5 Ways to Enjoy Fall Foliage in Shenandoah National Park

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. October is the busiest month at the park, so visit on a weekday if possible. No matter when you visit, be prepared to slow down so you can fully enjoy fall foliage in Shenandoah National Park.

1. Take in Fall Foliage From Skyline Drive

Skyline Drive stretches 105 miles through the park, hugging a ridgeline for much of the distance. The scenic roadway winds north to south, and boasts 75 overlooks offering gorgeous eastward and westward views.

Fall foliage on Skyline Drive
Fall foliage on Skyline Drive

When to See Fall Foliage in Shenandoah National Park

The colors of Shenandoah usually emerge in early October. We generally see a mix 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 park’s Central District, between the Thornton Gap and Rockfish Gap Entrance Stations.

Early October fall foliage view from Stony Man summit in Shenandoah NP
Stony Man view in early October

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.

Maple trees along Skyline Drive add pops of orange and red to Shenandoah foliage
Maple trees add fall color to Skyline Drive

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. The views still include patches of green, but some of the trees are already bare.

Mid-October foliage in Shenandoah National Park
Mid-October Shenandoah foliage

By late October, many trees are brown and golds have faded, but it is still a pretty time in the park. Below is a late October view looking westward from Jewell Hollow Overlook. You may see brighter colors at the lower elevations between Front Royal and Thornton Gap.

Jewell Hollow Overlook fall foliage in Shenandoah National Park
Jewell Hollow Overlook foliage Shenandoah NP

Favorite Shenandoah National Park Overlooks

With 75 overlooks on Skyline Drive, it pays to pick your stops when you’re visiting during busy leaf peeper season. 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.

Read our tips to plan a perfect Day Trip in the Shenandoah National Park Central District.

As you drive, stop at a few east-facing overlooks, and a few west-facing stops, for the best variety. For example, Hazel Mountain and Pinnacles Overlook both have beautiful eastward views. Most visitors like to get a photo from the Tunnel Overlook as well. Thorofare Mountain and Old Rag Overlooks are two more of our east-facing favorites.

Artists capture the fall foliage at Pinnacles Overlook in Shenandoah National Park.
Pinnacles Overlook artists
Thorofare Mountain Overlook east view Shenandoah NP
Thorofare Mountain Overlook, Shenandoah NP

Jewell Hollow, Stony Man, and The Point all have nice westward views.

The Point Overlook Shenandoah NP
The Point Overlook view

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. Drive slow and enjoy the journey.

2. Take a Hike to See Fall Foliage in Shenandoah

There is no better way to view fall foliage in Shenandoah National Park 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. These hikes all include steep drop-offs, uneven ground, and potentially slick rocks.

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.

Plan your trip: Stony Man Trail Hikes to Beautiful Shenandoah Views.

Little Stony Man Shenandoah NP
Little Stony Man looking north

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 summit and the Little Stony Man overlook on a fun loop hike.

Dogs are not allowed on Stony Man summit, but you can take your pup up the AT to Little Stony Man.

Stony Man Summit view Shenandoah NP
Stony Man Summit view Shenandoah NP

Crescent Rock Overlook

Enjoy a short leg-stretcher to a view from 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.

View from Crescent Rock in Shenandoah National Park Virginia
View from Crescent Rock in Shenandoah National Park Virginia
Find More: Short Hikes to Gorgeous Virginia Views.

Bearfence Mountain

Take a short but more challenging hike on the rock scramble to Bearfence Mountain summit. The trip is only 1.2 miles round-trip, but you’ll need hands and feet to climb the exposed rock ledges. If you’re afraid of heights, this route is not for you. The payoff of your climb is a nearly 360-degree summit view.

Note that dogs are not allowed on Bearfence. There is an easier alternate trail to an overlook, but the view is more limited.

Bearfence Mountain fall foliage in Shenandoah National Park in late October
Bearfence fall view Shenandoah NP

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.

Plan your trip with our guide to the Mary's Rock hike.

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.

View toward Mary's Rock from the Pinnacle, Shenandoah NP
View toward Mary’s Rock from the Pinnacle, Shenandoah NP

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 the patio at 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.

Enjoy fall foliage with a meal in the Skyland Dining Room Shenandoah NP
Skyland Dining Room in fall Shenandoah NP
Big Meadows Lodge patio views in Shenandoah NP
Big Meadows Lodge patio, Shenandoah NP

Another great option for a meal in the park is to bring a picnic lunch to enjoy from one of those fabulous viewpoints. Stop in nearby towns like Front Royal or 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 on 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.

Byrd Visitor Center Shenandoah National Park Virginia
Byrd Visitor Center Shenandoah National Park Virginia

5. Plan a Getaway and Spend the Night

Shenandoah is an ideal fall getaway from Washington DC and nearby areas. One of the best ways to experience Shenandoah’s fall foliage is to spend a few days in the park, hiking and exploring. When you stay in the park you can catch the sunrise and sunset from nearby overlooks.

Fortunately, there are several options for overnight lodging in the park, including lodges, cabins, and campgrounds. We recommend the lodge at Skyland for its beautiful views and central location.

Maple tree at Skyland Lodge, Shenandoah National Park
Maple at Skyland Lodge, Shenandoah National Park

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, Shenandoah National Park
Skyland Lodge interior, Shenandoah National Park

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:

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:

Happy exploring!

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5 ways to enjoy fall foliage in Shenandoah National Park Virginia. Outdoor adventure and a scenic road trip in the mid-Atlantic USA.

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