Help stop the spread of COVID-19 and follow all current directives from your governor and local health officials about wearing face masks and physical distancing.
A note about COVID-19 and visiting parks: Help stop the spread of COVID-19 and follow all current directives from your governor and local health officials about wearing face masks and physical distancing.
Often referred to as the dog days of summer, the days of July through early August are typically some of the hottest in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Mid-Atlantic, the comparatively balmier days of June give way to the heavier days of mid-summer, thickening with humidity and shimmering waves of heat as armies of jellyfish begin their annual trek across the Bay, giving many an early-summer swimmer second thoughts about enjoying a cooling dip. The ancient Greeks and Romans coined the “dog days” term in reference to the star Sirius that rose just before the sun in late July. Fortunately, the Dog Star isn’t the only thing rising in July. At the majestic McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area, mid-summer bursts into bloom with thousands of towering sunflowers, a sight that can make even the most intense summer day bearable.
Tucked away in the woods off River Road in Western Montgomery County, Maryland, Mckee-Beshers WMA is a smorgasbord of wild delights, featuring 2,000 acres of woodlands, fields, wetlands and hiking trails. In mid-summer however, the main attraction is the jaw-dropping sight of impossibly sprawling fields of sunflowers that burst into bloom in late July through early August.
After checking the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ McKee-Beshers website page to view a photo of current conditions to ensure the fields were currently in bloom, we arrived on a sweltering morning in mid-July. We quickly found parking in the small lot, although there was plenty of room for overflow parking along the roadside. A wide, flat, compacted path led from the parking lot into the woods, feasible for use by strollers and wheelchairs (albeit perhaps a mildly bumpy ride). Only a few hundred yards in, the dark green depth of woods suddenly opened onto a stunning panorama of sunshine-yellow blooms as far as the eye could see, set against a dazzling blue sky.
Here and there, fellow travelers flashed huge grins for one another in front of the flowers for photos, but there was no feeling of being crowded – it was impossible for any of us to resist eventually walking into the gauntlet of thick green stems, every visitor disappearing one by one, swallowed into the forest of blooms. Despite its appearance at first as an impenetrable botanic wall, there was actually plenty of walking room between towering plants (much like a corn field for those of us intrepid explorers who can’t resist that temptation either). This conveniently provided a fun, guilty-pleasure feeling of secrecy without the risk of damage. Here and there, we sidestepped a few random skull and bone remnants of small mammals who had met their fate in this otherwise happy place as fat bumblebees, oblivious to our presence, cheerfully bounced from bloom to bloom, heavy with pollen and glee.
Eventually satiated by this sunshiney chapter of the visit, we continued our trek down the path, flanked by fields, wetlands and woods. McKee-Beshers WMA provides habitat for an enormous diversity of wildlife, including deer, wild turkey, waterfowl, numerous reptiles and amphibians, and over 200 species of songbirds. Just a few yards past the sunflower fields, a flash of blue caught my eye on the edge of the woods. To my delight (as evidenced by my daughters’ mortification as I yelped in excitement), a flock of neon blue indigo buntings alighted from a field into the branches and back again. Once I could finally be dragged away from that mesmerizing sight, we continued walking as legions of grasshoppers, dragonflies, monarchs and swallowtail butterflies flitted around us as the forest throbbed with the hypnotic humming of cicadas. The trail grew increasingly overgrown, although still walkable, until it finally entered a thick grove of trees, eventually leading to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. The canal and trail border the WMA, and visitors can hike or bike east to Washington DC or west as far as Cumberland. Unfortunately, we had neglected the online warning about poison ivy, so seeing the trail rather thickly bordered with my arch-nemesis plant, we aborted the trek at this point, but made a mental note to be better prepared for that on future visits.
While for many visitors a trip to the sunflower fields can be a quick jaunt, this is actually a lovely area to spend the rest of the day exploring. Maddux Island, a 170-acre island in the Potomac River, is also part of the WMA and is accessible only by boat via the boat ramp on Rileys Lock Road in Seneca Creek or the end of Sycamore Landing Road at the C&O Canal. In addition to all the nearby C&O Canal and trail have to offer, several lovely local parks just around the corner are also worth exploring. Just a few minutes away, Blockhouse Point Conservation Park is a 630-acre riverside park offering trails, wildlife viewing, native plants, and Civil War ruins. Not far past that (and connected by a trail), Muddy Branch Stream Valley Park and Muddy Branch Greenway Trail comprise 876 acres. Nine miles of natural surface trail are accessible to most users, traversing varied terrain and ecosystems including rocky upland forest, stream banks and meadows, rich vernal pools and earthen mill remnants. The trail passes the Potomac Horse Center on its way from Darnestown Road in Gaithersburg down to historic Blockhouse Point Conservation Park. A bridge now allows users to cross over to Pennyfield Lock and the C&O Canal.
As our morning adventure came to an end, it occurred to me that this endless sea of sunshine harbors such an important lesson to take to heart, especially during these challenging times. Sunflowers turn their heads to soak in the sunshine, following the sun throughout the day. Bathing in the sunshine as we passed these fields before heading back into the woods, a thought took seed in my mind. “Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadows. It's what the sunflowers do.”—Helen Keller.
Use of McKee-Beshers WMA is permitted seven days a week throughout the year. Vehicle access is via marked parking areas located on River Road, Hunting Quarter Road and Sycamore Landing Road. Prime bloom time for sunflowers is mid-July through early August. Hunting is allowed in accordance with statewide open season dates and shooting hours. Click here to check the website for current bloom conditions, hunting information, directions and more.