Shenandoah is one of the very best spots in the US to experience the brilliance of fall. The lush hardwood forests that blanket the mountains turn technicolor: scarlet, maroon, gold, purple, bronze, russet, bright orange.
Early in the season, as the nights begin to cool, touches of red appear in dollops among the green canopy. Later, as if Monet were at the canvas, the colors sweep the mountains from top to bottom. As the season progresses, the brilliance fades to brown, mauve, and beige. The flutter and flurry of falling leaves fills the air and the first nip of winter blows in. It’s such a spectacular season!
Unique to Shenandoah, you can experience it all from your car by cruising the Skyline Drive. As you drive, check out the amazing overlooks, hike the beautiful and accessible trails, or picnic in the meadows overlooking the Shenandoah valley.
The problem is, all the leaf peepers do that. Locals here in Front Royal learned long ago to find alternatives. If you want to avoid the lines at the Skyline Drive entry station, consider these options instead:
- Elizabeth’s Furnace. This is a hidden gem, tucked away in Massanutten mountain, about 11 miles to the west of Front Royal. If you prefer to stay in your car, just drive through to Fort Valley and enjoy the leaves from the floor of the valley – it’s a great bottom-up view in a spectacular, canyon-like setting. You can also choose from a range of hiking trails, with strenuous options up to Signal Knob as well as more laid-back options such as Mudhole Gap which follows an easy logging road. For a whole new perspective, take the trails along and over the boulders and stones of Passage Creek. This is especially beautiful in late season when the leaves are falling. https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/gwj/recarea/?recid=73687
- Andy Guest State Park. Last year, an art gallery in town put on a show of paintings, all from Andy Guest. The classic, winding Shenandoah River, set against the ridges of the Massanutten Range, are truly spectacular. The artists didn’t disappoint. But in October, nature’s paint brush is equal to any artist’s. Andy Guest follows a large, open valley, offering fields for picnics, trails along the river, and camping if you’re interested in that. https://dwr.virginia.gov/vbwt/sites/raymond-r-andy-guest-jr-shenandoah-river-state-park/
- The River. For any visit to Shenandoah, the river is always a great option, even for leaf-peeping. Canoe rentals can be had through most of October. The peeping perspective, from the seat of a canoe, is very different and very special. Leaves falling on the river, glimpses of the ridges and peaks on either side, wildlife scurrying beside, swimming through, or flying over. If you don’t want to sit in your car all day, try sitting in a boat where fall’s brilliance can be seen at eye level.https://frontroy aloutdoors.com
- The AT. If you decide to drive down the Skyline Drive, you’ll notice the Appalachian Trail runs parallel to your auto route. Definitely get out of your car and take a walk on the famous AT! But if you want to hike amongst the gorgeous leaves in a place that’s a little less crowed than along the Skyline Drive, remember the AT runs all the way from Georgia to Maine. There are some great access points for day hikes north of Shenandoah National Park. Try accessing the AT on Rt 55 in Linden or 540 in Chester Gap. http://rohland.homedns.org:8008/at/state/state_detail/AT_state_detail.aspx?stateID=11§ionID=89
- Buzzard Rock. Just an awesome day-hike (three hours really). Great view. Rugged terrain. Close to Front Royal. Accessible for most healthy adults and children. The hiking trail itself is not overly crowded, but unfortunately the parking lot at the trail head is tiny and often fills up. Still, if you want to walk among fall’s splendor and gaze at its gorgeous colors from the mountaintop, this has to be on your list. https://www.hikingupward.com/GWNF/BuzzardRockNorth/
- Bentonville. A bump in the road, really, but what a special little bump. Bentonville is a church, a couple of businesses, and a post office. But it sits in a gorgeous bowl backing up to Shenandoah National Park on the east and facing the river on the west. From Bentonville, you can access trails into the Park at Thompson Hollow and walk all the way up to the Skyline Drive if you wish. We recommend Overall Falls, with a stop off at Seven Pools. If you just want to cruise the leaves from your car, a drive from Bentonville to Browntown, with exploratory side trips on the country roads, won’t disappoint either. You’ll see plenty of leaves up on the ridges, as well as gorgeous farms and countryside. https://www.hikingupward.com/SNP/OverallRunBeecherRidge/
- Front Royal. In October, traffic to the Skyline Drive can back up into town. But don’t despair. If you get there and see that traffic, check out the leaves in town! We have two suggestions. First is Eastham Park, with a paved walking trail running along the Shenandoah River. From there you can see the beautiful leaves lining the river as well as leaves falling in the river, and reflections of leaves fluttering on the trees. There’s also Randolph Macon Academy on a hill overlooking the town. Try a walk across the campus for some nice views of the surrounding town and countryside. RMA sports a fabulous grove of maples you’ve just got to see. That grove takes orange to a whole new level! https://www.warrencountyva.net/eastham-park
When you’re finished peeping, stop by Front Royal Brewing Company. We kick off leaf season with a week of Oktoberfest and keep our outdoor beer garden and deck humming through November, replete with heaters to sit by if the nights get too chilly. Check it out. Hope to see you soon.