Yesterday, on Midday on the Bay, we had two stellar guests talking about their favorite places to hike, bike, fish, see flowers, take children, watch birds and just about anything else you might do outside.

Candy Thomson of the Department of Natural Resources (and formerly outdoors writer for The Sun) mentioned some places in Montgomery County that I'd never heard of and clearly need to visit - especially the one with all the sunflowers. Brooks Paternotte, director of Irvine Nature Centers, reminded me that I need to get to Patapsco Valley State Park, and soon, and that Dolly Sods needs to get on the must-do list.

Dan Rodricks, an outdoorsman in his own right, told all of us he communes with a family of beavers along the Gunpowder.

And I got to mention a few of my favorite places, too: Cromwell Valley Park near Towson; Oregon Ridge in Hunt Valley and Kilgore Falls in Harford.

Here's something I did not get a chance to mention: The Bay Journal has done extensive articles on many of the parks we mentioned. We have covered them as Gateway features in our regular newspaper, and we have written about them in Bay Journeys, our quarterly newspaper. You can also find ideas of places to go and things to do in our extensive Bulletin Board section. I admit it's where I often get my ideas for planning outdoor activities.

One more thing: if you can afford it, join your local nature center. These places are amazing treasures and they often operate on a shoestring. I can tell you firsthand how dedicated the employees are. Last year, we got a butterfly egg from a monarchs program at Cromwell Valley. We raised the caterpillar and stayed in contact with Kathy Kadow, the naturalist who ran the program. She asked me to let her know when it metamorphosed into a butterfly. I did, and she come over to my house on a Saturday afternoon to tag it. How's that for dedication?

I've been similarly impressed with a naturalist at Soldier's Delight who led a very informed owl prowl, and the patience of Kadow's daughter, Betsy, who led us on a tubing trip in the Gunpowder as a naturalist at Oregon Ridge. These people love the natural world and put their all into making sure we love it, too. Twenty bucks is a small price to pay to become a member of their center, and most places will give you some benefits for that, too. A big one: nature camps. They are the best bargain around.

One more more thing: This list is fairly Maryland and Baltimore-area centric, because that's where I've lived and reported for more than a decade. But please add your favorite places elsewhere in the watershed!

So, without further ado, my list and my links:


Best Places to Hike

Great Falls, Virginia

•  Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

•  Appalachian Trail, Maryland - Candy Thomson said you can do the trail in three days, and suggests doing the portion in Hancock, MD, that allows you to cross into PA.

• Robert E. Lee Park, Baltimore - owned by the city and managed by the county, this park is a gem for runners and hikers. Dogs have their own off-leash park now.

• Cromwell Valley Park, Towson - I just love this place. yes, it's 10 minutes from my house, but I'd probably drive an hour to come here. I love the stony buildings, the lime kiln, the sign that promises a nature trail for everyone is coming soon. Great place to geocache, too.


Best Places to Bike

• Torrey Brown North Central Railroad Trail - I recently met a guy riding his bike on this trail. He looked about 65. He was 90. He rides every day. This trail is flat and lovely and you can go all the way to Pennsylvania - about 40 miles - or stop after you get ice cream in Monkton.

Jones Falls Trail - reward yourself after a 9-mile bike ride from Cylburn to the Inner Harbor with a nice lunch. You don't have to pay to park. You can afford it.

• BWI Airport Trail - Relax. You're not flying anywhere. Let the rest of the people here stress out and just enjoy a bike ride. Great views of planes overhead around Dorsey Road.

• B and A Trail - Another lovely option.

Gwynns Falls Trail through Leakin Park.

Best State Park Cabins:

• Thomson is the expert, and recommends New Germany or Herrington Manor. She even has her own favorite cabin, but you'll have to get it out of her which one it is.

Best three-day weekend for the serious Outdoorsman/woman

• Paternotte recommends Dolly Sods, in West Virginia, and he's the third person to mention this place in two months. I have to admit, I'd never heard of it before I went to Moorefield recently for a story and picked up a brochure on the state parks. Technically, I think Dolly Sods is just outside the watershed boundaries, but still, it's one of those wilderness areas, like Spruce Knob, that looks like time forgot it.

Best three-day weekend for the not-so-serious outdoorsman/woman

Belle Isle State Park. Quick, make your reservation before the world finds out about this beautiful gem along the Rappahannock River on Virginia's beautiful Northern Neck Peninsula. If you want to camp, you can - there's a primitive camping site that requires you to walk or canoe to it, or there are less rustic sites where you can park your RV. But if you like, say, a mansion, a Jacuzzi tub, a shower and a four-poster bed, well, they have that, too. That's right, Belle Isle has a mansion you can rent for your party of six, or a guesthouse if you're feeling like spending a little less. When you're not sleeping or admiring the view, you can rent a kayak, bike, canoe or just walk around the lovely trails.

Best Bird-Watching

• This time of year, or really any, I'd say Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
• Pickering Creek Audobon Center is beautiful, if hard to find.
• Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center, just over the Bay Bridge.
• Boat to Smith Island - look for the pelican rookery

Best Wildflowers

• Susquehanna State Park, Havre de Grace area
• Shenk's Ferry wildlife preserve, Holtwood Dam area (story coming in next Bay Journeys)

Best photographs

• Thomson likes Swallow Falls State Park
• If you're a serious photographer with a lens to match, Conowingo Dam is the place to go for eagles, ospreys, herons, peregrine falcons. But please, don't show up with an iphone or an instamatic expecting to get anything. And it's not a great place to hike or walk - just for pictures.


Best Family Program

I have kids, so I like anything that keeps their attention. I've done frog nikes, owl prowls, moon and star walks, soup walks, etc. Everything has been good, but the best might have been nature center camping. This is great if you want an introduction to camping, or if you just don't want to be far from home. At about $20, it's a bargain, and the campouts are offered at all Baltimore-area nature centers.


Best You-Didn't-Even-Know-It-Was-There

• Soldier's Delight, Owings Mills. An oasis of rare plants in the midst of cookie-cutter subdivisions.

Marshy Point Nature Center might fit here, too. Wonderful place near Essex.

Best Places to Kayak

• Can't beat the Inner Harbor. Check to see when you can catch the next guided tour.

• Jug Bay. Rent a kayak from Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman and ask him for some good directions.

• Mattawoman. Get a quick introduction into the beautiful places of Maryland and how fragile they are. Try to go in July or August when the lotus flowers are blooming. Up the Creek Outfitters rents kayaks.

• Berlin, Coastal Bays: See the beauty on the other side of Ocean City. Ayers Creek rents kayaks and so much more; ask these knowledgeable folks for guidance.