Everyone’s favorite park is waiting for your fall visit

Everyone’s favorite park is waiting for your fall visit

By Julie Reardon

Blue Ridge - Strasburg Reservoir. Photo by Shannon Koprivich

Every fall, we try to share scenic drives people can enjoy within an hour or so from Alexandria where you can see peak fall colors and perhaps an interesting stop or winery to visit along the way. With more wineries and local markets opening every year, it can be a challenge to pick the right one. And if you live in Northern Virginia, you’ve probably been told every fall to avoid the Skyline Drive, the road that goes through the Shenandoah National Park, when the foliage is at peak color, because it’s so crowded. The Shenandoah National Park is the beloved favorite and most heavily used of all our local National Parks, and Skyline Drive may have more cars than usual on the weekends closest to peak predictions, but on a weekday you’d be surprised how little traffic there is.  Skyline Drive certainly has to rank up there as the prettiest road in the entire mid Atlantic, if not the East Coast. If you’ve never driven it, I can think of no good reason not to take a spin down it this fall.

On a trip to a friend’s farm in the middle of Shenandoah Valley, I took a leisurely route including about 75 miles encompassing most of the 103-mile Skyline Drive. I hadn’t been on it since I was a child and wanted to see if the views were as big as I remembered and if it was worth the price of admission.  It was, and the mountains while not as big as childhood memory, were every bit as breathtaking. I think I appreciate the mystique and beauty of Shenandoah National Park even more.   It was one of those crisp, low humidity days where you could see for miles and it’s just as spectacular now as it was many years ago when my parents took us. The park—and the northern terminus of the Skyline Drive—are in Front Royal, just 75 miles west.  Skyline Drive is the only road through the Shenandoah National Forest and takes about 3 hours total driving time, even if you poke along and stop to take selfies and scenery shots at some of the scenic overlooks.

There is an admission fee for all this splendor, but don’t let that deter you. The charge is modest—$15, or you can buy a seven day car pass for $30. For you baby boomers, if you’ve reached age 62, you can buy a Senior Pass for $80 that gives you free admission to all National Park Service parks including Shenandoah for the rest of your life. The income from these user fees goes to maintenance of the parks and projects that benefit visitors.  When you think of the costs of maintaining this pristine 220,000 acre park in our back yards, you’ll realize the price of admission is a bargain.

The park is open year round though many of the concessions operate on a March through November schedule. Portions of the Skyline Drive, the only road through the park, are closed at certain times: during inclement weather and at night during deer season from November through January. The hotline to call for recorded information about closings is (540) 999-3500. Shenandoah National Forest offers much to do and see in addition to driving through it and gaping at the views. The park is loaded with hiking trails, everything from easy strolls for families with young children, the frail and lazy to rigorous rock climbs. There are over 500 miles of trails maintained there on what most say is the most scenic stretch of the Appalachian Trail. Many trailheads connect with the Appalachian Trail; others lead to hidden waterfalls, scenic hollows and granite peaks.

Concessions include 3 restaurants with full meals seasonally as well as grocery/grab and go snack places about every 25 miles. A popular spot to eat and enjoy the views is the restaurant at Big Meadow Lodge. There is a pet friendly terrace for al fresco dining that is pet friendly and offers “yappy hour” meals for your four legged friends. The Lodge closes for the winter on Nov. 4. Reservations are strongly suggested for the popular fall season as well as for lodging, you can go online or call 888-359-0277.

Lodging includes camping sites as well as rustic seasonal cabins for rent. Campsites and cabins book quickly during the fall leaf season but you can check availability online or call the above number. If you’d like to see the park from the back of a horse, there are 1 and 2.5 hour guided trail rides from the park’s Skyland Stables (located at mile 42.5) on sure footed well trained trail horses starting at $50 as well as pony rides for the children. While no reservations are needed for the pony rides, at this time of year you must reserve your spot on the trail rides by phone only, 888-359-0277.

Blue Ridge- Glen Manor Vineyards view in the park. Photo by Shannon Koprivich

Shenandoah National Forest and Skyline Drive have four main entrances, and two of them are easy drives from our area. The Front Royal entrance, at the northernmost end, is at I-66 and Route 340 (Exit 6 off of I-66). The Thornton Gap entrance is near Sperryville, VA and can be accessed by exiting I-66 at Gainesville and driving to Warrenton (9 miles) then west on Rt. 211 to Sperryville (28 miles).  The fastest way is via Front Royal, but driving west from Warrenton on Rt. 211 through Rappahannock County is an especially pretty drive during the fall.

While it’s true that Shenandoah National Forest gets the most traffic of any of our nation’s state parks, that’s due to our generally mild climate and its year-round availability as well as its proximity to several metro areas and many millions of people. But hey—a lot of those millions are lazy couch potatoes who aren’t going to drive anywhere, much less pay money, to look at trees they can see on the internet. Speaking of, the National Park Service has a nifty website for the Shenandoah and its other parks, just type in www.nps.gov and information/reservations for campsites, cabins, horseback riding and other programs can be done online at www.goShenandoah.com.

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