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October is prime time for foliage viewing in Virginia, and the magic starts on Skyline Drive, due to its higher elevations. We usually make multiple visits to view the foliage in Shenandoah National Park during Autumn to make the most of changing colors and beautiful fall weather. Here are 5 fun ways to immerse yourself in panoramic foliage views.
1. Take in Autumn Foliage From Skyline Drive
The colors of Shenandoah emerge in early October. We saw plenty of golds and greens along the roadway on October 8th (2015), with occasional bursts of red and orange. Since color develops first at the higher peaks and further south, it’s best to focus early visits on the area between the Thornton Gap and Rockfish Gap Entrance Stations.
Lone maple trees at a few of the overlooks attract photographers looking for the perfect orange and red capture. From the overlooks, you’ll still see a lot of green in the views, with a smattering of yellows and a few reds mixed in.
By mid-October, the higher hills fill in with much more color. Since there are more oaks than maples, yellow and gold remain the dominant colors.
By late October, many trees will be brown or bare. This is the best time to visit the lower elevations at the north end of the park, so the Front Royal to Thornton Gap segment is ideal.
Skyline Drive is 105 miles long and there are 75 overlooks, so you really need to pick your segment and stops if you’re visiting on a day trip. It’s easy to get in the habit of stopping at every overlook, but you can save time by picking and choosing, especially when traffic is heavy during leaf season.
Unless you have to have a picture of Mary’s Tunnel, skip the always crowded Tunnel Overlook, and stop at Hazel Mountain or Pinnacles instead. Pick a few east-facing stops, and a few west-facing, for the best variety. Some of our favorite overlooks from the north and central portions of the drive include (from north to south) Range View, Hazel Mountain, Stony Man, Thorofare Mountain, Old Rag, and The Point.
Somewhere in between all those overlooks, you will often see animals in the park, so drive slowly. We were thrilled to watch a black bear cross the road ahead of us one late afternoon, and we often encounter deer making their crossing or grazing near the roadway.
2. Three Short Hikes to See Fall Foliage in Shenandoah
There is no better way to view foliage in Shenandoah NP than from a rocky outcropping. Here are three of our favorite short hikes to a gorgeous foliage view. These hikes are all family-friendly, but you will have to keep a close eye (or hand) on young children. Steep drop-offs, uneven ground, and potentially slick rocks are the destination for each of these hikes.
Little Stony Man Overlook
The Little Stony Man Overlook hike is only .9 miles roundtrip from the parking area at mile 39.1. This hike follows a fairly steep, rocky section of the Appalachian Trail to the Passamaquoddy Trail and a gorgeous viewpoint.
From the rocky overlook, look left and try to pick out the profile of Stony Man. To the right you’ll see a few segments of Skyline Drive winding along the ridge. Straight ahead is the town of Luray, with the ridges of Massanutten Mountain, divided by the New Market Gap, in the distance.
Stony Man Summit
The most popular route to the Stony Man Summit begins in the parking lot just inside the northern entrance to Skyland. From the lot, it’s a fairly easy 1.6 mile round-trip to the panoramic views from Stony Man Peak.
Even though this hike is longer than Little Stony Man, the path is less steep so it’s actually an easier walk. The rocky outcropping at the top of Stony Man offers glimpses of the drive to the north, Skyland Resort to the west, and the ridge continuing to the south.
Stop to look for peregrine falcons flying below you; they have protected nesting space among the rocks.
Crescent Rock Overlook
For a really short leg-stretcher to a view, park at the Crescent Rock Overlook parking area (mile 44.4), and take the easy .8 mile round-trip to Betty’s Rock. The trail begins at the north end of the parking lot and climbs gently to the rock ledge. Again, the ledge is very exposed so keep an eye on children.
3. Enjoy a Meal with a Side of Color
There are several options for eating in Shenandoah NP, but the panoramic views are found in the dining rooms at Skyland Resort and Big Meadows. The food is not the primary reason to dine in Shenandoah, though we have enjoyed tasty meals here by sticking to basics. Try to time your stop during off hours to increase your chances of a table by the window and faster service.
An even better option for a meal in the park, in our opinion, is to bring a picnic lunch to enjoy from one of those fabulous viewpoints. On our way to the Thornton Gap Entrance, we like to stop at Creekside Bakery and Deli in Sperryville to pick up lunch to go. They make a delicious BLT, but all the sandwiches on house-made bread are good, and they all taste better with a side of awesome views.
4. Explore Park History and Nature With a Ranger
There are two Visitor Centers in Shenandoah National Park and both offer an interesting look at the nature and history of the park. The Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, at the north end of the park (mile 4.6) has exhibits, a video, and maps highlighting park nature, and is a good place to get advice on hikes and special activities.
The larger Harry F. Byrd center, located at Big Meadows (mile 51), offers excellent displays about the history of the park and the work of the CCC. Ranger programs and guided hikes are offered throughout the day at both visitor centers, Skyland, and Loft Mountain, including Junior Ranger programs for kids.
5. Plan a Getaway and Spend the Night
Shenandoah is an ideal fall getaway from Washington DC and nearby areas. There is no better way to experience the fall foliage than spending a few days in the park, hiking and exploring. Fortunately, there are several options for overnight lodging in the park, including lodges, cabins, and campgrounds. We recommend the lodge at Skyland Resort for it’s beautiful views and central location.
Request one of the upstairs, renovated rooms in the main building for the best views and comfort. The lobby area includes a cozy fireplace, comfy couches, and a couple of rockers for taking in that great view.
Whether you explore foliage in Shenandoah National Park for a few hours or a few days, you’ll find beautiful views and gorgeous fall colors. Check the Shenandoah foliage report for weekly color updates, or sign up to receive the weekly email. If you’re a Northern Virginia local, buy an annual pass and plan frequent visits throughout the year. The park is an ideal foliage destination in October, but it’s a beautiful place to visit in every season.
Find more things to do in the park and places to see fall colors in Northern Virginia: