, and a camping area.
- The Manor Area (a few miles south of Thurmont) – featuring the Scales and Tales Aviary, camping, and the historic Catoctin Iron Furnace
Hiking or canoeing in the park is a great way to enjoy the changing leaves. Want to extend your leaf-peeping? Campsites and camper cabins are available for rental through October.
Entrance Fee: $3/person (MD residents); $5/person (all others)
Although Deep Creek Lake is a great destination for all four seasons, its awesome in the Fall. The lake is surrounded by beautiful mature trees which make for a stunning backdrop once the leaves change. With their Annual Autumn Glory Festival coming up, Deep Creek Lake is a great destination for “leaf peepers.”
Hiking around the falls in Swallow Falls State Park is one of my favorite activities and shouldn’t be missed when visiting Deep Creek. Other nearby parks worth a visit include Deep Creek State Park (of course) and New Germany State Park. Entrance Fee: FREE!
Boating is another fun activity and there are several companies in the area that offer boat rentals. Or, you can bring your bike and take in the sights on two wheels. No matter which option you choose, you’ll enjoy the beauty of the area.
Sugarloaf Mountain is a popular destination for individuals, couples, and families and is visited by over 250,000 people each year. Visitors can:
- Hike one (or more) of Sugarloaf’s four trails
- Sit a spell to enjoy a snack or picnic while taking in the stunning views of the Monocacy Valley and the mountains beyond
- Snap a few photos to commemorate your visit.
Entrance Fee: FREE!
= VIRGINIA =
Along the Potomac River lies George Washington Memorial Parkway (referred to by locals as “GW Parkway”), 25-mile parkway running from Mount Vernon to Langley.
Along a large portion of the parkway (I believe it starts around Theodore Roosevelt Island (Entrance Fee: FREE!), there’s a paved path suitable for walking or bike riding with beautiful views along the way.
- Early mornings, you may see rowing teams practicing up and down the Potomac River
- Afternoons or evenings, the Odyssey or the Spirit of Washington may float by
- You can also see various monuments along the way as well as access some great points of interest such as the Arlington National Cemetery (Entrance Fee: FREE!; Parking –$2/hour)
The drive along GW Parkway is nice, but for peak enjoyment, take the path.
Mount Vernon offers way more than George & Martha Washington’s home. In addition to his accomplishments in the military and politics culminating in his role as the first president of the United States, George Washington was also a well-known Virginia farmer with a passion for landscape design and architecture.
Washington took great pleasure in designing the intricate landscaping found throughout the grounds of Mount Vernon. The aspen, dogwood, maple, poplar, and mulberry trees planted throughout the property were personally selected by Washington himself.
Although Mount Vernon is open 365 days each year, an especially good time to visit is during their upcoming Fall Harvest Family Days.
Entrance Fee: $20 for adults; $12 for children
With 15 miles of hiking trails with scenic views and historic ruins along the way, Great Falls is a great place to check out, especially when the leaves are changing. Beginning through advanced hikers can learn about the trails in Great Falls and see them on the park trail map. (Note: None of the trails are paved, they are packed dirt and gravel.)
And of course, seeing the Falls with the Fall foliage in the background? Priceless – and photo-worthy!
Entrance Fee: $20 per vehicle
Shenandoah National Park is one of my go-to places to see the Fall leaves. The winding road through the park runs along the dense forest with scenic views along the way, offering places to pull over and take in the views (great for photo opportunities as well!). Click here to track the progress of the changing leaves in SNP.
There are 500 miles of trails within the park, so hiking is another good option for enjoying the fall foliage. The hike to see Dark Hollow Falls is one of my favorites and is only about 1.5 miles each way. If you’d like to turn your day trip into an overnight or weekend trip, check out one of the lodges or cabins.
Entrance Fee: $25 per vehicle, $20 per motorcycle, or $10 per person
If you want an up-close and personal view of the changing leaves, take a walk, jog, or bike ride along the W&OD. The W&OD offers 45 miles of paved trail from Alexandria, Virginia to Purcellville, Virginia.
Some sections of the path are more rural than others. My favorite section is between Leesburg and Purcellville (about 21 miles roundtrip).
Along the path, you’ll find benches (some of them covered), water fountains, plaques, and signage sharing the W&OD’s history.
If you check out the fall foliage from one of the more scenic parts of the path, you may also see deer, rabbits, and other forms of nature and wildlife.
Entrance Fee: FREE!
And a bonus suggestion for a destination a relatively short drive from DC is …
= WEST VIRGINIA =
Harpers Ferry National Historic Park covers 3,745 acres in three states. It is a popular destination for history buffs, tourists, and outdoor enthusiasts alike.
History buffs will enjoy learning about the town’s place in Civil War history and visiting the archaeological sites. Tourists will love the eclectic mix of shops and restaurants. And outdoor enthusiasts will be able to choose from a wide range of activities including hiking along the 20 miles of trails within the park; taking a guided hike; rafting/tubing/kayaking in the water; and more.
From my experience, the best views of the changing leaves in Harpers Ferry can be seen from:
- Outside of St. Peter’s Catholic Church
- Jefferson’s Rock
- Harper’s Ferry Cemetery (on top of the hill)
- The other side of the railroad tracks where you get a view of the whole town
Entrance Fee: $15 per vehicle