On a day trip from Washington, one can experience the region’s novelties: hiking along brisk ocean shores, watching migratory swans from the Arctic and even visiting the former turf of the abolitionist and activist Harriet Tubman.
Embarking early from Washington and heading east across the Chesapeake Bay and the tidal wetlands that surround it delivers one to the eerily serene, deserted shores of the Atlantic.
The gateway to the ocean lies on the shores of Assateague Island, the secluded 37-mile barrier island that runs down the Maryland coastline. In the winter, its grassy beaches are undisturbed by summer vacationers. There is also the possibility of spotting some of the island’s famed wild ponies, which sport thicker, fuzzier coats ahead of the chillier months, and graze nearby within the denser thickets of grass away from the ocean winds.
(For those wanting to extend their stay, the northern end of Assateague holds a special advantage in the winter months: On a first-come, first-served basis, adaptable visitors can claim a camping plot for their car or recreational vehicle and sleep inside, creating a safe and warm beach-side refuge even in the depths of the winter.)
An hour west back toward Washington leads to a very different scene within the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, a sprawling 30,000 acre waterfowl sanctuary that encompasses at least one third of Maryland’s tidal wetlands and accommodates the greatest density of breeding bald eagles on the east coast, north of Florida, according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
The winter season can offer a particularly spectacular display at the refuge, as hordes of migratory birds, including tundra swans and snow geese, which spend much of the summer in the Canadian Arctic, settle in for the winter in the relatively temperate wetlands that blanket the area.
More than a vantage for viewing wildlife, the refuge encompasses stretches of what were once agricultural lands where Harriet Tubman was born and raised. And many of those sites, and the roads leading to and away from the refuge, lie along the Tubman Byway, a 125-mile long driving tour that covers much of the area around Blackwater and runs through Maryland’s Eastern Shore all the way through Philadelphia.