Where to Find the Best Fall Colors in Shenandoah National Park

Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park.
Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park. Adam Fagen
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Fall is well and truly in the air, and Virginia's Shenandoah National Park is one of the most spectacular places in the country to catch the bursting color of native trees. So much so, that each week in October, the Shenandoah National Park staff posts a weekly color report outlining fall foliage activity in the area. So far this season, the leaves are showing brilliantly and should continue to show that way over the next couple of weeks. At only 75 miles from DC, the park makes for an easy spontaneous escape from the city.

The main pathway of your leaf peeping journey will occur on Skyline Drive Scenic Highway—105 miles of paved road coursing through Shenandoah National Park, starting in Front Royal, Virginia at the north side (you’ll hit this first if coming from DC) curving south to Waynesboro, Virginia. Skyline Drive follows the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains and is surrounded 500 miles of hiking trails leading to peaks and valleys, stunning waterfalls, and 75 overlooks along Skyline Drive.

Here are some places to get into, under, and above the beautiful autumn leaves in the heart of the mid-Atlantic wilderness.

Leaf Peeping Among the Trees

A photographer's delight in Virginia—get to know the low-lying areas in Shenandoah. Pictured here, Dark Hallows Falls in early autumn.
A photographer's delight in Virginia—get to know the low-lying areas in Shenandoah. Pictured here, Dark Hallows Falls in early autumn. Shenandoah National Park

Waterfall Walking at Dark Hollow Trail

Take an easy stroll on one of the most popular hikes in Shenandoah at Dark Hollow Falls. The hike is short and sweet, and provides amazing walks upon waterfalls in the park. The Dark Hollow Trail converges with the Fisher’s Gap Fire Road which also leads to a four-mile loop starting at Fisher’s Gap Overlook (if starting from Skyline, this is at milepost 50). From here, descend among the trees along the river to the falls and to two shallow cascade pools that are surrounded by golden dogwoods trees that thrive in the Park’s lower elevations. Follow the fire trail back to the main road to close out the loop.

Go Big on the Riprap Trail

This is a scalable hiking/ camping adventure in terms of length, difficulty, and the amount of time you have. It's a 100-mile segment of the Appalachian Trail within the famed Blue Ridge Mountains, so named for a slight blue haze that hugs the horizon. A great day section begins at milepost 90 for a 10-mile loop from the Riprap marker to the Calvary Rocks cliff area and nearby watering holes.

Leaf Peeping From the Sky

Viewpoint of the sky at Little Stony Man Cliffs during early autumn 
Viewpoint of the sky at Little Stony Man Cliffs during early autumn  Shenandoah National Park

Big and Bold Bird Eye at Old Rag Loop

Stand above it all at Old Rag Loop , Shenandoah’s most well known, and most challenging hike. At this time of year, the summit vantage point is like staring at a Claude Monet painting—you know that from a micro-view it is packed with Dogwoods, Hickories, Maples, and Goldenrods, coloring ripely in shades of golden, copper, mustard, and ruby—but from the sky, the whole of the scene is very soft. The trail is nearly 9 miles, crossing over rock scrambles and upward climbs bringing you, literally, into the clouds. Return the way you hiked in or descend down the Saddle Trail and subsequent fire road to close the loop. The turn off from Skyline Drive is at mile marker 31 where you will follow U.S. 211 to Robertson Mountain.

Short and Easy With Big Views at Little Stony Man Cliffs

This 3-mile hike along the Appalachian Trail is short and easy leading to the park’s second highest peak. Stony Man Cliffs is beloved by leisure hikers, wildlife watchers, and especially with  photographers as it offers incredible overlooks onto the entire park. Little Stony Man sitting just below the main peak is a favored spot for local climbers. The trailhead location is at mile marker 41 on Skyline Drive.

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