by Philip J. Stone
The term "nature recreation" is sometimes used to describe having fun in the natural environment through a combination of nature-oriented aesthetic and intellectual experiences, with emphasis on the former. The older expression "nature study" stresses the intellectual element -- the learning process -- and turns off many who simply want outdoor enjoyment. We need to use our senses -- looking, listening, smelling, touching, even tasting, and we must not be ashamed of emotional satisfaction. Yet, as by-products of such experiences, we come to recognize natural objects by their names, to understand something of their relationship to each other, and to know the characteristics of the habitats or ecosystems in which they are grouped. It follows that from this we acquire appreciation of these outdoor experiences and a determination to protect and conserve the places where we have them. Let us have fun, then, by using our senses, enriching our minds, and developing our values. This is nature recreation.
The nature recreationist differs from the professional naturalist in that his interest is avocational, not vocational. He pursues it in his leisure time, usually outdoors. He doesn't have to pore over a microscope, or cut up cats in a laboratory, or memorize scientific names if he doesn't want to.
We should be aware that for a half-century or so there has been a gradual trend away from a taxonomic approach to nature to an ecological approach. The former emphasizes identification and classification, while the latter stresses relationships between plants and animals and between living organisms and their physical environment (climate, rocks and minerals, soil, water and air).
A generation ago most natural scientists and most nature hobbyists were specializing in one part of nature -- geology, botany, or zoology; or perhaps the specialization was finer -- geomorphology, dendrology, or herpetology. Today they must still master the basics of identification and classification, but many are specialists in a type of habitat or ecosystem, say forests, grasslands, or wet lands; or perhaps boreal forests, tall-grass prairies, or salt marshes. The professionals have moved further in this trend than the amateurs, but an increasing proportion of each group finds the new ecological emphasis fascinating and challenging. In this connection we need more nature guidebooks arranged by ecosystems.
Whatever our emphasis, where in the Potomac Valley shall we go to pursue our nature recreation? First, let us find some fine views or landscapes and waterscapes. We can start by sitting on the swimming float at Sycamore Island and watching the sunset; by watching the Potomac at Great Falls when the water is high; or by climbing up to one of the overlooks at Blockhouse Point (on the Maryland side of the river just below Seneca Dam) and scanning the view for several miles upstream and down.
Here is a longer list of scenic viewpoints:
-- George Washington's Birthplace, Wakefield, VA. (Off VA. Rt. 3) Broad panorama of lower Potomac.
-- Leonardtown, MD. (VA. Rt. 5) View of Breton Bay.
-- Great Falls and Mather Gorge, Md. and Va. (Accessible by Billy Goat Trail on Maryland side and River Trail on Virginia side.) Outstanding scenic features of the Washington Metropolitan Area.
-- Sugarloaf Mountain, Md. (Md. Rt. 95 west of Comus.) Good views in several directions.
-- Harpers Ferry, W. Va. (U.S.Rt. 340.) Outstanding views from Maryland Heights and Loudin Heights; fine example of a water gap.
-- Northern section, Shenandoah National Park, Va. (Skyline Drive.) Views of meanders of Shenandoah River (south fork) from overlooks on west side of ridge.
-- Woodstock Tower, Massanutten Mountain, Va. (Forest service road east of Woodstock.) Views of north fork of Shenandoah River and mountains to west.
-- West side, Cacapon Mountain, W. Va. (W. Va. Rt. 9 west of Berkeley Springs.) Fine view of upper Potomac and interesting ridges.
-- Sideling Hill, Md. (Overlook on U.S. Rt. 40 west of Hancock.) Good view of upper Potomac Valley.
-- The Trough, W. Va. (B&0 RR track, Petersburg Branch, west of Romney.) Scenic gorge of South Branch of Potomac River.
-- Smoke Hole Gorge, Monongahela National Forest, W. Va. (Forest service road, north of Upper Tract.) View of limestone cliffs along South Branch of Potomac.
-- Seneca Rocks, Monongahela National Forest, W. Va. (W. Va. Rt. 28 at Mouth of Seneca, south of Petersburg.) Spectacular 900 ft. formation of Tuscarora sandstone.
If geology interests you and you have already explored the Potomac shoreline between Chain Bridge and Seneca, go further afield and visit some of the following:
-- Nomini Bluffs, Va. (Off Va. Rt. 3 south of Colonial Beach.) Scenic bluffs containing fossils.
-- Luray Caverns, Va. (U.S. Rt. 211 at west edge of Luray.) Developed cave.
-- Endless Caverns, Va. (Va. Rt. 11 north of Harrisonburg.) Developed cave.
-- Natural Chimneys, Va. (Off Va. Rt. 42 near Mt. Solon.) Seven interesting towers of limestone. Privately owned.
-- RoundTop Mountain, Md. (C&0 Canal west of Hancock.) Fine example of anti-incline at base.
-- Caudy's Castle, W. Va. (West side of Cacapon River south of Forks of Cacapon, via W.Va. Rt. 45.) 800 ft. tower of Oriskany sandstone.
-- Ice Mountain, W. Va. (Off W. Va. Rt. 29 east of Slanesville.) Interesting hill where ice remains almost all summer. Privately owned.
-- Lost River Sinks, W. Va. (W. Va. Rt. 55 between Wardensville and Baker.) Lost River disappears underground, emerging 2 miles north as Cacapon River.
Plants and animals are found together, so it is impractical to separate botanical from zoological areas. Here are a number of places of biological interest, grouped by habitats:
-- Washington Monument State Park, Md. (Off U.S. Rt. Alt. 40 west of Frederick.) Includes Monument Knob. Good for hawk migrations.
-- Dolly Sods and Roaring Plains, Monongahela National Forest, W. Va. (On top of Allegheny Front Mountain, off W. Va. Rt. 28 southwest of Petersburg.) Fine example of heath barrens; also good for hawk migrations.
-- Backbone Mountain, Md. (Off U.S. Rt. 50 in western Maryland, west of Gormania, W. Va.) Birds.
-- Frederick Municipal Forest, Md. (Off U.S. Rt. 15 northwest of Frederick.)
-- Cunningham Falls State Park, Md. (Off Md. Rt. 77 and U.S. Rt. 15, near Thurmont.
-- Michaux State Forest, Pa. (U.S. Rt. 30 west of Gettysburg.) Rhododendrons.
-- Elizabeth Furnace area, George Washington National Forest, Va. (Off Va. Rt. 55 west of Front Royal.) Plants.
-- Sleepy Creek Public Hunting Area, W. Va. (Off W. Va. Rt. 9 southwest of Hedgesville.) Wild turkeys.
-- Cacapon State Park, W. Va. (U.S. Rt. 522 south of Berkeley Springs.)
-- Green Ridge State Forest, Md. (U.S. Rt. 40 west of Hancock.) Wild turkeys.
-- Westmoreland State Park, Va. (Va. Rt. 3, below Colonial Beach.)
-- Prince William State Park, Va. (Off Rt. 1-95 near Quantico.) Trails and Nature Center.
-- Cedarville Natural Resources Management Area, Md. (Off U.S. Rt. 301 via Cedarville Rd. near Brandywine.)
-- Buckystown-Dickerson area, Md. (New Design Rd. and Oland Rd., off Md. Rt. 28 west of Dickerson.) Grassland birds.
-- Manassas National Battlefield, Va. (Rt. 1-66 or U.S. Rt. 29 west of Centerville.)
Wetlands and Aquatic Areas
-- Huntley Meadows Park, Va. (Off U.S. Rt. 1 via Lockheed Blvd.) Ponds, marsh, swamp, woodlands.
-- Zekiah Swamp, Allen's Fresh, and Wicomico River, Md. (Md. Rt. 234 east of U.S. Rt. 301, south of LaPlata.)
-- Myrtle Grove Wildlife Management Area, Md. (Md. Rt. 225 east of Indian Head.) Ponds, woodlands.
-- Piscataway Park, Md. (Bryan Point Rd. off Md. Rt. 210 near Accokeek.) Marsh and Swamp.
-- Dyke Marsh, Va. (George Washington Memorial Pkwy. south of Alexandria.)
The two commonest nature hobbies are wildflower-finding and bird-watching. If wildflowers are your specialty, try these areas:
-- Dead Run Swamp, Va. (Off Va. Rt. 193 via Mackall Dr.) Skunk cabbages. (Feb.)
-- Potomac flood plain upstream from Turkey Run, Va. (off Va. Rt. 193 via Turkey Run Rd.) Virginia bluebells, trout lilies, etc. (Mid-April.)
-- Theodore Roosevelt Island, D.C. (Off westbound George Washington Memorial Pkwy., Va.) Yellow irises. (Mid-May)
-- Seneca Creek State Park, Md. (Clopper Rd. near Gaithersburg) Mountain laurel. (Late-May)
-- C&0 Canal towpath, especially Sycamore Island-Glen Echo area, Widewater-Great Falls area, and Seneca-Sycamore Landing area. Md. Spring and summer wild flowers.
-- Rock Creek, Md. (Just beyond D.C.-Md. line.) Spring Wildflowers.
-- Dranesville District Park, Va. (Va. Rt. 193.) Spring wildflowers.
-- Great Falls Park, Va. (Va. Rt. 193 via Va. Rt. 738.) Spring wildflowers.
National Arboretum, D.C., especially Fern Valley. Spring wildflowers.
-- Shenandoah National Park, Va., especially Pinacles Picnic Area. (Skyline Dr.) Spring and summer wildflowers.
-- Kenelworth Aquatic Gardens, D.C. (Off Kenelworth Ave. via Douglas St. N.E.)Water lilies, lotus, and other moisture-loving plants. Summer wildflowers.
-- Mason District Park, Va. (Near Annandale.) Summer wildflowers.
If it's bird-watching that turns you on, you might visit these areas:
-- C&0 Canal towpath, especially Widewater, Seneca, Fort Frederick, and Oldtown areas. Probably the best places in the Washington region. Because of the "edge" provided by the canal, bird-watching is usually better on the Maryland than the Virginia side of the Potomac.
-- Washington & Old Dominion RR Regional Park, Va., especially the rural sections between Ashburn and Tuscarora Creek and between Paeonian Springs and Purcellville.
-- Shenandoah National Park, Va., especially Skyland and Big Meadows. Warblers, vireos, wild turkeys, ruffed grouse, ravens.
-- Glover-Archbold Park, D.C. Veeries, pileated woodpeckers.
-- Dumbarton Oaks Park, D.C. Spring warblers.
-- Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge, Va. Bald Eagles.
-- Hughes Hollow, Md. Part of McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area. (Off River Rd. via Hughes Rd.) Marsh birds, wood ducks, owls, sparrows in winter.
-- Catoctin Mountain Park, Md. (U.S. 15 and Md. Rt. 77.) Warblers, ruffed grouse.
-- Indian Springs Wildlife Management Area, Md. (Off U.S. 1-70 near Clear Spring.) Wild turkeys, ruffed grouse, Bewick's wren.