Thornton Gap Entrance sign Shenandoah

5 Ways to Enjoy Fall Foliage in Shenandoah National Park

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

Skyline Drive Shenandoah

Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park

 

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.

Early October foliage from Skyline Drive

Early October foliage from Skyline Drive

 

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.

Maples along Skyline Drive Shenandoah

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.

Mid-October Skyline Drive foliage

Mid-October Skyline Drive foliage

 

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.

Westward vista Shenandoah late October

Westward vista Shenandoah late October

 

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.

Thorofare Mountain Overlook Shenandoah

Thorofare Mountain Overlook view

View from The Point Overlook

View from The Point Overlook

 

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.

Cliff danger Skyline Drive

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.

Little Stony Man panorama Shenandoah

Little Stony Man panorama Shenandoah

 

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.

Shenandoah foliage from Little Stony Man

Shenandoah foliage from Little Stony Man

 

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.

Stony Man trail map Shenandoah

Stony Man trail map

 

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.

North from Stony Man Summit Shenandoah

North from Stony Man Summit Shenandoah

 

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.

View from Crescent Rock

View from Crescent Rock

 

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.

view from Skyland Resort dining room

view from Skyland Resort dining room

 

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.

Lunch on Stony Man Shenandoah

BLT with a side of awesome

 

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.

Byrd Visitor Center Shenandoah

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.

Maple at Skyland Lodge

Maple at Skyland Resort

 

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.

Skyland Lodge interior

Skyland Resort interior

 

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:

Happy exploring!

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Here are 5 ways to immerse yourself in the abundant colors of fall foliage in Shenandoah National Park, and explore the sweeping views from Skyline Drive.

 

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31 Responses to “5 Ways to Enjoy Fall Foliage in Shenandoah National Park”

  1. Betsy Wuebker | PassingThru October 13, 2015 at 2:01 am #

    Fall foliage in Shenandoah National Park looks absolutely glorious! We’d love to visit!

    • Fun in Fairfax VA October 13, 2015 at 10:09 am #

      It is a pretty incredible place, and so many of the best views are easy to get to. Hope you can visit someday, Betsy!

  2. Carol Colborn October 13, 2015 at 2:35 am #

    Fall is my favorite season. In 2010, we started our drive of the Blue Ridge Parkway from Shenandoah National Park. I had no idea that the Park had more to offer, especially during Fall. Such lovely sights to behold!

    • Fun in Fairfax VA October 13, 2015 at 10:11 am #

      We drove the Blue Ridge Parkway many years ago but we were past the foliage season and didn’t have the best weather. We plan to make a return trip, maybe driving top to bottom on both Skyline and the Blue Ridge. Such a lovely area. Thanks for stopping by, Carol!

  3. Suzanne Fluhr October 13, 2015 at 2:05 pm #

    Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive is on our list of places we want to visit. Since we live in Philadelphia, it’s a place we could drive to. Instead, we always seem to be getting on a plane to go places—next trip is Madrid. I think it’s time for us to explore our own “backyard” some more.

    • Fun in Fairfax VA October 20, 2015 at 8:35 pm #

      I know what you mean, Suzanne. Sometimes we miss the things in our own backyard. The good news, it’s easier for us to visit places close to home in “off hours” when the tourist traffic is lighter. Happy travels! 🙂

  4. Noel Morata (@emorata) October 19, 2015 at 8:49 pm #

    Breathtaking, I love drives like this especially with the change of colors, thanks for the lovely tour

    • Fun in Fairfax VA October 20, 2015 at 8:36 pm #

      Thanks Noel! I agree; I love a beautiful country drive. Thanks for stopping by,

  5. McCool Travel September 19, 2016 at 11:18 am #

    BLT with a side of awesome is, well, awesome. Love the wonderful hikes in Shenandoah in the Fall season. Spectacular.

  6. Noel Morata September 19, 2016 at 2:52 pm #

    I really want to do this during fall season some day, thanks for sharing this wonderful park!

    • Fun in Fairfax VA September 19, 2016 at 7:59 pm #

      Hope you can work it into your travel schedule Noel. It’s a beautiful drive for photographers.

  7. Carolina Colborn September 19, 2016 at 3:03 pm #

    BLT with a side of awesome is awesome! Is Skyline Drive part of th ed Blue Ridge Parkway?

    • Fun in Fairfax VA September 19, 2016 at 8:00 pm #

      Skyline Drive is north of the Blue Ridge Parkway, Carolina. If you had time it would be fun to drive the whole route and combine them both, especially gorgeous in the fall.

  8. Jill Browne September 19, 2016 at 8:48 pm #

    Shenandoah looks unbelievably beautiful. I’ve never seen those mountains before. Worth a visit, I’d say. 😉

    • Fun in Fairfax VA September 23, 2016 at 5:11 pm #

      We agree; Shenandoah is definitely worth a visit Jill. Hope you can add it to your list. Happy travels!

  9. Susan H Reddel September 23, 2016 at 4:29 pm #

    Love the idea of lunching amongst the beautiful fall foliage – sounds wonderful!

    • Fun in Fairfax VA September 23, 2016 at 5:12 pm #

      Thanks for the feedback Susan! Skyland is perfect for indoor dining amongst the foliage, and we love a nice picnic at the overlooks or on the trail.

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