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The Great Outdoors: the fall/winter getaway guide

Autumn, as the leaves turn color and the landscapes become brilliant, is a perfect time to explore the Great Outdoors. Stay right here in the United States and head to Maryland, Alabama, Georgia, or Pennsylvania, where you can enjoy nature at its peak while you camp, hike, fish, boat, watch birds, or simply relax and enjoy the setting.

Start your Maryland adventure in the Capital Region, just outside of Washington, D.C. Pretty Frederick County, set amid the Appalachian Mountains and Piedmont Plateau, is dotted with farms, vineyards, and covered bridges. Lilypons Water Gardens (301-874-5503), in Buckeystown, is the largest water garden in the United States, with over 300 acres of lily blossom and lotus blossom ponds. It is also a good place for bird watching; call ahead (800-999-5459) to book a guided bird walk, where you might see tree swallows, red-winged blackbirds, egrets, herons, warblers, purple martins, and mocking birds. From October to February, the gardens are open from Monday to Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

In Montgomery County, hike through the forty-acre Audubon Naturalist Society sanctuary (301-652-9188) in Chevy Chase, which has a self-guided nature trail, pond, wildflower meadow, and butterfly garden. You might also hike or bike on the nearly level towpath in the C&O Canal National Historic Park and view the Great Falls of the Potomac River. The canal, which operated from 1828 to 1924, follows the route of the Potomac River, and hundreds of original structures, including locks, lock houses, and aqueducts, remain.

Situated on southern Maryland's coastal plain, Charles County is surrounded by water: on the east and south by the Potomac River, on the west by the Wicomico River, and on the north by the Mattawoman Creek. Fall is a perfect time to try the new trail at Friendship Farm Park, an excellent place to kayak, canoe, or boat and to spot bald eagles and monarchs amid the autumn foliage. Nanjemoy Creek, which winds through miles of scenic marshes abounding with wildlife, has a large population of bald eagles. A free boat ramp, adjacent to deep water, is a designated free fishing zone (no license required by shoreline and pier anglers). Fishing enthusiasts also should explore the Potomac River, home to large mouth and striped bass ("rockfish" to the locals). Stripers, Maryland's state fish, are found year-round here. The main fiver, as well as its Maryland and Virginia tributaries, can be fished with a Maryland tidal license ($14, or buy a 5-day license for $6).

Nearby Calvert County is holding two special events this fall: the Rock 'N The Bay Seafood Festival (October 2, 11:00-7:00 p.m.; tel. 410-535-2577) and the Patuxent River Appreciation Days (October 9-10, 10:00-5:00 p.m.; tel. 410-326-2042). The seafood festival, at Kellam Field in Chesapeake Beach, features entertainment by Deana Bogart, a seafood cook-off, and a host of food vendors. The annual river appreciation days, at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, celebrate Maryland's largest interstate river with boat tides, visits to the Drum Point Lighthouse, music, and children's activities.

Across the Bay, visit Dorchester County, in the state's "Lower Shore." Located between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, this part of Maryland is known as the "land between the waters." In Cambridge, the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is an important nesting and feeding area for wild geese, osprey, swans, owls, muskrats, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and rare Delmarva fox squirrels. The Ninth Annual Blackwater Open House, on October 2 (8:00 a.m.- 4:00 p.m.), would be a wonderful way to become acquainted with the sanctuary, which was founded in 1933.

But for a more contemplative exploration, plan to canoe or kayak through the Blackwater River as it makes its way through open water and marsh (purchase a waterproof paddling map at www.friendsofblackwater.org before you enter a trail). As you explore the tidal marshes and brackish ponds, remember to look upward from time to time: for osprey and terns diving in the sky and bald eagles on top of the tallest pines. In October and November, as many as 50,000 migrating geese, ducks, and tundra swans stop at the refuge during their voyage along the Atlantic Flyway.

Just north of Dorchester is Talbot County, also bordering the Chesapeake Bay. Tilghman Island Marina is a perfect place to rent a sailboat, canoe, kayak, crabbing or fishing boat, or even a bicycle. Here, you can book a half-day kayak tour of the Poplar Islands combined with a tour around the Chesapeake Bay shore. The towns of Easton, St. Michaels, Tilghman Island, and Oxford are known for their delectable food: don't leave Talbot without a meal at one of their fine restaurants.

After exploring Talbot, head to Maryland's only ocean-front county: Worcester. Here, the Pocomoke River State Park has nature trails through stands of loblolly pine and cypress swamps, indoor exhibits, and areas for bird watching and fishing (you will need to obtain a Chesapeake Bay Sports Fishing License to fish the Pocomoke and nearby creeks). In Snow Hill, the county seat, enjoy Celtic music and Highland culinary delights at the Chesapeake Celtic Festival (October 2-3; admission is $11 for adults and $3 for children; tel. 410-632-2032). The festival takes place at the Furnace Town Living Heritage Museum, a nineteenth-century industrial village set in the Pocomoke Forest, with exhibits to view and nature trails to explore.

In Alabama's Gulf Coast and Orange Beach, fall brings a migration of monarch butterflies and a burst of vibrantly hued wildflowers. Hikers will enjoy several Alabama wildlife areas where they can gaze at gators and shorebirds. Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge (251-540-7720), a 6,200-acre refuge with beach access, is a great place to see the large migratory bird stopover in October. Catch bass, bluegill, and bream in the 40-acre freshwater Gator Lake; or cast for trout and flounder or scoop up crabs in the nearby lagoon.

For a deep-sea adventure, take a charter trip for some inshore and offshore saltwater fishing. Go after elusive blue marlin, yellow fin tuna, amberjack, cobia, and red snapper, or take an educational dolphin sightseeing tour.

In Fort Morgan, don't miss the Fall Bird Banding (October 9-23; 251-968-7511), sponsored by the Hummer/Bird Study Group, which will record height, weight, health, and species of the many birds heading south for the winter. The Alabama Coastal Birdfest (October 14-17; 251-990-0420) in Fairhope features birding field trips along the state's Coastal Birding Trail.

October is fishing month on Little St. Simons, a privately owned barrier island off the Georgia coast. Each fall, the island's Lodge becomes an angler's paradise as redfish, sea trout, flounder, and other species migrate through its tidal creeks and near-shore waters. Call for the best fishing tides (tel. 888-733-5774). Little St. Simons will feature instruction in both fly-fishing and surf-casting and offer chef-prepared menus loaded with "Today's Catch."

In the fall, the Pocono of Pennsylvania are ablaze with fall colors. And until November 2, leaf peepers can call a twenty-four-hour fall foliage hotline (570-421-5565) telling them exactly when and where to catch peak colors through out the region. The Stourbridge Rail Line, in Honesdale, is offering Fall Foliage Excursions (October 2-3, 9-10, 16-17). These five-hour train rides ($25 adults, $15 for children) let visitors revel in the breathtaking colors along the shimmering Lackawaxen River and view deer, herons, bears, and more.

In addition in brilliant colors, the Poconos offers visitors numerous falls festivals. The 20th Annual Shawnee Autumn Balloon Festival (October 15-17, Shawnee Inn & Golf Resort, Shawnee-on-Delaware) includes a balloon glow and fireworks Friday night, hot-air balloon launches Saturday and Sunday (with a spectacular view of the foliage), exhibits, rides, and plenty of fun for the entire family.

Before you embark on any end-of-the-year adventure--whether to Maryland, Alabama, Georgia, or Pennsylvania--pick up a free copy of L.L. Bean's Fall Catalog or the L.L. Bean Guide to Winter Warmth (800-441-5713). You'll find hundreds of great buys, from time-tested classics to a wide selection of new items, to make your autumn and winter adventures easier. Visit llbean.com to browse through a variety of outfits and a full array of hiking gear. The website's "Explore the Outdoors" section offers products that will prepare you for any camping, hiking, cycling, fly-fishing, paddling, or winter sports.

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