- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 15, 2005

Wheaton Regional Park is really several parks located in an otherwise largely developed section of Montgomery County. Whether you drop in to swing on the swings, take a hike or simply enjoy the fall colors, there is plenty to do.

“For being in Wheaton, it is so nice and quiet in here,” says Lynette Scaffida, naturalist at the park’s Brookside Nature Center. “You could look at the birds at the bird feeders, play on the playground, have a picnic and easily make a day of it.”

Brookside Nature Center is a good place to start for families with young children. The Woodland Walk, a winding wooden boardwalk that leads to the nature center, can be a destination in itself. The walk is lined with interactive stations where little ones can touch, hear and even smell to identify the chirp of different birds or the scent carried by different varieties of tree bark.

The nature center hosts a variety of family programs, including popular preschool offerings. The center also welcomes drop-in visits. Snakes, turtles and other wildlife are housed there, and there’s a hands-on room where visitors can look at rocks and minerals under a microscope or play with animal-themed toys.

Outside the nature center are hiking trails that eventually lead to the paths into Brookside Gardens, the fabulous 50-acre area that is the highlight of the property.

Brookside Gardens features 11 gardens, including a fragrance garden, a rose garden, a 7-acre azalea garden, a Japanese teahouse, a winter garden and aquatic gardens. There also are two indoor conservatories.

Brookside Gardens attracts serious gardeners who look to the plantings and the extensive library at the visitors center for inspiration and information. A nice day, however, finds all types enjoying the scenery — fitness walkers of all ages, moms with young children in strollers, even an art class with easels set up outdoors to capture the scenery.

“This really is a four-season park,” says Diane Lewis, a guide supervisor at Brookside Gardens. Ms. Lewis has worked at the gardens for 35 years, both as a volunteer and as a paid employee.

“There is something to see here just about every minute,” she says. “There are people coming through here all times of the year. My favorite is spring because there is so much to look forward to, but fall is so beautiful, too.”

A good family destination in Brookside Gardens is the Fairy Folk Garden, a children’s garden that features an “enchanted path” through a garden populated by fairies and elves. Near each plot is a poem, such as “The Song of the Iris Fairy” near the irises.

Finally, the Shorefield area of the park is for pure fun. The playground is built in sections to accommodate children from the smallest toddlers to the most active grade-schoolers. There are huge play structures and slides as well as animal statues to climb and immobile wooden “cars” to drive. Much of the playground is shaded, and it is close to the park’s picnic facilities.

Just past the play area are the park’s carousel and miniature train. The carousel is a restored 1915 model, and the train is a miniature replica of an 1863 C.P. Huntington engine. Both recently closed for the season; they run from May through September. The train, however, reopens tomorrow for a special two-week Haunted Train Ride. The ride will be open from 6 to 9 p.m. nightly to take patrons on a spooky ride through the park.

Other features of the park include Pine Lake, a 5-acre fishing lake; equestrian trails and a stable; ball fields and tennis courts; and in-line and ice-skating rinks.

When you go:

Location: Wheaton Regional Park is located at 2000 Shorefield Road in Wheaton.

Directions: From the Beltway, take Georgia Avenue north. Take a right on Shorefield Road and follow it to the park entrance.

Hours: Open daily, year-round, sunrise to sunset. Brookside Nature Center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. The Brookside Gardens visitors center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Admission: Free

Parking: Free parking is available in several lots.

More information: 301/946-9071 or www.mc-mncppc.org.

Notes:

• Wheaton Regional Park, operated by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, has several parks within it, including a playground, train and carousel; Brookside Gardens, a 50-acre botanical oasis; and Brookside Nature Center. There also are several miles of paved and natural hiking trails as well as athletic fields, tennis courts and skating rinks.

• Brookside Nature Center and Brookside Gardens have many family and youth programs.

• Food, pets and bicycles are prohibited in Brookside Gardens.

• Picnic areas, covered pavilions, grills and restrooms can be found near the playground.

Upcoming events:

• Haunted Train Ride, 6 to 9 p.m. tomorrow through Oct. 30.

• Fairy Tale Hike, 5 to 7:30 p.m. Oct. 29. The Fairy Tale hike is for children of all ages. They can hike in Halloween costumes and meet fairy-tale creatures in the forest. Reservations are required. Fee: $5 for children, $2 for adults.

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