- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 19, 2000

You can practically feel the chill in the air when Lyn Rothgeb talks about autumn.

Mrs. Rothgeb, a public affairs specialist for Shenandoah National Park, doesn't need much prompting to talk about the park's fall attractions.

"The deer coats are beginning to grow," she says. "Bucks are rubbing off their velvet, getting ready for the mating season in September. The color will usually linger into November. If the weather stays nice, you'll see some spots of oftentimes brilliant color in November. You'll be walking down a trail, acorns crunching under your feet and the leaves crunching under your feet you'll want to come back two or three times."

No wonder Skyline Drive, the 105-mile feature attraction of the park, attracts families looking for colorful fall foliage. The park entertained 1.35 million visitors last year, considerably below its average of 1.7 million over the last 10 years, Mrs. Rothgeb says, and between 300,000 and 400,000 visited during the month of October alone.

"When you spread those figures out over the month of October and spread it out over 105 miles and 60-some overlooks and 516 miles of trails, that is not overcrowded," she says. "Weekends in October will be busy, but I would be quite hesitant to call them overcrowded."

Other places to see the fall colors include the National Arboretum and Rock Creek Park, both in the District. Each offers plenty of scenery. On the Maryland side, there is the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Brookside Gardens in Wheaton and the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel.

Mrs. Rothgeb says the peak leaf viewing season at Shenandoah is usually Oct. 5-25, but that's as close an estimate as anyone there can make.

"Mother Nature decides every year," she says. "When we talk about fall peaking, it's hard to say because it peaks at one elevation at one time and another at another time. It really begins in September when the air starts to get a little bit colder at night. When you get those sharp sunny days and cold nights, 45 degrees or so, that starts bringing on the color change."

At the National Arboretum, the summerlong "Big Bugs" exhibit winds down with a festival day on Oct. 21, when the foliage there is expected to be at its peak of color.

The last "full moon picnic" will be held from 7 to 10 p.m. Oct. 13, providing families who register a chance to bring a picnic dinner and enjoy the park after hours. A naturalist will lead the group on a guided walk through the arboretum.

The arboretum's bonsai museum will hold a fall foliage show Oct. 28 through Nov. 5, with bonsai picked especially for their foliage.

"The arboretum is about 40 percent naturally wooded," says Mary Ann Jarvis, its program coordinator. "So in addition to the gardens and collections, which take on their own special look in the fall, the native woodlands are very pretty to look at."

Families who are looking for a place to picnic as well as see colors might want to check out Rock Creek Park, one of the few fall foliage sites with picnic areas. The park also has plenty of biking and hiking trails. Another overlooked foliage site, Mrs. Jarvis says, is right downtown at the U.S. Capitol.

"The grounds of the U.S. Capitol building are right in our back yard, and it's a wonderful place for families with smaller children who want to do something short," she says. "You can go around and really appreciate the beauty there."

The Beltsville Agricultural Research Center has an added bonus of animals as well as leaves to see. Sandy Miller Hays, a spokeswoman for the center, says families are welcome to drive through the center anytime during its hours of operation. Most of the buildings are closed on the weekends, and families are prohibited from touching any of the cows, sheep and horses.

"It is really a very pretty place in the fall," Ms. Hays says. "The National Visitor Center on Powder Mill Road is open during the weekdays, and it's a beautiful setting. It's a log cabin lodge built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during FDR's administration."

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