Not too hot, not too cold, and not too far. Fall is the perfect season for off-the-beaten-path adventures in the Mid-Atlantic, whether it's pedaling along a grand canyon, focusing on nature in the mountains, or finding treasure at the end of the trail.
Pennslyvania's Cycling Grand Canyon
Pine Creek Gorge, “The Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania,” keeps a lower profile than its famous namesake. But this natural landmark in the Keystone State’s central northern mountains claims something that the Colorado River canyon can’t: a welcoming boulevard for sightseeing cyclists. The 67-mile Pine Creek Trail, an old freight-rail bed through the glacially cut gorge, passes spectacular scenery and peaceful villages left behind by the lumber boom. It’s free of cars and the only way to see the valley floor. With no hills to climb and a crushed-stone path suitable for road or mountain bikes, it’s easy riding amid sheer cliffs, waterfalls, and peaks ablaze with color.
Nearly 23 access areas dot Pine Creek Trail, which beckons bikers and hikers. Most cyclists push off at Ansonia and pedal south 17 miles to Blackwell through the most breathtaking section, about a leisurely three-hour ride round trip. The “creek” (a whitewater river in wet weather) bends sharply southward near Ansonia, where it joins the trail and passes through an 800-foot-steep gorge. Waterfalls plunge on either side, accessed by mountain trails leading to a pair of parks overlooking the canyon, Leonard Harrison State Park on the canyon’s east rim and rustic Colton Point State Park on the west rim. If you’re too pooped to pedal back to Ansonia, local outfitters provide shuttle service.
South of Blackwell, the trail follows the gorge more than 30 miles before ending where Pine Creek spills into the Susquehanna River, about a five-hour ride. The landscape is more open—a mix of forest, fields, and stream crossings—with lots of shady rest areas, comfort stations, tent-camping sites, and trailside villages (Cedar Run, Slate Run, and Waterville), where you can stock up at a general store or find a room for the night. The creek makes several turns, bending in a big horseshoe near Ramsey as it squeezes past a large mountain. Trail users may see the neighbors out and about, too; deer, wild turkeys, eagles, river otters, and black bears are frequently sighted.
If you prefer a more teeth-rattling ride, mountain biking is first-rate on the forest roads, old logging routes, and narrow mountain trails in surrounding Tioga State Forest. North of Ansonia, the forest’s Asaph section hosts the Laurel Classic Mountain Bike Challenge every fall. Asaph’s narrow (single track) trails can be daunting if not dangerous for all but seasoned riders. Instead, try the super-scenic Wild Apple to Bake Oven Trail on the canyon’s west rim, a not-too-taxing 11-mile ride with eye-popping vistas of Pine Creek Gorge. (For more trails, visit pinecreekbikerides.com.)
Pine Creek Outfitters, located one mile from the bike trail (Route 6, Wellsboro, 570-724-3003), can rent you a bicycle, offer trail tips, and provide a lift back to your four-wheeled vehicle once you’ve cycled as far as you want. Their shuttle makes regular pickups at Blackwell, but other locations can be arranged, too. Just be sure to schedule before you hit the trail; Pine Creek Gorge is where cell-phone signals go to die.
Grab a hearty pancake breakfast at a local institution, the 1930s-era Wellsboro Diner (19 Main St., 570-724-3992), 10 miles east of Ansonia. Open at 6 a.m., this classic diner serves breakfast all day. Don’t forget picnic provisions. Pag-Omar Farms Market at Wellsboro Junction (222 Butler Rd., 570-724-3333), the trail’s northern terminus, sells fresh fruit, deli meats, and other goodies. Northbound cyclists treat themselves here with an ice-cream cone or sundae.
Guests at Bear Mountain Lodge (Route 6, Wellsboro, 570-724-2428) can roll out of their big log beds and practically end up on Pine Creek Trail, which is half a mile away. Each of the woodsy lodge’s three rooms and one suite is equipped with a flat-screen TV, whirlpool or hot tub, Wi-Fi, and a fridge for bottled water, power drinks, and your favorite trail aperitif.
Where to find the best fruit for picking and eating.
Butler’s is the place to go for fall fun, with pick-your-own apples starting in late August. They also have a Pumpkin Festival every weekend in October, which includes hayrides, giant slides, and a straw maze! 22200 Davis Mill Rd., Germantown. 301-972-3299. butlersorchard.com.
This impressive Woodbine farm has a terrific selection of apples come fall. Check the pick-your-own harvest calendar online for a detailed guide of when to expect what type of apple—from Galas in late August to mid-September to Pink Ladies in late October to early November. 2415 Woodbine Rd., Woodbine. Tues.-Fri. 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. 410-422-2605. pickyourown.com.
Milburn’s apple season starts Labor Day weekend. Be sure to try their country-fresh pies, apple-cider donuts, and caramel apples, all made fresh in their Bake Shoppe. 1495 Appleton Rd., Elkton. Market hours: Mon.-Sat. 9 a.m.-7 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. You-pick hours: Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. 410-398-1349. milburnorchards.com.
Weber’s Cider Mill Farm
Kicking off with their Johnny Appleseed Festival the weekend of September 22, apple season at Weber’s Cider Mill Farm offers a great selection. Also, try their fresh-pressed apple cider. Weber’s is the oldest Maryland cider mill in continuous use, so they’re sure to get it right. 2526 Proctor Ln., Parkville. Sept.: 9 a.m.-7 p.m., Oct.: 9 a.m.-8 p.m. 410-668-4488. weberscidermillfarm.com.
Stalking Nature in Western Maryland
Boasting Maryland’s tallest free-falling waterfall, ancient forests of hemlock and spruce, misty bogs filled with rare plants and animals, and peak upon peak of autumn-hued Appalachian wilderness with a honkin’ big lake in the middle, Garrett County is a nature photographer’s playground in the fall. Tear yourself away from the county’s vacation vortex, Deep Creek Lake, and the rental cabins, sports resort, marinas, pubs, and pizzerias in its whirlwind. From the lake, strike out in virtually any direction, and you’ll discover a landscape of infinite photo opportunities, some well-known, some obscure, but all strikingly beautiful.
Swallow Falls State Park
Even before the need for hydroelectricity created manmade Deep Creek Lake in the 1920s, outdoorsmen would hike through the deep, silent forest east of the Youghiogheny River to camp beside Muddy Creek as it rushed toward a 53-foot waterfall that today lures multitudes of visitors. The state’s tallest, Muddy Creek Falls is but one of four waterfalls that cascade through this 257-acre park. They skip down rocks smoothed over centuries, collecting in deep pools that can be reached via footpaths and stairways. (Don’t forget a tripod for time-exposure shots of the tumbling water.) Towering old-growth hemlocks help to frame this setting worthy of Ansel Adams. (Info: 301-387-6938.)
Cranesville Swamp Nature Preserve
This sub-arctic “frost pocket,” a peat bog that hoards cold air and moisture, is an at-risk environmental anomaly left behind by the last ice age. Sharp-eyed shutterbugs can train their lenses on flora and fauna more familiar to Canadians than to most neighbors of this nearly 2,000-acre Nature Conservancy-protected sanctuary straddling the Maryland/West Virginia border. Look close as you hike any of five trails, and you may spot a carnivorous sundew plant noshing on a moth. Bring your telephoto lens; ravens often soar overhead. And that odd evergreen with the spindly yellow needles isn’t sick; it’s a tamarack (better known to arborists and Monty Python fans as a larch), a northern species that sheds needles in the fall. Cranesville isn’t the only primordial peat lands hereabouts: The lesser-known, 326-acre Finzel Swamp in northeastern Garrett County is home to cranberry plants, wild calla lilies, and secretive sedge wrens.
Professional photographer and eco-tour guide Crede Calhoun knows these lands and waters like the settings on his trusty Nikon. On nature photography workshops, he leads amateurs and aspiring pros alike into his favorite sites for a full or half day of hike-and-learn instruction. That “automatic” setting on your camera? Fugetaboutit. Calhoun will quickly have you experimenting with exposure, composition, focus, and depth of field while training your eye to see the sublime in even a mundane patch of soggy leaves. (Info: 800-446-7554; for a list of workshops, deepcreeklakefamilyactivities.com.)
Archie’s, the barbecue emporium known for a pigout called the Mountain Man Food Challenge, also serves luscious leaner cuts like smoked-turkey sandwiches and wraps (25259 Garrett Hwy., McHenry, 301-387-7400). You can’t beat the views or the brews at Mountain State Brewing Company’s hilltop restaurant/pub (6690 Sang Run Rd., McHenry, 301-387-3360). Try their Seneca Indian Pale Ale, a hoppy indigenous IPA. Before you head home, hit FireFly Farms market for some of the organic merchant’s award-winning, locally sourced goat cheeses (107 S. Main St., Accident, 301-746-8188).
Perched on a hillside in the midst of a state forest, Savage River Lodge (1600 Mt. Aetna Rd., Frostburg, 301-689-3200) is the kind of rustically chic retreat your cool uncle might build for himself—and a couple dozen friends. With 18 private cabins and a main lodge that houses a gourmet restaurant, it hits all the right notes: comfy country accommodations, porches, hiking trails, a native trout stream, and room for Fido, too.
For baking or carving, there’s a great gourd for you.
Glade Link Farms
Glade Link’s fall season starts on September 15, bringing pick-your-own pumpkins, green beans, winter squash, and more! 12270 Woodsboro Pike, Keymar. 9 a.m.- 5 p.m. Closed Tues. and Thurs. 301-898-7131. gladelink.com.
Homestead has a huge selection of apples and pumpkins in the fall, with hayrides out to the pumpkin patches on weekends in October. 15604 Sugarland Rd., Poolesville. Mon.-Sun. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. 301-977-3761. homestead-farm.net.
Jumbo’s Pumpkin Patch
With 15 acres of pumpkins to choose from, hayrides, a petting zoo, and a corn maze, Jumbo’s offers tons of family fun. 6521 Holter Rd., Middletown. Pick-your-own pumpkins and hayrides: Fri.-Sun. 10 a.m.-5:45 p.m. 301-371-6874. jumbos.org.
Rodgers’ Farms at North Run Farm
In addition to pick-your-own pumpkins, the farm has one of the most impressive corn mazes around. Opens the third week in September. 1818 Greenspring Valley Rd., Stevenson. Fri. 12-6 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. 410-241-3392. northrunfarm.com.
Sharp’s at Waterford Farm
On weekends, this Howard County farm offers free hayrides to their pumpkin patches. 4003 Jennings Chapel Rd., Brookeville. Mon.-Fri., beginning Oct. 5, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. 410-489-2572. sharpfarm.com.
Starting September 22, this farm offers more than a pumpkin patch, with fun activities like pig races. 5614 Butterfly Ln., Frederick. Times vary. 301-620-9316. summersfarm.com.
Hunt For A Treasure In West Virginia
Combine satellite technology with the thrill of a treasure hunt and what do you get? Geocaching. Created 12 years ago by GPS-infatuated techies, the sport (hobby? obsession? you decide) has soared in popularity. Armed with a handheld GPS unit or a GPS-enabled smartphone, participants use coordinates obtained online to find “caches,” cleverly hidden, weatherproof containers holding trinkets for trading and a logbook for recording your name. If that sounds like techno fun, there’s no better place for newbies (called “muggles”) to try their handhelds than along the trails of West Virginia’s parks and forests. Think of it as hiking with prizes.
Cacapon Resort State Park
This 6,000-acre park, nine miles south of Berkeley Springs, has the largest collection of caches among all state parks in West Virginia, a dozen at last count. To find every one of them, visitors literally must search high and low, from the summit of 2,300-foot Cacapon Mountain to the swimming beach on Cacapon Lake. Bring a GPS unit; cellphone service is spotty in the park. Practice by finding close-by caches near the parking lot and the beach, then take your treasure hunting to the next level. Drive or hike up the mountain for dazzling views of the countryside and a series of challenging caches tucked along the summit’s fire road. (Info: 304-258-1022.)
Lost River State Park
Sixty miles farther south, this 3,700-acre park features its own geological game of hide-and-seek. Built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (whose handiwork survives in more than a dozen rustic rental cabins), the park is named for what are actually the headwaters of the Cacapon River. As it flows northeast, Lost River disappears into a channel beneath Sandy Ridge only to reappear on the other side of the mountain as the Cacapon River. Finding Lost River Park’s Cranny Crow Overlook cache entails a 3.5-mile hike, but the rewards are so worth it. The overlook atop Big Ridge (elevation 3,200 feet) offers a vista of mountains and valleys stretching across two states. (Info: 304-897-5372.)
Treasure seekers can obtain trail maps at the respective state park offices, but before hitting the trail, be sure to consult the go-to source for all things geocaching: geocaching.com. The website offers coordinates, clues, and site information for locating geocaches in West Virginia and other states. It’s also where triumphant geocachers register their discoveries, vying for the coveted title FTF (First to Find).
At Panorama at the Peak (3299 Cacapon Rd., Berkeley Springs, 304-258-0050) enjoy views of three states, two rivers, and the provenance of the organic produce, beef, and poultry on which you’re dining. Save room for fresh-fruit cobbler with a scoop of local Homestead Creamery vanilla ice cream. A foodie find in rural Hardy County, Lost River Brewing Company (155 W. Main St., Wardensville, 304-874-4455) serves comfort food like applewood-smoked pork, bison meatloaf, and crab cakes. Try their pale ale paired with shucked oysters straight from Virginia’s Northern Neck, where the brewery owner’s brother runs Nate’s Trick Dog Cafe, an acclaimed restaurant in Irvington.
A mountain lodge with urban comforts, The Guesthouse (288 Settlers Valley Way, Lost River, 304-897-5707) nestles on a forested hillside. The spacious main lodge and five separate buildings, including two cottages, hold 18 luxury guest rooms. There’s also a gym and spa, where guests can work out to views of George Washington National Forest; a farmhouse-style, fine-dining restaurant; and lots of space to lounge, read, or relax in a rocking chair.
Here are some great places to view the brilliance of fall.
Harpers Ferry National
Historical Park Covering the intersection of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia, this historic community offers hiking trails through former battlefields, museum exhibits, and much more. 171 Shoreline Dr., Harpers Ferry, WV. 304-535-6029. nps.gov/hafe.
George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate, Museum, & Gardens
George Washington’s former home is host to four separate gardens spread over six acres of land, each serving a different purpose, from producing fruits and vegetables to growing flowers. 3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Hwy., Alexandria, VA. 703-780-2000. mountvernon.org.
Patapsco Valley State Park
Come see the vibrant fall foliage, including oaks and red maple leaves, along the state park’s many hiking trails. 8020 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City. 410-461-5005. dnr.state.md.us/publiclands.
Shenandoah National Park
With 200,000 acres of protected lands and 75 overlooks, one is sure to see the colors of autumn here. 3655 Hwy. 211 East, Luray, VA. 540-999-3500. nps.gov/shen.
Strasburg Rail Road
Take the train across acres of Amish farmland in Lancaster County, PA, during the fall harvest. Rt. 741 East, Strasburg, PA. 717-687-7522. strasburgrailroad.com.
See the leaves change colors from 1,282 feet above sea level. In addition to the spectacular view, Sugarloaf offers miles of trails, where visitors can hike or ride horses. 7901 Comus Rd., Dickerson. 301-874-2024. sugarloafmd.com.