“Good Lord Boyet, my beauty, though but mean,
Needs not the painted flourish of your praise:
Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye,
Not utter’d by base sale of chapmen’s tongues.”
~ William Shakespeare, “Love’s Labours Lost,” 1588
“Beauty, like supreme dominion,
Is but supported by opinion.”
~ Benjamin Franklin, “Poor Richard’s Almanack,” 1741
Though it’s true that what each of us considers as beautiful (or not) is entirely subjective, Shenandoah National Park is always beautiful – at any time, in any season, in the eyes and opinions of almost everyone.
...just about everyone would agree that fall brought her brightest, most vibrant colors to Shenandoah National Park last week. This week, though it’s still autumn in this part of the Blue Ridge, the colors – though still gorgeous – are more muted. You must accept this and learn to appreciate it for what it is: this is nature.
But that doesn’t mean the trees are all bare. There are still plenty of lovely trees wearing their crushed-velvet gowns in sophisticated, grown-up shades like russet, pumpkin, thyme green, and cumin. In the early afternoon stop by Jenkins Gap Overlook at mile 12.4 and try to count how many different hues you see there. The view from Pinnacles Overlook at mile 35 is one of the best going this week, with all the colors of a spice drawer – paprika, ginger, clove, sage, chili powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and saffron – on one hillside. Heading south, when you round the bend just past Stony Man Overlook (mile 38.6) and gaze up at the old, recumbent man in the mountains, you'll see broad strokes of forest greens, cabernet sauvignon purples, allspice browns, Dijon mustard ochres, and the interspersed grizzle of trees who have lost their leaves already along with long-dead hemlocks who never got needles this year. In the waning light of late afternoon, this makes for a majestic scene that is not nearly as somber as it sounds, and much more resplendent.
The view from Bearfence, a short rock scramble to a 360-degree view that begins at mile 56.4, is like looking onto a huge artist’s palette of oil colors – terre verte, chrome yellow, cadmium yellow and cadmium orange, jaune brilliant, renaissance gold, copper, Venetian red, terra rosa, brown ochre, and raw umber – all, if you’re lucky, under a cerulean blue sky.
Remember as you travel through the Park in the next few days what Margaret Wolfe Hungerford wrote in 1878 in Molly Bawn: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” In some places you will have to pull out the imagination you haven’t let play since spring and let it play now, in order to realize just how beautiful is the sight you’re taking in. In other places along Skyline Drive or some of the Park’s 500-plus miles of hiking trails you might be – without any effort at all on your part – struck breathless by patches of brilliant, pure autumn colors. But make no mistake: it’s all beautiful. You’d be foolish not to come to Shenandoah National Park as soon as possible, if you can, and see it for yourself.
"How beautiful, when a whole tree is like one great scarlet fruit full of ripe juices, every leaf, from lowest limb to topmost spire, all aglow, especially if you look toward the sun! What more remarkable object can there be in a landscape?"
~ Henry David Thoreau
Finally, autumn has arrived in Shenandoah National Park –and she's carrying her own torches to light her way.
This is the moment we've all been waiting for.
How many synonyms are there for astounding? You can drive through Shenandoah on Skyline Drive in any direction you choose –any way is gorgeous –but this reporter drove in both directions yesterday (Thursday, October 20) from early afternoon until dusk, from Low Gap at mile 8 to Browns Gap at mile 83. And the color this reporter saw was: astounding, mind-blowing, stupendous, astonishing, glowing, electrifying, breathtaking, eye-popping, wondrous –or, to keep it simple as Thoreau did: beautiful.
Sassafras trees are on fire –virtually, of course, but when you first lay eyes on some of them in the Park this week, you'll think their flames are real. Overnight most turned Day-Glo orange, but some choose to burn fire-engine red, others candlelight gold or lemon yellow, while a hesitant few still wear the pea greens of summer. Some sassafras trees bear all five colors at once, looking for all the world like a Southwestern kitchen's mise en place for tacos with salsa fresca –multicolored chiles, bell peppers, cilantro, and heirloom tomatoes. A quarter-mile or so south of mile 21, a patch of fiery sassafras I saw as I rounded the curve was so beautiful it brought tears to my eyes. Another patch across from Ivy Creek Overlook near mile 77 I saw as the sun descended looked like a circa-1965 Christmas tree –wonderful bulbs of primary-color light.
Sumacs vie for attention, too, and have no trouble catching it. The burning bush Moses saw could not have been brighter. Just north of mile 82 a splash of sumac seen in the 6:00 evening sun was otherworldly. Sumacs are show-offs, displaying many hues on one plant;sassafras and sumacs imitate each other in this regard, although they paint their colors on differently –sumacs in bold, Jamaican-looking stripes, sassafras in impressionist dabs. But when you catch sight of them, both shrubs are so unreal they will make you laugh out loud –pop-art of the Skyline Drive roadside. The gold of hickory trees right now is surreal –not a color you expect in nature, except perhaps from sunflowers or marigolds. Poison ivy running up a tree in the south district is shocking yellow-gold, like a sequined boa wrapped full length around a Vegas showgirl.
The view from Brown Mountain Overlook at mile 76.6 is sulky but magnificent. From there you can see the effects of the Rocky Mount Fire of six months ago. Depending on their aspect, some hillsides are dark with scorch, while others boast the reds, golds, greens, and russets of October. Bare rock on the mountaintops there give the whole scene the appearance of a big, scruffy black bear slumbering in a fall forest. Just behind the rock wall at Brown Mountain Overlook orange-red sumacs lit from behind will make you wonder –for a second or two, until you catch your breath –if a new wildfire has just self-ignited. Driving north on Skyline Drive toward Brown Mountain in the 6:20 dying sunset light, the blue-pink sky shimmering with shell-pink and pearl-white clouds, was like driving full tilt into a Maxfield Parrish painting.
So come. Come to Shenandoah National Park and experience the three-ring circus of color that is October in these lovely mountains. There's no time like the present.
"If you spend your whole life waiting for the storm, you'll never enjoy the sunshine."
And if you spend your whole fall waiting for perfect, glorious leaf color, you'll never enjoy the other splendor this season has to offer.
We know what you're thinking: Enough already, autumn. Bring on the show! There's still (yes, still) a lot of green. But autumn will be what she will be, and there's nothing any of us can do about it. We might as well learn to love her on her own terms.
Here are the terms she's offering this week in Shenandoah National Park.
Virginia creepers –you've got to love them. While most of the other fall color stars –like maples, sassafras, poison ivy, and hickories –are goofing off, not even pretending to change color yet, Virginia creepers are hard at work, doing their part –the overachievers of the Shenandoah forest. Between miles 38 and 40 this week Virginia creepers fairly tap dance for your viewing pleasure. They rush over stone walls and across natural stone banks, as if someone tipped over a half-full bottle of claret onto a flagstone patio. They bolt up trees so thickly that in some places you can't even see bark. They aim to please, and they do so with such vermilion zeal, you almost feel like rolling down your car window and giving them a round of applause.
One lone maple across from Meadow Springs parking, near mile 34, stands tall like a Beefeater guarding the Park's soon-to-be-jewel-toned trees and vines. Fickle ash trees flirt with you, as they continue to smolder here and there, some turning purple-bronze, some butternut gold, some apparently unable to decide what color they want to be. (Ash trees wear their hearts on their leaves.) Moosewoods –goose foot maples, striped maples, whatever you like to call them –are vividly two-toned now, lemon yellow and lime green. Big Meadows has gone straight from summer greens to earth tones –a '70s palette of mauve, tan, harvest gold, and sage. Hillsides are still blanketed in green, but are dotted now with scarlet, pumpkin, and saffron–a polka-dotted quilt autumn works at a little each day. The view from Hazel Mountain Overlook at mile 33 on Skyline Drive is evolving before our eyes, an embroidered piece on which dead hemlocks stand out like sporadic gray stitches. In the south district –below Swift Run Gap on route 33 –you'll see some golds and yellows: hickories, mostly. The south district often pulls out all her stops later in the season, so keep your eye on her as the next couple of weeks progress.
Take heart: Shenandoah has had a few frosty nights this past week. Cool nights and warm days are what cue the trees, shrubs, and vines to don their colorful clothes. It's art, yes –a little textile creativity, a little fashion design, a lot of oil and watercolor –but it's also science. Educate yourself on how it works: http://www.sciencemadesimple.com/leaves.html
Check back next Friday, October 21, for the fall color update. And don't forget to check the fall color webcam on our website: https://www.nps.gov/…/learn/photosmultimedia/view_webcam.htm Even better, come visit the real, live Shenandoah National Park and make up your mind to love autumn on her own terms. Whatever she offers, we promise it'll be worth the drive.
October 7, 2016
Fall color report for October 7, 2016.
"There's nothing wrong with things taking time."
~ James Dyson
That's a good thing, because autumn sure is taking her time in Shenandoah National Park this year.
Every year is different, of course – as is every season. No summer is like last year's summer; no winter produces the same number of frigid days or the same amount of snowfall; no spring springs exactly as she did in the past. And so no autumn paints the mountainsides in the same way or at the same pace she did last year, or two, or four, years ago.
What will we say about autumn 2016 in years to come? We might be saying she was a late bloomer. We might be saying she came on slowly at first, then burst out of the gate in mid-October. Or we might be saying she trotted leisurely through the first half of this tenth month, and was still trailing color in early November.
There's no way to know yet. What we can say right now is that autumn is dawdling: it's still mighty green in Shenandoah National Park.
But autumn hasn't forgotten these mountains. In the Park's north district, from mile 0 to mile 28 or so, as your elevation increases along Skyline Drive, so do the colors. They're juuuust starting to show. Panoramic views display subtle changes – forest greens turning lime green and chartreuse and maize. Hillsides and hollows, when you see them all at once, remind you of the dusky yet illuminated Hudson River School paintings – those of Frederic Church, Jasper Cropsey, and Thomas Cole. A few dogwoods pop out at you as you drive, some dramatically dark, grape soda shades. As you near the middle of the north district, round about mile 14 or so, you'll start to notice – maybe one or two every mile – ash trees. Is this how the ash tree got its common name – because it glows from within come October, like a dying ember, so many colors on one tree? Ashes are the mood rings of our forests – subtle gold on one side, chartreuse near the ground, sunset mauve at the top – making you wonder exactly what emotion they feel at the moment and what emotional state they're headed for. Sumacs – very occasionally still – are starting to display their typical fiery color palette, like roadside lava lamps. A good-looking pokeweed here and there rises beside Skyline Drive, like a handsome but brawny lush from a bar stool, and flashes the feel-good colors of a wine flight – Pinot Gris yellow, Chardonnay gold, Petit Verdot purple. A few gum trees have turned completely chili-pepper red, one tree making a scene amongst all its green neighbors, impatient to get on with the season. Virginia creepers are mixed – some are still green as poison, others have ripened to paprika, persimmon, and raspberry.
So it starts. Fall this year is as dilatory as a prima donna making her fans wait for her descent down a grand staircase. But descend she will. Come to Shenandoah as soon as you can, as often as you can, and watch the grand show.
The fall color report will be updated on Friday, October 14, 2016. Check back to see how the color unfolds in this Blue Ridge Mountains national park.
September 30, 2016
Fall color report for September 30, 2016.
"Even if something is left undone, everyone must take time to sit still and watch the leaves turn."
~ Elizabeth Lawrence
Or, may we recommend an even better way to watch the leaves turn: take time to drive Skyline Drive or hike a Shenandoah National Park trail.
It's still early. Many trees are still wearing their summer greens. But the spots of color that last week were still rather small and scattered are this week bigger and more profuse. You'll see most of the color on Virginia creeper –that startling, vivid scarlet –and on maples, where here and there throughout the Park one branch will seem to have jumped into a bucket of bright red paint ahead of its tree mates –a fall color leap of faith. A maple across from Skyland Amphitheater is a prime example.
Ferns are turning gold –their kelly green fronds brushed lightly now with gold dust, but transforming frond tip by frond tip into the cinnamon and milk chocolate tones they'll wear in winter. There are several lavish displays of ferns along Skyline Drive, but one of the most enchanting is at the Stony Man trailhead at mile 41.7. Purple asters still delight all along the Drive, winking at you with their saffron-colored eyes. Goldenrods still greet you, too, though their lemon yellow is beginning to age into a turmeric-toned golden. Dogwoods, denizens mostly of the Park's northern reaches, are turning various shades of red –beet, bronze, Mackintosh apple, and cherry.
It's been a little dry in the Park for the past few weeks, but over the past two days we've finally gotten some rain. Trees need moisture for their leaves to change the colors we expect from them at this time of year, and so the rain should help. Try to remember this if you arrive to a rainy Shenandoah. It really is a good thing, and the Park is still lovely –in some ways more lovely –in rainy, even foggy, weather. Take your time, drive safely, and enjoy the view.
The fall color report will be updated next Friday, October 7. Check back then to see how fall is working its magic in Shenandoah National Park.
September 23, 2016
Fall color report for September 23, 2016.
“Autumn is the mellower season, and what we lose in flowers we more than gain in fruits.”
– Samuel Butler
Autumn is here now, and things are getting mellow in Shenandoah National Park.
The biggest change is at Big Meadows. Big Meadows’ higher elevation makes it one of the first places autumn transforms, and she has – right on schedule – activated her alchemy in the Meadow again this year. The shrubs and grasses that were the green of summer last week are just beginning to turn green-gold and yellow-green, brushing the Meadow the citrusy tones of a big, shallow bowl of lemons and limes. Along Skyline Drive you’ll see polka-dots of color – a spot of apple-red here, a speck of ripe tangerine there – among the mostly still-verdant trees and shrubs. But on the ground, where the flora grows closer to the earth, you can see for sure that fall has not forgotten Shenandoah; the goldenrods and asters have splashed their vivid lemon and purple tones generously – like a late-year spring – and summer flowers like black-eyed Susans and coreopsis that bloomed for you already in July and August provide a solemn but lovely golden-brown drop cloth for goldenrods’ and asters’ just-now-coming-into-their-own ludicrous hues.
As you gaze out from overlooks along Skyline Drive and summits in the Park’s backcountry, you’ll see sparse polka-dotting that mimics that along roadsides – freckles of peach-toned beeches and tomato-red maples, just here, just there. But the mountainsides are still mostly the apt forest green and eponymous navy-green of summer in this part of the Blue Ridge.
There’s one vine, though – Virginia creeper – that seems to want to accommodate the autumn-craving visitor. Virginia creeper doesn’t creep up tree trunks at all – it rushes, like an energetic child sprinting up a spiral staircase – and where you see the vine this week in Shenandoah, it does not hide its cherry-red self. It practically shouts for your attention from trunks of ash trees, hickories, and oaks. You don’t even have to get out of your car; Virginia creeper puts on its show right beside the road.
Like Virginia creeper, autumn rushes her arrival. Each day she pulls more color from her palette and dabs it on throughout Shenandoah. Come see her artistry for yourself, as soon as you can.
The fall color report will be updated next Friday, September 30, 2016. Check back to see how charmingly fall is making her way through Shenandoah.
September 16, 2016
"Summer ends, and autumn comes, and he who would have it otherwise would have high tide always and a full moon every night."
~ Hal Borland
Technically, it's still summer, even in Shenandoah National Park.
But autumn is coming. Officially, she'll be here in six days. Unofficially, she's already unpacking her bags and making herself at home.
As autumn whirled in to these mountains, she touched her magic wand to trees, grasses, flowers, and shrubs here and there –black locusts, black-eyed Susans gone to seed, a sassafras –to turn them golden, plum, and bronze. A handful of vines, like Virginia creeper, she hurriedly splashed with scarlet, and a sumac or two's undersides she dotted with crimson.
But it's still mostly verdant in these mountains. Not only has summer not checked out yet, she hasn't even begun to fold her green wardrobe. As often happens at this time of year, summer and autumn will share quarters for another week or so in Shenandoah. When they have roomed together here, the sleepover has always been mesmerizing and fun to watch. Goldenrods, those magnificently mustard flowers of late summer and early fall, stand dazzling and sunshiny, almost in groves, along Skyline Drive. Purple asters blend in in spots, to lend the roadsides their more elegant moonlight hue. Ferns, especially the sea of ferns near mile 38 that last week waved supple and verdurous in the mountaintop breeze, are taking on a tinge of gilt –still stunning, but more stately now.
When autumn starts to move in, though, she moves fast. She settles in first at high elevations;her colors, the reverse of spring's, move down the mountains from up on high. Next week this time things will look different in Shenandoah National Park, as shades of green make way for the golds, rusts, oranges, and cranberry reds of the approaching season.
Although the ways fall color happens are scientific, describing fall color is not, and predicting it accurately -- even for an arborist -- is out of the question. Shenandoah's fall color reports will, therefore, be just that –reports of how fall is progressing, as seen through the eyes of one reporter. And as Shenandoah is a 100-mile-long park, with elevations ranging from less than 1,000 feet to just over 4,050 feet, there is no single "peak" of color;rather there are lots of little peaks, bursts of color happening at different times in different places. The best we can do, year after year, toward fall color prognostication for visitors trying to plan their autumn jaunts to Shenandoah, is to say this: the time most likely to be most colorful in this park is the middle of October. This is also Shenandoah's busiest time, so plan accordingly.
We look forward to your visit!
This fall color report will be updated each Friday through at least October. So check back next week to see what's happening color wise in this lovely national park.