Winter Forest Hiking

by Jim Rapp

Hiking in Delmarva's forests this winter is a great reason to spend time outside.

Most vacationers think about Delmarva as a summer destination, thanks to our beach resorts, beautiful coastal parks, and boating on the bays. The shoulder seasons of fall and spring also bring visitors for festivals, fishing and changing landscapes, such as the transition to autumn leaves and spring flowers. Winter can be a bit of a challenge for some, but hiking in Delmarva's forests is a reason to get off the couch and spend time outside.

Taking a hike in the winter woods requires some planning. Watch the weather before heading out, and dress accordingly. Wear layers, as a cold Delmarva sunrise can quickly turn to a warm morning during a brisk hike. Don't let light rain or snow deter you from your trek. Remember this old Scandinavian saying: there's no bad weather, there's just bad clothing. Waterproof boots are a good idea, too, as many Delmarva trails have standing water after a rain or snow melt.

It's wise to check the current schedule of hunting seasons before hiking. Hunting seasons and rules vary between each state and county on the Peninsula. Some parks allow hunting and some do not, so check the park website for specific information. Hunters are mostly active at dawn and dusk, so avoid hiking in hunting areas until the sun is up.

If hiking in a hunting area, your winter fashion should always include a little hunter-safety orange on your day pack or clothing, and avoid wearing earth tones or camouflage. If you're hiking with your dog, add a little blaze orange flair to their winter outfit, too!

Our federal, state and county parks usually have clearly marked trails for short day hikes. If you're planning a longer hike in a public wildlife area or state forest with minimal signage, you should know how to use a compass or GPS unit. If you start your hike in late afternoon, bring a flashlight or headlamp so you don't get stuck hiking back to your car in the dark.

One thing you won't have to pack for your winter hike is bug spray. While some insects are still present in winter, most of the pesky ones aren't active. Ticks and chiggers are also mostly absent from the winter landscape, which makes for pleasant hiking on trails with grass or low shrubs.

Some of the best places to enjoy winter hiking are found near historic Denton, Maryland and the upper portions of the Choptank River. Tuckahoe State Park, just nine miles northwest of Denton, features 20 miles of scenic hiking, biking and equestrian trails.

Adjacent to the state park is one of Delmarva's true gems, the Adkins Arboretum. This 400-acre native plant preserve promotes the conservation and restoration of the Chesapeake Bay's indigenous landscapes. The Arboretum features five miles of trails, including the wheelchair-accessible Blockston Branch path that winds through mature bottomland hardwood forest.

Depending on where you hike, the forest may appear to be very quiet and still in the winter. Every sound seems louder, from the crunching of dead leaves and sticks under your boots, to the scratching of foraging sparrows and squirrels on the forest floor. The explosive sound of a startled deer or turkey bursting from its resting spot along the trail can make your heart skip a beat.

The trees and plants of the forest appear to be sleeping in the winter, and this is not an entirely poor analogy. Since they can't uproot and change their location, plants have adaptations to survive the cold, dry conditions of winter.

Most plants halt their growth above ground in late summer. Deciduous trees, such as oaks and maples, drop their leaves in the autumn to avoid the problems of water loss and freezing in winter. Water-tight scar tissue is formed over the leaf attachment point.

Pines and other conifers also drop leaves, just not all at once. Most conifers retain needles for two to three years before shedding them. Conifer needles have a thick, waxy coating that reduces water loss in the winter. These trees appear to be "evergreen" during the cold months.

Some plants are much easier to spot in the winter forest. After oaks and maples drop their leaves, you can see large clumps of Eastern Mistletoe 20 or more feet up on the higher branches of their hosts. Mistletoe is a parasite that attaches to the host's bark from seeds that have been delivered by birds that have eaten the sticky berries. The seeds are passed through the guts of the birds or rubbed on the bark while cleaning their beaks.

The tradition of kissing beneath mistletoe is based loosely on Celtic lore, and became a popular Christmas tradition in the 1800s. Although you can buy sprigs of mistletoe to hang above your doorway, some on Delmarva take to the low, wet woods with shotgun in hand to blast a few clumps from the treetops.

Many other plants produce fruits and berries that feed our hungry winter birds. Sweetgum is distinctive for its gumballs suspended by a long stalk. The gumballs open to reveal winged seeds that are devoured by songbirds and small mammals.

Eastern red cedars produce blue berries, which are eaten by wildlife. The evergreen cedars also provide winter shelter for roosting birds. American holly is found in the understory in wet woods, and is identified by its thick, sharply-pointed green leaves and bright red berries.

The Yellow-rumped Warbler is the only warbler able to digest the waxy fruits of the Bayberry. Its ability to use these berries allows the yellow-rump to winter farther north than most warblers.

Partridge berry produces bright red fruits that peek out from the green leaves of this ground plant. Birds such as our Delmarva quail, the Northern Bobwhite, feed on the red berries.

The hues of brown and gray tree bark and leaf litter are broken up by the electric emerald green of the mosses, such as the Hairy cap moss. Moss communities provide a micro-habitat for invertebrates and small animals seeking moisture and shelter.

You can spend a good day wandering in the winter woods searching for mistletoe, the bright red fruits of holly and partridge berry, and the emerald green of mosses. As you explore, you'll also find wintering forest birds, such as our Yellow-rumped warblers, Hermit Thrushes, and Golden-crowned Kinglets. Don't let the weather keep you from hiking this winter. Remember: there's no bad weather on Delmarva, just bad clothing.

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