US Equity Advantage
| Oct 17, 2014
You know it’s coming. The starkness of winter will sweep in, painting the landscape in muted hues of brown, gray and black. But before that happens, you can take in one last festival of color. Fall foliage is nature’s fireworks display as hillsides explode with bursts of yellow, red and orange. There’s nothing better than cruising with the sunroof open, crisp fall air rushing in and a mural celebrating the change of seasons rolling by.
An hour from the teeming suburbs of Washington, D.C., is one of the nation’s most scenic fall foliage destinations. Skyline Drive runs 105 miles through the Shenandoah National Park. The Drive, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the depths of the Great Depression, winds along the crest of the Blueridge Mountains above the Shenandoah River from Front Royal south to Afton outside of Charlottesville, where it joins the Blueridge Parkway. Along the way are miles of hiking trails, crystalline waterfalls, intriguing caves and the historic and cultural richness of the area that hosted America’s first Appalachian settlements.
Of course, long before Europeans arrived, the area had been inhabited by Native Americans for more than 8,000 years. By the time settlers from coastal Virginia began probing the eastern slopes of the Blueridge, people from the Iroquois, Algonquin, Shawnee and Tuscarora tribes were there. In the 1730s, descendants of the Ulster Scots or Scotch-Irish — Protestants from Northern Ireland descended from Scottish settlers — moved into the Shenandoah in large numbers from Pennsylvania and New York, looking for cheap land. Their flinty brand of Calvinism, distrust of authority and Celtic musical traditions came with them, leaving an indelible mark on the culture of the Valley. Travelers along the Skyline Drive can dive into their culture, or ignore it and just soak in the spectacular scenery. Many choose a little of both, mixed with the more modern pleasures of exploring the craft breweries and vineyards clustered near the southern end.
The road is completely contained within the national park, and so has few connections to the region’s highways. There are only four accesses to get onto or off of the drive: Front Royal, accessible via I-66 and Route 340; Thornton Gap, accessible via Route 211; Swift Run Gap, accessible via Route 33; and Rockfish Gap, accessible via I-64 and Route 250. Rockfish Gap is about a half-hour west of Charlottesville and the entrance to the Blueridge Parkway.
Don’t expect to be going a mile a minute here. There are scores of scenic overlooks; pull off the road, get out and gaze over one of the East Coast’s prettiest landscapes. Plan to take it slow and stop often. Without the time pressure of a schedule to meet, you can let the landscape come to you. The park is thick with wildlife, and it’s common to see deer grazing along the road and black bears lumbering along the slopes.
The time to go is mid-September through the end of October. While fall colors are dependent on weather and rainfall, the middle weeks of October are the historic norm for peak foliage. The trees turn earlier at the highest elevations near the center of the park, and a bit later at lower elevations. That makes for a long foliage season and plenty of opportunities for visitors. The National Park Service issues foliage forecasts for Shenandoah Valley National Park on its website.
What to See
Skyland: You could drive the length of the park in a day, but it’s more enjoyable to take it slow. And while there are hotels clustered near the four entrances, consider booking a room at the rustic Skyland Resort to get the full flavor. The resort was developed in the late 19th century, though most of its buildings were constructed after the National Park Service took over in 1935 and are more utilitarian than romantic in appearance. That said, the setting couldn’t be any more scenic. Book your room by calling the resort directly; the “preferred” rooms are the most recently renovated and have the best views, but second-floor rooms in the Appledore and Craigin buildings have terrific views as well. Remember, we said this was rustic, so don’t expect a Ritz-Carlton. You’re here to soak your eyeballs in glorious color, not soak your body in a spa. There are more accommodations at Big Meadow Lodge and Lewis Mountain Cabins (877-847-1919, http://www.goshenandoah.com).
Luray Caverns: Although not directly in the park, the Luray Caverns are some of the most extensive and impressive caves in the eastern United States. Miles of underground passageways wend between enormous flowstone formations, stalactites, stalagmites and clear ponds. There’s even a “stalagpipe organ,” a formation of stalagmites to which pneumatic hammers controlled by a keyboard have been attached. When the stalagmites are struck by the hammers, they ring like a xylophone. There are a number of commercial recordings of the “organ” being used to perform classical pieces, so it’s a serious instrument and reputedly the world’s largest at about three acres. The development at the caverns now includes a car museum, a toy museum, a carillon and a golf course. In 2013, the owners planted a vineyard (http://www.luraycaverns.com).
Hiking: There are 500 miles of improved trails in the park, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Most of the trailheads are just off Skyline Drive. The most popular hike is Old Rag Mountain, but it’s also the most strenuous — eight miles of trail with an elevation change of more than 2,000 feet over a three-mile span. Other hikes are much easier, such as Limberlost, which is near Skyland. Check out the hiking pages on the park website for a map and details. The views from among the trees or rocky outcroppings are spectacular any time of year, but more so in the fall (http://www.nps.gov/shen/planyourvisit/hiking.htm).
Waterfalls: There are many places where crystal clear water tumbles down the mountains. Overall Run Falls is the tallest, at 93 feet, located along a six-mile loop hiking trail at the north end of the park. South River Falls requires less than a three-mile round trip and affords rocky ledges as ringside seats for viewing the 83-foot-tall falls (http://www.nps.gov/shen/planyourvisit/waterfalls.htm).
Tastings: Near the south exit of the Drive, where Interstate 64 crosses Highway 250 at Waynesboro, a collection of more modern attractions has sprung up. Blue Mountain Brewery is a craft beer maker in Afton, just five miles from the park. There’s a restaurant offering pizza, sandwiches and burgers, but the stars are the Breweries beers: Blue Mountain Lager, Rockfish Wheat, Dark Hollow Artisanal Ale (a stout aged in used whiskey barrels) and more. The brewery is near the Monticello Wine Trail, which incorporates some of Virginia’s best vineyards including Afton Mountain, Cardinal Point, Pollak Vineyards, King Family Vineyards and Veritas Winery (http://www.monticellowinetrail.org).
Hit the road and take this scenic route to enjoy all the awesome natural beauty that the fall season has to offer and create memories to last a lifetime.