Fall in the Eastern U.S. just hits different- especially in the Blue Ridge mountains. There’s no place quite like Shenandoah National Park to witness the leaves change. With such a variety of trees turning shades of yellow, orange and red, it’s a magical display you have to experience!
Timing Your Fall Trip To Shenandoah National Park: Foliage Timing
At higher elevations (3,500 ft+), the leaves begin changing as soon as early October. Trees at mid to lower elevations gradually follow suit, with peak foliage hitting sometime near late October/early November. The park usually provides a weekly foliage report to show how things are looking in different sections of the park. There are also several live cameras so you can literally see for yourself!
No matter your activity preference or your timetable, there’s a fall adventure waiting in Shenandoah National Park for everyone. Personally, I’d recommend spending at least a weekend. This National Park is bigger than you think! Let's talk about all the things you can do...
Where to Stay on Your Fall Trip to Shenandoah National Park
If you are planning to stick around for least a few days (highly recommended), there are several options to choose from. Skyland Resort and Big Meadows Lodge are great accommodations right inside the park- both have access to hiking trails just outside the doors. There are also mountain cabins and several campgrounds within the park boundaries!
Outside of the park are quaint towns with Airbnbs, hotels and the like. Some of my favorite gateway towns to SNP are Culpeper, Front Royal, Luray, Harrisonburg and Charlottesville. Which one to choose largely depends on what you want to do! For example, Front Royal is an easy choice for those wanting to concentrate most of their visit in the Northern Section of the park. Keep in mind, this is is also the busiest section, as it's the closest to DC. Charlottesville provides convenient access to the Southern portion of the park, which is often the least crowded. It is also about 30 minutes away from the Northern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway, making it a great option. If you prefer to base yourself somewhere in the middle, I'd recommend Luray, Culpeper or Harrisonburg. All three of these historic Virginia towns have fantastic local restaurants, breweries, shops, etc. If you're a beer person- Culpeper and Harrisonburg have excellent breweries!
Best Things to Do on Your Fall Trip to Shenandoah National Park
In my personal opinion, the best way to enjoy the fall magic in Shenandoah National Park is to get all up in it with a hike! There are seriously so many good hikes to choose from in every District of the park. Which ones to choose depends largely on how much time you have, your ability level, etc., so I'll touch on a variety of my favorites!
1. Best Fall Hikes in Shenandoah National Park
Stony Man Mountain is at the top of hike list regardless of the season, with a trail to the summit accessible from Skyland Resort. It’s a short, very moderate hike to Stony Man summit- the second tallest peak in the park at 4,000 feet. In the fall, you can see Skyline drive winding through colorful mountains in two different directions. It’s a sight to behold!
My favorite route for this one is a 3.5 mile loop via the Passamaquoddy and Appalachian trails that includes the sister (brother?) overlook of Little Stony Man.
You can also do a simple out and back for 1.5 miles.
A tip? Both sunset and sunrise at Stony Man are spectacular.
Some other great trails for mountain vistas in the Central District (between Thornton Gap and Swift Run Gap entrance stations) include: Mary’s Rock, Hawksbill, Bearfence and the beloved Old Rag. I’ve linked my favorite Alltrails routes for each of these, but most of them have several options! Please note you do need a day use permit for Old Rag between March 1 and November 30, 2023. While it is one of the most popular hikes on the East Coast, it is quite challenging, so make sure to plan and prepare in advance!
Pictured: Bearfence (left/top), Hawksbill (middle), Marys Rock (right/bottom).
For those wishing to avoid the crowds, hike to Hightop peak near Swift Run Gap entrance station. It’s a bit steep (roughly 1,000 feet elevation gain over 1.5 miles), but worth the views at the top! This is one of Shenandoah's most underrated summit hikes.
In the Northern District of the park, one of my absolute favorite hikes is Compton Peak. A 2.3-mile hike (rated moderate), Compton Peak features one of Shenandoah's best geological wonders- columnar jointing resulting from ancient lava flows. It's a must-see if you're a geology nerd! There is also a wonderful summit view. Just 5 miles south of Compton Peak is North Marshall Mountain. This short 1.2 mile hike (rated Easy) along the Appalachian Trail offers some great overlooks of Skyline Drive and the surrounding mountains. This is a great option for those with little ones. Another great moderate (3.8 miles) hike in Northern Shenandoah is Snead Farm/Dickey Ridge Loop. This can be completed from the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, which also offers some pretty incredible views.
Though mountain vistas are a hit for fall foliage, it wouldn’t be right to leave out the waterfalls! Two of the most popular hikes in the park- Dark Hollow Falls and White Oak Canyon- will be at their busiest during the fall season, but their beauty won’t disappoint. There’s just something about a waterfall surrounded by reds, oranges, and yellows that is irresistible. I personally prefer the Cedar Run side of the White Oak Canyon loop, but both are incredible. Cedar Run is slightly more difficult due to rocks and steep terrain. White Oak Canyon is a little more family-friendly, but still a good workout! If you go from lower to upper falls, you'll catch at least 6 different waterfalls in total.
Pictured: Cedar Run (left/top), White Oak Canyon (middle), Dark Hollow Falls (right/bottom).
A quieter (yet equally beautiful) option is Lewis Spring Falls. I missed the peak of the foliage here, but the lack of leaves made for a clearer view of the falls. This hike also has a mountain overlook, so it’s the best of both worlds. Some of my other favorite waterfall hikes in Shenandoah include Overall Run Falls (the tallest single-drop waterfall in the park), Doyles River Falls (which can be combined with Jones Run Falls) and South River Falls (steep, but worthwhile). Check out this post for more details on Shenandoah's best waterfalls.
2. Take a Scenic Drive on Skyline Drive
For those who’d rather not hike, you can’t go wrong cruising Skyline Drive (either by car or by bike). Winding through the Blue Ridge Mountains, this scenic 105-mile road runs the entire length of the park and eventually connects to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Accessible from 4 different entrance stations, Skyline Drive has over 70 scenic overlook points. Stop at any of them to snap some photos or stay to enjoy a full-on picnic. If you’re short on time, make the most of it by picking out a segment of Skyline and planning your stops in advance! Honestly though, you can’t go wrong with any of them. I can't recommend enough catching a sunset!
The Southern entrance stations tend to see less visitors than the Northern ones (Front Royal and Thornton Gap), meaning less wait time to enter the park! You'll also save time if you have an annual parks pass. Often, they have a separate lane for pass holders that moves much faster.
Tip: Personally, I think Mary’s Rock tunnel just south of Thornton Gap entrance station is worth a stop (even if it’s busy). It’s the only tunnel in the park, and you can even climb to the top! You’ll get endless golden yellow leaves here! Other notable points are Old Rag Overlook, Pinnacles Overlook and Signal Knob overlook.
Pictured: Mary's Rock Tunnel
3. Visit one of Virginia's Wineries or Breweries!
After your hike (or your drive), you can quench your thirst at one of the area’s many wineries. Several of them offer mountain views to gaze upon when you sip on a glass of Virginia wine. There are plenty to choose from, but the winery pictured below is Little Washington Winery in Washington, VA. The views from their deck are excellent!
There are a good number of breweries too!
I’m more of a beer person myself, so I’d recommend a few favorites- Backroom Brewery and Vibrissa Brewing Company. There's also Hawksbill Brewing if you're in Luray, Woodstock Brewery if you're near Woodstock, Three Notch'd, Random Row and Starr Hill if you're in Charlottesville, and Brothers Craft, Pale Fire, and the Friendly Fermenter (among others) if you're in Harrisonburg. Basically, Virginia is for craft beer lovers. If you're into unique and/or eclectic brews, stop at Penn Druid in Sperryville.
If you stop at Vibrissa in Front Royal, there’s no way you’re leaving without entering the bakery next door. It’s a locally-owned place with everything made fresh daily, and I’ll tell you their cinnamon buns are INSANE. I got one with Maine blueberries on top and it was the best cinnamon bun I’ve ever had. EVER.
I wasn’t planning on going too much into food here, but since I’m on the subject…The Grill 309 in Culpepper is a must for foodies. They’re known for their burgers, and if you want something pretty different…I recommend the donut burger. As the name suggests, it comes on a glazed donut bun! Far Gohn is hands down my favorite brewery in Culpeper!
Prefer not to leave the park? Both Skyland Resort and Big Meadows lodge offer dining options with a view! Skyland has incredible blackberry pie that I always recommend to visitors. Big Meadows has a lovely Tap Room as well.
4. Have a Fall Picnic!
With so many overlooks on Skyline Drive, the picnic options are endless. Dickey Ridge Visitor Center near the Front Royal entrance station has a great picnic area, restrooms, wide open space for the kids (or pups) to run around, and fantastic views!
Other Fall Must-Stops Near Shenandoah National Park:
1. Luray Caverns
If you have time outside of leaf peeping, or just need something different to do, head over to Luray Caverns! It’s the largest caverns in the eastern US and features the Great Stalacpipe Organ. It’s the largest musical instrument in the world (made by Mother Nature!) and is absolutely fascinating to hear.
2. The Apple House
In Linden, VA, just off of the 66 Front Royal exit, there’s a vintage eatery & country store called the Apple House. In addition to serving up BBQ, they specialize in fresh made apple cider donuts and fritters. They’re DELIGHTFUL, and a fall must!
3. Shenandoah River State Park
This state park in Bentonville, VA is a popular spot for camping and also offers a number of great hiking options. My personal favorite view (pictured) is from the Everett Cullers overlook. You can make a hike of it, or take advantage of the parking lot for a quick look.
4. Kayak or Canoe on the Shenandoah River
This option is a personal favorite in the summer and fall. We rent kayaks from Front Royal Outdoors and paddle along the beautiful Shenandoah River. You can go anywhere from a short, 3-mile trip to a full day adventure, taking in the mountain scenery. You can even see Skyline Drive cutting through the mountains from below!
There you have it! So many incredible ways to experience the fall season at Shenandoah National Park. I hope this inspires you to create your own customized adventure. For more places to see fall colors in Virginia, check out this post.
As always, let me know if you have any questions, and happy exploring!
Interested in visiting the Newest National Park? Check out my New River Gorge guide here!