This time of year, I'm remembering the colors and smells of autumn, and that childhood story about the woolly bear caterpillar predicting the harshness of the coming winter by the thickness of his coat. Fall is a celebrated season in the Old Dominion, not quite as short-lived and biting as New England's. Fall in Virginia lasts longer, playing out like a beautiful opera slowly unfurling layer after layer of autumnal color in the fall leaves toward a steady, deliberate crescendo. Leafy greens of summer give way to soft golden hues, subtle orange tones and burning crimsons as the days shorten and sunlight hours wane. By the end of October, the hills and hollows are at their peak bursting with a riotous display of foliage color.
But it's not just the crisper weather and the chance to break out the boots and sweaters. Or the warm smells of fallen leaves and apple-everything for sale at a roadside stand. It's the celebration. Everyone in Virginia celebrates the fall. They wait all year for it.
The entire state comes alive when the kids go back to school and the humidity dips to enjoyable levels. Fall festivals abound. Pick-your-own apple and pumpkin farms, and winery and distillery tours in Virginia make for the most perfect fall day you can imagine. And it lasts for three glorious months. When the end of November rolls around and you return home from spending the day outside, and your face cheeks and butt cheeks stay icey cold for the first hour, you know you've squeezed every last ounce out of your Virginia fall day, and winter is just around the corner.
There are so many scenic places to enjoy the fall in Virginia, but after all is said and done, I must admit my favorite is still Shenandoah National Park.
"Oh Shenandoah, I long to see you, Away you rolling river.
Oh Shenandoah, I long to see you, Away, I'm bound away."
~ American folk song
Shenandoah National Park and the Skyline Drive are an easy drive from Washington, DC and northern Virginia. Route 29 runs from northern Virginia south to Charlottesville and offers several entry points to Skyline Drive.
With over 500 miles of hiking trails, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail, Shenandoah National Park offers. There's literally a hiking trail for everyone: easy, moderate or strenuous day hikes, hikes suitable for children, hikes with great views, waterfall hikes, and even special history trails.
For the more adventurous hiker, overnight backpacking trips are also available. Most trails leave from Skyline Drive. They are clearly signposted, and parking is provided at most trail heads. And whatever you do, don't forget your camera, especially if you're hiking the Park in the fall.
Getting to Skyline Drive
The Skyline Drive runs 105 miles north and south along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park and is the only public road through the park. There are four entrances to the Park and the full drive will typically take you about three hours to drive. Entrances are at:
- Front Royal near Rt. 66 and 340 (Milepost 0.0)
- Thornton Gap at Rt. 211 in Sperryville
- Swift Run Gap at Rt. 33
- Rockfish Gap at Rt. 64 and Rt. 250 - also the northern entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway. (Milepost 105)
Driving Map of Skyline Drive
You can download a Skyline Drive driving map here.
The speed limit in the Park is 35 mph and there is abundant nature and wildlife all around you. So please be mindful of your speed and watch the road. Every year, there are numerous deer and bear fatalities due to excessive speed and inattentive drivers which could easily be avoided.
There are plenty of rest stops and 75 overlooks along the drive and therefore plenty of places to pull over, take pictures, and take in the amazing sights along the drive. You'll see the stunning views of the Shenandoah Valley to the west and the rolling Piedmont to the east.
Shenandoah National Park welcomes visitors year round. However, most facilities and services are closed for the winter. Check out the official website for Shenandoah National Park maintained by the U.S. National Park Service.