2014 Fall Color Report

Fallen autumn leaves on Whiteoak Trail, in the rain

NPS photo

November 14, 2014

"My sorrow, when she's here with me, thinks these dark days of autumn rain are beautiful as days can be; she loves the bare, the withered tree; she walks the sodden pasture lane."

~ Robert Frost

Finding fall color in the area of Shenandoah National Park this week is like looking into a big vellum gift bag for a couple handfuls of M&Ms; it’s there, but at the bottom of everything, in the lower depths. What you’ll find if you come to Shenandoah National Park anytime in the next week or two is that most of the color at the highest elevations is gone. But if you pull off at some of the overlooks along Skyline Drive and look out into the Piedmont or the Shenandoah Valley, you’re still going to see some brilliant dots dappling the bottoms of hollows. Some of them are pretty dramatic hues, too – backlit golds, moody plums, scarlets, and bronzes, russets the color of a pretty redhead’s hair. If the sun is hitting those trees with leaves still left on them, you can still be mesmerized by the glorious array of colors here and there. That’s what overlooks are for, so pull off and take a look as often as you can.

Don’t forget to look down. On the ground you might find some bright colors still, artistic spatterings of leaves that have fallen. Be careful as you hike on downed leaves, as they can make the trails very slippery and dangerous, especially on rocks and when the leaves and ground are wet. But they’re so pretty – like designer mulch made by nature.

Winter is coming. It’s much closer than it was last week this time. The winds have picked up, and they’re chilly. They smell and sound of snow. They are almost visible, conveying moods and emotions – the natural body language of the coming winter – melancholy lavenders, icy blue-whites, frosty silver-grays. The leaves that have fallen seem to come to life with the winds, twirling and tumbling along trails and across parking lots and Skyline Drive. Deer, when you see them, have put on their dark-taupe winter coats, and seem to bustle into food-finding, keeping-warm mode. Birds are somber seeming – dark gray juncos, black crows and ravens, dark vultures. Occasionally you might spot a red-tailed hawk or barred owl perched high in a leafless oak, looking for a rodent meal. Bright colors have faded and become darker, stoic, just a tad contemplative and gloomy – the colors of sleep and rest and getting ready for warmer months ahead.

Rest assured, those warmer months are coming.

This is the last fall color report for Shenandoah National Park for 2014. Fall color reports will begin again next autumn, probably the last week of September.

Have a safe and wonderful winter.

Thornton Hollow sunrise, October
Fall sunrise from Thornton Hollow Overlook

NPS/Neal Lewis

November 7, 2014

Fall color report for Friday, November 7, 2014.

“The tints of autumn...a mighty flower garden blossoming under the spell of the enchanter, frost.”

~ John Greenleaf Whittier

In the song “America the Beautiful” lyricist Katherine Lee Bates dubbed our country’s ridges “purple mountain majesties.” This week, when you look out from the overlooks along Skyline Drive, into the hollows and hills of Shenandoah National Park and across the Shenandoah Valley to the Massanutten Mountains and over the foothills of the Virginia Piedmont, that phrase might come to mind. When the trees shed their leaves late in the year, as the trees in Shenandoah and nearby hills and ridges are doing now, the mountains really do take on an amethyst glow. Purple is the color of royalty, and that royal theme reverberates nicely, as most of the color left in the park and seen from its overlooks is gold. Purple and gold – the park is positively regal this week!

Winter is coming. Everything in nature is hunkering down. These mountains and all their inhabitants will soon be under the spell of frost and cold. Dormancy reigns; time to rest and regroup. Most of the deciduous trees in Shenandoah have shed their leaves for the year – most, for there are still some impressive displays of sun-struck gold – almost metallic – in the lower elevations! Hickories, sassafras, and birches are hanging on till the end, and strutting their stuff. When the sun hits those still-golden trees, and you’re there to watch (frankly, whether you’re there to watch or not), the hollows and hillsides explode with light, beautiful light.

It’s not over yet.

Here and there, as you drive Skyline Drive, you can still see polychromatic treats for the eye – sumacs who refuse to go drab, sassafras who seem to be vying for attention, the very occasional maple who seems to enjoy burning brightly just for you. There is a maple (or there was yesterday) on the west side of Skyline Drive between miles 25 and 26 who is putting on a one-tree fireworks show.

This won’t last, this last burst of color. But it’s here now, and if you can make your way to Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive very soon, you might get a front-row seat to autumn’s last display.

This fall color report will be updated for the last time this year on Friday, November 14, 2014, so check in to see how the seasons and colors are changing in Shenandoah National Park.

Buck Hollow sunrise, fall color report 10-31-14, resized for the web

NPS/Neal Lewis

October 31, 2014

Fall color report for Friday, October 31, 2014.

“Autumn…the year’s last, loveliest smile.”

~ William Cullen Bryant

“Gloriously golden” is how one poetic ranger described the hills and hollows of Shenandoah National Park this week. That, fans of Shenandoah, is a perfect description of this week’s fall color.

The peak of color has passed in the park, no matter what part of it you’re talking about. But that doesn’t mean the color has disappeared completely, or even faded, everywhere. Many trees have lost their leaves, which means there are taupe-gray hillsides aplenty. The beauty of that situation, though, is that the trees which have not shed their leaves – particularly the hickories and tuliptrees that burn “gloriously golden” – stand out beautifully and proudly. Like candlelight shining through the eye holes and snaggle-toothed smile of a jack-o’-lantern, these incidental glowing trees flash and shimmer like nobody’s business.

In the central, highest-elevation portion of the park, the trees’ leaves have mostly loosed themselves and fluttered to the ground. As you drive along Skyline Drive in these highest parts of Shenandoah, you’ll no longer see masses of color along the roadside. Though there are still some phosphorescent sassafras and sumacs – some so flushed, vibrant, and gorgeous you’ll hardly be able to stand it – the forest has begun to pull on the blanket of less dramatic earth tones – ashen oysters, dusty doves, sere, mousy browns and grays. Even Big Meadows has sobered up for winter, having covered itself with the somber putties and smoky dull-metal irons and pewters of winter. Goldenrods and asters have gone to seed, and have shed their radiating mustard yellows and moonlit purples.

But pull off at an overlook anywhere in the park this week and you’ll be treated still to those gloriously golden patches and dots of hickories and tuliptrees. In the hollows and valleys of this part of the Blue Ridge, you can still see an incredible array of hues: those glorious goldens, and also the bright-metal copper of oaks, the paprikas and cayennes of some late-changing maples, and the lime green of sycamores and moosewoods. The Low Gap area around mile 8 on Skyline Drive is awash in fiery golds, made mood lifting by the darkness of the almost-black predominating tuliptrees’ trunks.

Here and there is still the brightly burning crimson maple – boo! -- and every now and then you’ll see a henna-colored ash gleaming through the drabness. These are the late changers, and seem to have waited just a little longer to turn, almost as if they want to delight you, the Shenandoah visitor. Enjoy every treat, for they, too, will eventually shed their crayon tones to nod off and sleep deeply through the winter.

Generally speaking, the northern and southern parts of Shenandoah National Park – since they are in the lower elevations – are where you’ll find the most color this late in the autumn season. But don’t let that stop you from driving through the park’s central district, as the views from the overlooks all along Skyline Drive into the kaleidoscopic low points are still gorgeous like the Promised Land. Come to Shenandoah and see it for yourself, if you can, sometime this week.

This fall color report will be updated on Friday, November 7, 2014, so check back then to see what’s happening color-wise in Shenandoah National Park.

Thornton Hollow view

October 17, 2014

Fall color report for Friday, October 17, 2014.

“There is a harmony in autumn and a luster in its sky…”

~ Percy Bysshe Shelley

Harmony indeed – harmony of color, light, and mood. That’s what autumn brings to just about everyone.

This all might sound a bit lofty, yes. But if you come to Shenandoah National Park anytime in the next week, you might be surprised by how the colors of fall in the Blue Ridge help bring a sense of accord – with nature, with the world, with yourself. Gazing out into hillsides coated in the splendid golds, oranges, and scarlets of autumn is good for the blood pressure, a great stress reliever, a bringer of peace of mind.

Although it might seem like an easy thing to do, predicting a fall color peak is almost impossible – at least it’s impossible to do expertly or well. Colors peak in different places – different elevations, different temperatures, different forest types – at different times. When the color is at peak at mile 42 along Skyline Drive, around Stony Man, it might still be very green at mile 10, at Compton Gap. A hillside that faces north, like the one you can see from Eaton Hollow Overlook at mile 70.3, can still be vivid green, even as the southwest-facing hillside directly across from it is flocked with the colors of a Thanksgiving Day buffet table. The color at Hawksbill, in the park’s highest elevation, will peak long before that at Low Gap in the north district. Like meringue swirled and spun with a pie-maker’s spatula and popped into a blazing hot oven, high points color first.

That being said, if there is one week to come to Shenandoah to absorb the de-stressing benefits of fall, it is this week. You’re likely to see the widest range of color in these mountains between Front Royal and Waynesboro if you plan to arrive in the park sometime between now and next weekend. While there’s still a surfeit of green in the leaves in the lower elevations, in many parts of Shenandoah green is just a backdrop for the speckles of pumpkin oranges, carnelians, wines, and almost metallic golds and bronzes of maples, Virginia creeper, hickories, and ashes. Sumacs are still surprising with their chameleon Day-Glo tones of shocking orange, chartreuse, and pomegranate red. Sassafras’ mitten-shaped leaves seem to wave at you, in candy store shades – butterscotch, Fireball, lime, and tangerine. In places where the leaves have already started to waft ground-ward, a lone maple the color of a Tahiti sunset startles you awake. The views from Skyline Drive’s overlooks are heart-stopping magnificent. Prepare to be surprised!

This fall color report will be updated on Friday, October 24, 2014, so check back then to see how the color is progressing.

Skyline Drive in autumn

October 10, 2014

Fall color report for Friday, October 10, 2014.

“Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.”

~ George Eliot

If you were able to fly like a bird over Shenandoah National Park right now, you would be able to see the big picture of how autumn is unfolding and expanding here; this 105-mile-long park would happily show you the many phases of a season. The northern third of the park has some of the lowest elevations, so fall – delicious fall, which flows down the mountain like candy sprinkle-flecked maple syrup over mounds of thick oatmeal – has begun to drip in a few bright, sweet spots here and there. Dogwood trees, features of the park’s northern end, display different shades of scarlet, all of them subtle and muted. In the center of the park, the highest elevations, the mountainsides and summits flash large patches of dramatic oranges and reds, saffron yellows, turmeric golds. Blueberry bushes in the north half of Big Meadows, smack dab in the center of Shenandoah, burn chili powder red. In the south district the palette is sunnier – yellows, golds, pumpkin oranges, mangoes – with the occasional jolt of a neon-red maple spattering the canvas.

On the ground, driving Skyline Drive or hiking the park's trails, sumacs continue to blaze rainbow tones, like a rack of color samples in a paint store. Hickories, birches, and sassafras radiate happy hues of sunshine. (Even when it’s raining, when you see these gold-hued trees smiling at you, you’re fooled into believing the sun is coming out – arboreal mood lifters!) Goldenrods are fading, but purple asters continue to glimmer like moonbeams. One young maple stands proudly at Meadow Spring parking, offering every upbeat Day-Glo color you can imagine.

Fall oozes slowly this year. There’s still a great deal of green – lodens, olives, limes. Low Gap, the tuliptree-filled area around mile 8 on Skyline Drive, is still mostly verdant, sporting only touches of yellow-gold in the very tops of the trees. Hillsides of oaks and evergreens still defy the color wheel of fall, providing a lovely backdrop to the polychrome patches of gums, maples, hickories, birches, and beeches.

That’s the color THIS week. Remember, though fall seems to be coming on slowly this year in the Blue Ridge, it can change mood and tempo as it so desires – quickly, without warning or permission. It’s a mercurial season. Like a woman in the old saying about the fairer sex, fall reserves the right to change its mind at any time. Come to Shenandoah to find out for yourself how autumn is progressing in the Blue Ridge.

This fall color report will be updated on Friday, October 17, 2014, so check back then to see how things are coming along.

Misty mountain ridge showing dots of fall color.

NPS/Neal Lewis

October 3, 2014

Fall color report for Friday, October 3, 2014.

"I'm so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers."

~ L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

This week the mountains are subtly polka-dotted with color. Red-orange, gold, auburn, and lime dot the still dark green hillsides and hollows like billiard balls on a pool table. That's what you'll see from many of the overlooks along Skyline Drive anyway. There's still a lot of summer green left in Shenandoah.

But as you drive through the park or walk its trails, close-ups offer something entirely different: Birches and hickories are still startling with marigold hues. Sumacs, always a pleasant shock, shout out their amazing neons. Virginia creepers are the stars of the forest, storming the woods' stage with their bright Hawaiian Punch-red displays. There is one dead hemlock tree on the east side of Skyline Drive, fittingly situated near Hemlock Springs Overlook, which is almost completely swathed in Virginia creeper, like someone draped a gravestone with a bright red scarf.

Asters and goldenrods are still gracing the roadsides and open spaces with hues reminiscent of a field in Provence –cheery yellows and lavenders. There are still quite a few bright green gum trees speckled with scarlet tips. Ash trees, like exotic ladies, smolder – purplish bronze on the outside, fiery amber within.
Big Meadows, in the park's center, has turned somber – taupes, camels, and various shades of brown – but it, too, is dotted still with paprika oranges and cumin-colored ochers. You can tell when you look at Big Meadows it's dozing off, preparing to pull on its winter blanket.

What's always fun to watch is the way fall oozes down the mountains, into the hollows and valley below. When you gaze out from one of Skyline Drive's overlooks, notice how this happens. Somehow, it's comforting to witness. Though it varies each year in its intensity and pace, fall moves this way year after year, soothing in its sameness.

The colors of the forest are changing by the day, by the hour, by the minute. Come to Shenandoah and see it for yourself.

This fall color report will be updated on Friday, October 10, 2014, so check back then to see how things are progressing.

Bursts of red seem to characterize the 2014 early fall.

September 26, 2014

Fall color report for Friday, September 26, 2014.

Every autumn is different, and every day –every hour –of every autumn is different. This year in Shenandoah National Park, some of autumn's colors are taking the stage, very boldly and by storm.

To be sure, most trees are still green. It's still early in the season, so that behavior is not unusual. Many trees are just beginning to take on a presaging gold-green. And some hickories and birches are alight, golden yellow, as are milkweeds' leaves. Virginia creeper, a prolific vine in the park, is transforming, too, into various shades of scarlet –wine, cherry, and candy apple. Dogwoods in the north district are dappled with bronze. Gums –also early changers –are dressed in vermillion, many of them since late summer. Sumacs are neon. Asters the color of moonlight and goldenrods the shade of sunshine are displaying their usual mood-lifting hues.In Big Meadows, blueberry bushes have blushed that shade of red you have to see to believe.

But the maples! Apparently, the maples –especially the sugar maples –have selected a few leaders to go ahead of the rest of tree tribe and glow. Dotting the hillsides along Skyline Drive very occasionally you may be startled by branch tips, whole branches, and even whole trees the color of fire. Surprise!

But note: This report is based on what was happening yesterday, Thursday, September 25. Autumn is mercurial, in Shenandoah National Park and everywhere else. Temperatures at night and in the daytime, wind, rain, and all the other weather features typical of a fickle season all affect autumn's mood. In other words, what you see when you arrive in the park may be very different from what you read in this report and the other five fall color reports forthcoming this season.

Consider yourself notified.

The best plan you can make is to just come to Shenandoah National Park and see for yourself how wonderful and beautiful this magical lady is –whatever colors she chooses to dress herself in.

The fall color report will be updated every Friday through the end of October, so look for the next one on October 3, 2014.


Last updated: October 19, 2017

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