Seeking Autumn Glory in Shenandoah National Park

“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.” 

~ L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

My husband and I love going leaf peeping every autumn, and try to come up with interesting itineraries for a one- or two-day trip. This year we planned an overnight trip, leaving mid-morning to drive over to Front Royal, at the base of Shenandoah National Park. We’d then follow Skyline Drive to Skyland, where we’d eat a late lunch, then exit the park at Thorton Gap and meander back north, parallel to the park up to Winchester, where we’d stay the night. The next day — and next week’s post — would take us into West Virginia and western Maryland, where we’d go hike to see the waterfalls in Swallow Falls State Park.

This was supposed to be the peak weekend for Shenandoah, and I watched weather and leaf forecasts anxiously. My fears came true: it was going to rain and be dreary most of the weekend, and “fall was coming slowly.” Our schedule wouldn’t permit postponing to the following weekend, so we decided to make the best of it, and headed out despite the gloomy forecast. This is a case where the journey and the fun we have together along the way, rather than the destination, was the point of the day trip.

As we drove into Front Royal, at the foot of the Shenandoah Mountains, we noticed the 44th Annual Festival of Leaves in full swing. Curious, we parked and headed over to enjoy the festivities. There were bands playing around the old-timey town square, and crafts and vendors along two closed off streets. Colonial period re-enactors mingled with the crowds around two of the historic homes/museums, and of course, the crowd had lots of dog-friendly people — our three dogs received a lot of attention, and we were grateful that Front Royal was so welcoming to our beagles and greyhound-mix.

It was, I think, the first time I’ve ever gotten out of the car in Front Royal. Since the time I was a kid, we’d always drive through, in a rush to get to the campground or the hike’s trail-head. If this describes your experience with Front Royal, then next time you’re there, plan a stop over for a few hours to explore this quaint historic town.

We noticed that many homes and vendors had fun Halloween decorations up already — it was a nice way to get in the mood for fall! Halloween decorations is one reason to love October! 

We strolled around for a couple hours, enjoying the town and even chatting with some of the folks we met — there’s nothing like small-town festivals for encountering friendly people who will start up a conversation about anything at all. The dogs were a good conversation starter.

While we were in Front Royal, we also detoured to visit the Prospect Hill Cemetery — there were some lovely trees starting to show off some spectacular color (it wasn’t quite peak there yet). Prospect Hill Cemetery sits overlooking the town of Front Royal, really a pretty location!

Finally we got back in the car and headed into Shenandoah National Park. Signs at the entrance warned of dense fog. We put on our fog lights, crossed our fingers, and hopped for the best. But before we were 2 miles up Skyline Drive, the fog and mist crept in. Still, the trees were beautiful against the white mist — they didn’t photograph really well, but it was still lovely!

I think we visited a week too early: there were a few bright, sweet spots here and there, mostly the dogwoods and another tree I didn’t know the name of. Dogwood trees display different shades of scarlet, all of them subtle and muted — not the splashy oranges or glowing reds of the maples.

My plan to photograph the overlooks didn’t quite go as I’d hoped — most of the overlooks provided spectacular views of … glaring white cloud, completely obscuring the land below. The fog, as warned, was dense and in some cases, we could barely see 30 feet in front of us. We crept along at 15 or 20 mph. The joy of leaf peeping is the journey afterall. At this rate, we got to enjoy the ride for twice as long as we’d predicted!
The day wasn’t a complete loss — there was a few spectacular splashes of color, and a few places along the drive where the fog cleared out completely. Even in the rain, the gold-hued trees, which I learned from the park’s website were hickories, birches, and sassafras, glowed, even under the cloudy sky. Plus, it wasn’t all that crowded, thanks to the weather, and we were able to drive at a comfortable pace and enjoy a relaxing day. The dogs, after stretching their legs and getting lots of attention at the Festival of Leaves, were quite content to curl up in the back seat and sleep off the sensory input.
According to the Park’s website (which I thought to check AFTER the trip), fall color was coming slowly to the Shenandoah mountains. Although the trees weren’t as spectacular as I’d hoped, it just wet my appetite for the following day, when we drove to Oakland, MD, along country roads that would take us through Romney, WV, before climbing the mountains into Maryland. 
After eating a pleasant lunch at the Skyland dining room — a burger for my husband and a pulled pork sandwich for me — we headed down Thorton Gap exit, to drive along Rt 340 parallel to the park, on our way up to Winchester, where we planned to spend the night.

Know before you go: There is enough green on the trees that I suspect that next weekend — October 18 and 19 — will still have plenty of autumn glory on the Skyline Drive!

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