Admit it: You’ve got cabin fever, and it’s getting harder to resist. It was easy enough to put off leaving the house in the summer, when the heat and humidity made going farther than the local park a chore. But now the trees are exploding with vibrant colors, and cool temperatures and dappled sunlight are an inviting reason for a short road trip to a national park, an outdoor sculpture garden or a picturesque red covered bridge.
Whether you want to spend a day or a couple of hours exploring, one of these options will inspire you to discover something new. Stops are listed in the order in which we made them, but the itineraries can easily be reordered or shortened depending on your schedule.
The Bridges of Frederick County
Of the six covered bridges still in use in Maryland, Frederick County is home to three, all of which are on the National Register of Historic Places. Take an afternoon to see and drive through these romantic spans, visiting historic sites, hiking trails and one very impressive slide along the way.
Stop 1: Utica Mills Covered Bridge
This secluded covered bridge is the longest in Frederick County, and it’s hard to believe it was once almost twice as long. The original bridge crossed the Monocacy River on the nearby Devilbliss Road from around 1850 until 1889, when it was washed away by a flood. Half of the bridge was saved and reconstructed in this spot, over the much calmer Fishing Creek. The 101-foot span is on a quieter road than the other covered bridges, meaning it’s easier to walk through, but it also has fewer amenities: There’s a small layby just over the north side of the bridge, with room for two or three cars to park while taking photos and admiring the wooden arches inside. The bright red wooden structure, surrounded by fields and lazing cattle, easily transports visitors to a much simpler time — especially if you’ve driven up Interstate 270 to get there. 7720 Utica Rd., Frederick.
Stop 2: Catoctin Iron Furnace
A large furnace in the Catoctin Mountains began turning ore into pig iron in 1776. It provided cannonballs for George Washington’s army at Yorktown and steel plates for the U.S. Navy’s first ironclad warship during the Civil War. Today, the remains of a three-story stone furnace known as “Isabella” stand in the Catoctin Furnace Historic District, surrounded by a village of 18th- and 19th-century structures. The chimneylike furnace is impressive, but there are better reasons to pull off Route 15: a wide, grassy lawn for picnics; the dramatic ruins of the iron master’s 18th-century mansion; and two self-guided walking trails, one of which leads to an African American cemetery in the neighboring woods. 12698 Catoctin Furnace Rd., Thurmont.
Stop 3: Catoctin Mountain Park
Catoctin Mountain Park is known for its hiking trails, scenic views and for being home to Camp David, the presidential retreat. As soon as you get out of the car, you can get on a trail: From the visitors’ center parking lot, there’s a 2.8-mile hike leading to Cunningham Falls, Maryland’s highest cascading waterfall, or an easy 0.6-mile walk through the woods to the Blue Blazes Whiskey Still, a famous moonshine operation that was raided by police during Prohibition. The kaleidoscope of fall colors is best enjoyed from higher elevations, so spend a few hours on one of the longer trails, or drive your car up the steep slopes to the parking lots near the Thurmont Vista or Blue Ridge Summit Vista. At the latter, you’ll only need to climb for around a third of a mile before you’re rewarded with stunning views of the mountains. 14707 Park Central Rd., Thurmont.
Stop 4: Roddy Road Covered Bridge
A picturesque red structure over a rocky stream, the Rocky Road Covered Bridge is the archetype of covered bridges. If the cozy 40-foot span looks almost too perfect for a bridge that dates from 1856, that’s because it was extensively repaired after an oversize box truck drove through it in June 2016, destroying the cross beams and rendering much of the original structure unusable. A small park next to the bridge offers swings, covered picnic tables, restrooms and access to the banks of Owens Creek. 14760 Roddy Rd., Thurmont.
Stop 5: Loy’s Station Covered Bridge
Drive south through the Roddy Road bridge on the way to the third of Frederick County’s covered bridges, the Loy’s Station Covered Bridge. This one also dates before the Civil War — there are stories that the Union army crossed it before and after the battle of Gettysburg, and a Civil War historic marker is in the park next door — though the bridge was almost destroyed by arson in 1991 and was rebuilt using as many original materials as possible. This is the easiest covered bridge to enjoy, with park areas on both sides of Owens Creek. The northern side has a pull-off for a few cars, and a picnic table and grill with easy access to the creek; through the bridge, Loy’s Station Park has a large playground, picnic pavilions, horseshoe pits and trails. 13506 Old Frederick Rd., Rocky Ridge.
At 35 feet tall and 100 feet long, the Big Slide lives up to its name. Built by volunteers in 1950, the slide, which resembles a covered bridge, has delighted generations of children, who slide down the hardwood boards and are dumped in a pile of sawdust, before clambering out and scampering up the steps to do it again. (Burlap sacks are provided at the park, but parents in the know bring kid-sized towels from home.) In addition to the slide, the park contains playgrounds, picnic areas and other ways for kids to stretch their legs. 13616 Motters Station Rd., Rocky Ridge.
The bright lights of Southern Maryland
You don’t have to head for the mountains to be charmed by fall: Southern Maryland’s lighthouses, museums and a forest full of sculptures are just as rewarding — especially with the chance to try a regional delicacy.
Stop 1: Calvert Marine Museum
The Calvert Marine Museum tells the story of Southern Maryland’s waters, touching on the megalodons that left their fossils in Calvert Cliffs millions of years ago, battles in the War of 1812 and the more recent boatbuilding and seafood industries. Like many museums, it has adapted to the current situation with reduced capacity, one-way traffic through exhibits and two midday closures to allow for cleaning high-touch areas. (Visitors can reserve tickets for two-hour blocks starting at 10 a.m., 12:30 p.m. or 3 p.m., but sadly, they’re no longer allowed to pet the skates and rays that swim in an indoor tank.) The museum also has a large outdoor area, with historic boats, an otter habitat, a walkway through a marsh and the historic Drum Point Lighthouse, which was moved to the museum in 1975. On Thursdays and Fridays through Oct. 31, visitors can take a one-hour cruise around Solomons Island on the Wm. B. Tennison, a converted oyster dredge boat. The tour sets sail at 2 p.m., so plan on touring the museum after. 14200 Solomons Island Rd., Solomons. Open daily. Museum admission $4-$9; Cruises $4-$7. Both free for ages 5 and younger.
It’s not often that a walk in the woods leads to a modern sculpture by Jules Olitski, Minoru Niizuma or Gerhard Marcks, but that’s what makes the Annmarie Sculpture Garden one of the area’s most engaging art experiences. Visitors to the 30-acre sculpture garden follow trails winding past clearings and under the trees. Sometimes the art is next to the path, and sometimes it’s first seen from a distance. (In the case of “A Surveyor’s Map,” by Maryland artists Jann Rosen-Queralt and Roma Campanile, the art itself is meant to be explored.) While the sculpture garden has its own permanent collection and indoor art space, much of the art is on loan, including 23 pieces from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and two from the National Gallery of Art’s collection. With areas for children, including a riverside playhouse; plant displays; and a separate “Women’s Walk” looking at bronze female forms, this is a garden that appeals to many different audiences. 13470 Dowell Rd., Solomons. Open daily. Suggested donation $5.
Stop 3: Historic Sotterly
Once owned by one of the first governors of Maryland, and restored by the daughter and son-in-law of J.P. Morgan, this Tidewater plantation has become more famous in recent years, thanks to the efforts of Baltimore resident Agnes Kane Callum. While tracing her family history, she learned that her grandfather had been born enslaved at Sotterly in 1860 and that Sotterly had an original slave cabin that was still standing. Today’s tours of Sotterly do not gloss over the cabin, where as many as a dozen enslaved people lived and slept in a 16-by-18-foot space. Nor do they ignore that a ship carrying 218 Africans from the Gold Coast docked at Sotterly in 1720, where the human cargo was unloaded and sold. There are, of course, other parts to the Sotterly story, including the farm buildings, the lovely gardens and the early-18th-century house, which is a National Historic Landmark. But by telling the whole story — including how, at the 1864 Battle of Petersburg, a former enslaved person fought against the son of a plantation owner — Sotterly has become a model for others to follow. 44300 Sotterley Ln., Hollywood. Open daily. Guided outdoor tours available Friday through Sunday through Nov. 22. $5; $10 tour. Children 5 and younger free.
Stop 4: W.J. Dent
If you’re not from Southern Maryland, you might not be familiar with stuffed ham, and it’s probably time to fix that. Stuffed ham is a regional dish that’s often served around holidays, usually Easter or Thanksgiving, and made by filling a corned ham with a mix of cabbage, collard greens, kale or whatever else the chef’s tastes call for, plus a mix of pepper and other seasonings, and then wrapping the whole thing in cheesecloth and boiling it. There’s debate about where the recipe and preparation come from — probably a mix of English and African traditions — but what’s important is that it tastes good. There aren’t many places still making stuffed ham year-round, but one of them is W.J. Dent, a grocery and deli that’s been in Tall Timbers since 1927. You can buy stuffed ham by the pound, in egg rolls, or as a to-go sandwich. Grab the latter ($7.50) and a soda before hopping in the car one more time. 44584 Tall Timbers Rd., Tall Timbers. Open Wednesday through Sunday.
The oldest lighthouse on the Potomac River has been sitting on this spot since 1836. The conical white tower is squat (38 feet tall) and efficient, not like the elegant screw-pile Drum Point Light. Years of silting means it’s no longer right on the water. But the Piney Point Lighthouse, visited by presidents Franklin Pierce and Theodore Roosevelt when this area was a fashionable escape from Washington, is a survivor. The nearby museum is closed, but the park includes a long recreational fishing pier, a shady spot with picnic tables, a sandy beach and a few historic markers. From the pier, you can sit on a wooden bench and look for ospreys, or just watch the tide roll in while gazing across the Potomac. 44720 Lighthouse Rd., Piney Point.
A smarter way to approach Skyline Drive
Over the first weekend of October, 14,000 cars entered Shenandoah National Park. If that sounds like a lot, it is — the same period in 2019 saw 7,000 cars arriving. The second weekend in October saw cars waiting up to two hours at the park entrances, says Claire Comer, an interpretive specialist at the park.
As a result, Comer says, “Everything is crowded. We have 500 miles of trails, so it is possible” to experience nature without seeing many other people, as long as you avoid the biggest draws. In fact, the National Park Service now publishes a list of off-the-beaten-path trails in the park, because “we’re assuming that most people are looking for an experience that doesn’t include those types of crowds.”
Like Old Rag, for example. “Old Rag — just don’t do it on a weekend,” Comer says. “Just don’t.” Parking lots are usually full by 9 a.m., and on a recent weekend, there was a two-hour wait to go up the section of rock scrambles known as the Chute.
This doesn’t mean you need to avoid visiting Shenandoah — just approach it differently. The reason the Front Royal entrances get so backed up, Comer says, is because visitors from the D.C. area drive straight out I-66, and then through Front Royal. Instead, take Route 29 south and enter the park via U.S. 211, which enters the park at Thornton Gap, east of Luray, or U.S. 33 for the Swift Run Entrance Station. And no matter what, when you get on Skyline Drive, keep driving. “Go further in,” Comer advises. “What’s happening is the first four or five overlooks [closest to the entrance] are crowded. There are 65 of these, guys, the length of Skyline Drive.”
Pro tip: Purchase a vehicle pass from recreation.gov in advance, which will allow you to use a “pass lane” instead of waiting in line with cars paying cash. Also, make sure you download the pass to your phone or print it out — you might not have cellphone reception at all park gates.
If you follow Comer’s advice, we like getting on the highway at Route 29, and taking a drive through the country toward Sperryville and Little Washington. Here are stops for before, or after, your leaf-peeping adventures.
Chef Andrea Pace, formerly of Fairfax’s Villa Mozart, serves the cuisine of his native Sud Tyrol, the region where Northern Italy meets Western Austria. That’s reflected in the dishes, such as the chef’s “signature rye ravioli, so thin you can see the fresh spinach slipped inside, and rounded out with mountain cheese,” reported food critic Tom Sietsema in a 2018 review. Since the restaurant and inn reopened in May, Pace and partner Reem Arbid have served guests outside, on the spacious covered patio, from Thursday through Sunday, except during inclement weather. 675 Zachary Taylor Hwy., Flint Hill. Open Thursday through Sunday.
The owners of this winery have an outsize presence in the tiny, historic village of Washington, with the Wine Loves Chocolate shop on Main Street a block south of the renowned Inn at Little Washington, and two wine-tasting rooms, the Little Washington Winery on Christmas Tree Lane, and the Little Washington Winery at Skyline Vineyard, just to the east. Sipping a peppery cab franc on the patio or at an Adirondack chair on the lawn, with a view of Old Rag and the mountains in the Shenandoah National Park in the distance, is a nice reward after a long drive. The tasting’s room’s “Dirt Road Tour” allows visitors to taste the winery’s own products in a flight alongside similar wines from Europe and South America, which is something you don’t see at most Virginia wineries. 72 Christmas Tree Ln., Washington. Open Thursday through Monday.
Pen Druid is one of the most fascinating breweries in the Mid-Atlantic, wholeheartedly embracing techniques like spontaneous fermentation, brewing with wood-fueled fires and aging in wooden wine and spirits barrels. Beer lovers often had to make an effort to get out to the brewery’s converted apple barn in Sperryville, but they were sure to be rewarded with intriguing sour ales closer to Belgian-style lambics, sometimes aged on local fruit.
Now, there’s a completely different experience to enjoy: Earlier this month, Pen Druid moved to farmland just outside Sperryville’s main drag, where a small taproom is surrounded by acres of green grass, picnic tables and priceless views of the mountains. Even when dozens of cars fill the parking lot, there’s still room for adults to picnic and kids to run and turn somersaults. When the three brothers who run Pen Druid agreed to take over the land last year, “We thought, this is going to be great — we’ll have a killer taproom and all this room for people to hang out,” says Jennings Carney. “I want the customer to feel like you’re on a working farm. Just go out and spend some time, sit and be in the farm.” Carney’s immersive vision was inspired by a visit to vineyards in the Rhone. “Seeing the fruit, looking at the soil, breathing the air. It creates this whole other aspect of being there.”
Customers should know that the brewery is open limited hours, Friday through Sunday, and beers can go quickly. Pen Druid launched its first “extremely low-intervention” hard cider — just local Arkansas Black apples fermented in barrels “without adding sulfur or yeast or extra sugar,” and “once we run out,” Carney says, “we’ll be out until the next season. It’s about farming.” 3863 Sperryville Pike, Sperryville. Open Friday through Sunday.
Sperryville’s Corner Store is the kind of country store you wish you found more of — well, if you wanted your rural market to sell fresh rib-eye, local produce and decent wine, and have a wood-fired pizza oven in the back. Rappahannock Pizza Kitchen, open Friday through Sunday, turns out blistered sourdough pies topped with local sausage, mushrooms and herbs. Stromboli, cheesy sandwich melts and lasagna are also available. Lines can be long on weekends, so order ahead and get a pizza to snack on down the road at Pen Druid. 3710 Sperryville Pike, Sperryville. Open Friday through Sunday.
You might know a golfer who keeps a couple of irons and a putter in their trunk, “just in case.” That person probably dreams about stumbling across a course as cool as the Schoolhouse Nine. This is an old-school, out-and-back par 3 course that’s a little harder than it looks — watch out for the bunkers on the ninth — with holes ranging from 85 to 171 yards. The course incorporates natural landscapes, including wildflower meadows and what feels like natural shifts of gently rolling greens. You’ll have plenty to talk about after your round at Headmaster’s Pub, the tavern that serves as the check-in spot and as well as the 19th hole. 12018 Lee Hwy., Sperryville. Open daily. $15 for unlimited weekday play; $25 for unlimited weekend play; includes use of the putting green.