top of page
  • Writer's pictureKris Maria Wanders

Your Fall Guide to Shenandoah National Park!

Updated: Aug 30, 2021

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!

The Leaf Low-down:

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.

No matter your activity preference or your timetable, there’s a fall adventure waiting in Shenandoah 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...

But First, Accommodations!:

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!

Outside of the park are quaint towns with Airbnb’s, hotels and the like. Some favorites are Culpepper, Front Royal and Luray.

Skyline Drive and Shenandoah valley from one of the park overlook points
Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park

What to do in Shenandoah's best season:

IMHO, the best way to enjoy the fall magic is to get all up in it with a hike!

1. Unbe-LEAF-able Hiking Trails

Stony Man Mountain is at the top of the hike list, 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!

Layers of mountains with fall foliage
Stony Man summit

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.

Girl standing on a rock overlooking the valley with mountains and a lake in the distance. Fall color
Viewpoint on Stony Man Loop

A tip? Both sunset and sunrise at Stony Man are spectacular.

Some other great trails for mountain vistas 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!

Pictured: Bearfence (left/top), Hawksbill (right/bottom).

Locals Tip: For those wishing to avoid the crowds, hike to Hightop peak near Swift Run Gap entrance station. It’s a bit steep, but worth the views! (You'll have to picture the colors on this one)

Layers of mountains with a road through them barely visible
View from Hightop Peak Summit

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.

Pictured: Cedar Run (left/top), White Oak Canyon (middle), Dark Hollow Falls (right/bottom).

Locals Tip: 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.

I girl stands in front of a waterfall in the mountains
Lewis Spring Falls

2. Cruise 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. Accessible from 4 different entrance stations, Skyline Drive has over 70 scenic overlook points. Stop at any of them to snap some shots 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.

Locals Tip: 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!

A 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 (pictured left/top) and Pinnacles Overlook (right/bottom).

Pictured: Mary's Rock Tunnel

3. Peep and Sip at a Winery or Brewery!

After your hike (or your drive), you can quench your thirst at one of the area’s wineries. Many 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 two favorites- Backroom Brewery and Front Royal Brewing Company. FRBC is among my favorites partly for the food and beer and partly for the bakery it’s connected to. The smell when you walk in is seriously mouth-watering. There’s no way you’re leaving without entering the bakery. 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 doughnut burger. As the name suggests, it comes on a glazed doughnut bun!

Prefer not to leave the park? Both Skyland Resort and Big Meadows lodge offer dining options with a view!

4. Leaf Peep and 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!

A girl standing in front of a mountain overlook with a sunburst in the sky.
Dickey Ridge Visitor Center

Other Musts for Those Spending a Few Days:

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.

A blue pool and cave formations inside Luray Caverns
Luray Caverns

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!

Apple cider donuts
Apple Cider donuts from Apple House

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.

A girl stands against a railing overlooking a river that winds through the mountains. Fall color
Everett Cullers Overlook- Shenandoah State Park

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 Virginia adventure. 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!

Pin this post.

847 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page