Enjoy fall foliage in Shenandoah National Park with these 5 ways to explore the lush nature and sweeping views from Skyline Drive. Our tips will help you get the most from your Autumn visit to Shenandoah 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. Here are 5 favorite ways to immerse yourself in panoramic views of fall foliage in Shenandoah.
1. Take in Autumn Foliage From Skyline Drive
The colors of Shenandoah generally emerge in early October. We generally see plenty of golds and greens along Skyline Drive in early October, with occasional bursts of red and orange. Since color develops first at the higher peaks, 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.
Read our tips to plan a perfect Day Trip in the Shenandoah National Park Central District.
Unless you really want 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. Drivers often encounter deer making their crossing or grazing near the roadway.
2. Take a Hike to See Fall Foliage in Shenandoah
There is no better way to view foliage in Shenandoah NP than from a rocky overlook. Here are three of our favorite short hikes to a gorgeous foliage view, plus a longer hike with awesome views. The short 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 hike 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. You can also include both Stony Man and Little Stony Man on a fun loop hike.
Plan your trip with our guide to all 3 Stony Man Trail Hikes to Beautiful Shenandoah Views.
Crescent Rock Overlook
For a really short leg-stretcher to a view, park at the Crescent Rock Overlook parking area (mile 44.4). From there it’s an 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.
Find More: Short Hikes to Gorgeous Virginia Views.
The Pinnacle and Mary’s Rock
If you have time and energy for a longer hike, you will find exceptional views on the trail from Jewell Hollow Overlook (mile 36.5) to Mary’s Rock. The hike is 6.5 miles out-and-back with some steep and moderately challenging sections. A gorgeous view from the Pinnacle is just a mile from the trailhead, so you could turn back there for a shorter trip. If time allows, continue on the Appalachian Trail to the popular Mary’s Rock overlook. Follow the link for a detailed guide to the Mary’s Rock hike.
3. Enjoy a Meal with a Side of Fall 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. That will increase your chances of a table by the window and faster service. If you like treats, try the Blackberry Ice Cream Pie, a popular park special.
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 in Sperryville to pick up lunch to go.
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. This is a good place to get advice on hikes and special activities if you enter from Front Royal.
The larger Harry F. Byrd Visitor Center is located at Big Meadows (mile 51). It offers excellent displays about the history of the park and the work of the CCC in building Skyline Drive. Ranger programs and guided hikes are offered throughout the day at both visitor centers, Skyland, and Loft Mountain. If you have kids along, look for special Junior Ranger programs.
One of our readers highly recommends the Scavenger Hike Adventures book. The book gives kids and adults things to look for along popular hikes, along with interesting stories about the people and nature in the park.
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 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.
Tips for Fall Foliage in Shenandoah National Park
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. It is impossible to predict when peak fall foliage will occur, but these websites will help:
- Visit the Shenandoah National Park website for general information on the park and trail closures.
- The park posts a yearly Fall Color page with seasonal updates on the foliage.
- Check out visitor photos of past years at the park.
- Smoky Mountains also has a foliage prediction map for the US.
If you plan to make repeat visits to the park, buy an annual National Park Pass. 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:
This article was published in 2015 and updated in 2019 and 2020.