We’re nearing the end of an enjoyable family outing motoring along Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park when my husband decides it’s time for a break. He pulls into Skyland Resort, orders a beer in the Mountain Taproom and positions himself in front of the TV. It’s October and his favorite baseball team is in the playoffs.
But for my daughter and me, October isn’t about baseball, it’s about autumn colors — those precious few days of the year when the forest turns into a riot of reds and golds. We’re in one of the best places in the U.S. to see this annual show and right now it’s at its peak. We leave the baseball fan to his game and drive down the road intent on seeing as much as we can before dark. At the next trailhead we park and set off on Stony Man Trail. An easy mile and a half, it gives us just enough time to make a circuit before sunset.
In Your Bucket Because . . .
• You want to travel one of America’s great scenic highways at the peak of fall foliage season.
• You want a taste of the wilderness without being too far from an urban area.
• Good for those who love fall weather and leisurely drives through autumn scenery.
We pass clusters of oak trees, replacements for the old oaks cut in 19th-century sawmills and the American chestnuts wiped out by disease in the 1930s. Soon the vegetation is behind us and we emerge onto a rocky outcropping with a jaw-dropping view of the Shenandoah Valley to the west. From below, Stony Man resembles the face of a bearded man. We’re standing on his forehead. Mountain ridges rise and fall in the distance, their flanks ablaze with fall colors burnished by the sun hanging low on the horizon. A breeze picks up and ravens ride thermals at eye level. To the right Skyline Drive snakes off into the distance, a ribbon of pavement spooling out on the top of the ridge.
Returning to the Taproom, we chide my husband for what he missed. We got the better deal at the end of the day. His team lost — again.
Motoring Along Skyline Drive
Skyline Drive travels 105 miles through Shenandoah National Park from Front Royal, Virginia, in the north to the Rockfish Gap entrance near Waynesboro, Virginia, in the south. Long and skinny, the park measures just six miles across at its widest point with hiking trails, picnic areas and campgrounds spinning off Skyline Drive. About 1.2 million visitors come here a year, many for the fall colors. With 75 pullouts for scenic views and a 35 mph speed limit, the drive on this National Scenic Byway can take the better part of a day. Mileposts along the way help judge the distance and locate points of interest.
We find plenty of opportunities to get out and stretch our legs. The park has 500 miles of hiking trails, including a 101-mile segment of the Appalachian Trail that stretches between Maine and Georgia. We give it a try. Just 18 inches wide and strewn with rocks and exposed tree roots, it’s no easy walk in the woods, but we’re rewarded with sweeping views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, named for the blue haze that often clings to the hollows. It’s so quiet and the crisp, fall air is so still we can hear a dog barking on a farm in the Shenandoah Valley far below.
A Grand Western Park in the East
The Blue Ridge forms the eastern rampart of the Appalachian Mountains, with the highest elevations topping out at just over 4,000 feet. More than 100 types of trees grow in hardwood forests that cover 95 percent of the national park. Wildflowers bloom along the roadway, purposely left unmowed. As we drive along we see cardinal flower and goldenrod still blooming this late in the growing season. Black-eyed susans nod in the breeze. Wildlife flourishes as fields and pastures from the early 1900s return to natural woodlands. Park rangers estimate there are several thousand deer in the park and as many as 500 black bears.
The idea for Skyline Drive came from President Herbert Hoover who spent weekends at his fishing camp here. In 1931 he used drought-relief funds to pay local farmers to build the road along the ridge. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps continued the job, building rock walls, picnic areas and scenic overlooks— and putting men back to work during the Depression. Shenandoah National Park was formally established in 1935 as a way to bring the experience of the great national parks in the Western U.S. to the more urban areas of the East.
Big Meadows Lodge was built by the Corps in the style of the grand lodges in western parks with an expansive sitting room and interior featuring oak and now-extinct American chestnut. The exterior is locally quarried limestone. Its Spottswood Dining Room specializes in regional foods, including a to-die-for blackberry ice cream pie.
The park has four campgrounds and, for a bit more luxury while still roughing it, the Lewis Mountain Cabins have running water and electricity. Skyland Resort predates the national park. Built in 1887 as a mountain escape for city dwellers, it was called Stony Man Camp. Its Pollock Dining Room serves local dishes and regional wines. Before dinner, I join my dejected baseball fan in the Taproom for its traditional “mountain drink,” a moonshine cocktail served in a Mason jar. I drink to fabulous fall days and the foresight of those who set aside wilderness areas in which to enjoy them.
• Shenandoah National Park, nps.gov/shen, is 72 miles west of Washington, D.C.
• Autumn is the most popular season; bookings for park accommodations should be made well in advance at visitshenandoah.com.
• The 35 mph speed limit on Skyline Drive is strictly enforced. In bad weather, rangers may close the road. Recreational vehicle drivers should be aware that Marys Rock Tunnel, near milepost 32, has a clearance of 12 feet, 8 inches.
• Lock valuables in your car when parked at trailheads and lodges.
• Don’t approach or feed wildlife.
• Stay on marked hiking trails; some vegetation is fragile.