Don’t be dismayed! This introductory use of e. e. cummings’s work is not meant to be discouraging. (This writer just happens to love the poem.) The last leaf has not fallen yet in Shenandoah National Park.
But, as befits the name of this season, the leaves in this beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains national park are starting to fall. If you want to catch a glimpse of the autumn colors, now is the time to come.
A snow shower in the Park’s higher elevations last Sunday squelched a little bit of the foliage's autumnal fire, but there is still plenty of color along Skyline Drive. And gazing out toward the Virginia Piedmont to the east and the Shenandoah Valley to the west, you can expect to see plenty of color – the brilliant gold of hickories, polka-dots of crimson and burnt-orange maples. From some overlooks (explore and find your own favorite!), the tops of many-hued trees standing tall in tiers in hollows are like some splendid and terraced Near East city, all jewel-toned domes and carnival-glass minarets.
Spend some time at Bacon Hollow Overlook, mile 68.9 on Skyline Drive, a spot that appears to drop off like the ends of the earth. Notice how mighty you feel – like Simba standing high atop Pride Rock in The Lion King – as you survey the half-moon-shaped bowl of Bacon Hollow and points east. Nubby treetops near and far spread out around and below you, in a view both intimate and grand, majestic and homespun. It’s hard to look away, difficult to get back in your car and motor off.
But motor off you must. Because if you make your way north, to just south of Sandy Bottom Overlook (mile 67.5), there’s a maple on the east side of the road so cherry red it looks fake, as if the leaves were cut from craft foam and glued, one by one, to its branches. And because, if you go south, you’ll find a few oaks near Loft Mountain Wayside so saturated with color that they look to be made of Naugahyde. South River Picnic Grounds in late-afternoon sunlight is still awash with liquid reds, oranges, and golden yellows – wines, ciders, and bourbons.
You want to visit Shenandoah this weekend, you know you do. You don’t want to miss this show!
A NOTE ABOUT FIRES – It rained last weekend – it even snowed! – in Shenandoah. But fall is a dry time of year in these mountains. Currently there are no fire restrictions in the Park, but please be very careful with fire – when building campfires and cooking fires, lighting camp stoves, even lighting cigarettes. As always, open fires are not permitted in Shenandoah’s backcountry.
This is the last fall color report of this year. We hope you have enjoyed fall in Shenandoah National Park and these weekly reports. Have a wonderful winter, spring, and summer. We’ll see you next autumn!
October 27, 2017
Well, it’s a marvelous night for a Moondance
With the stars up above in your eyes
A fantabulous night to make romance
‘Neath the cover of October skies
And all the leaves on the trees are falling
To the sound of the breezes that blow
And I’m trying to please to the calling
Of your heart-strings that play soft and low
And all the night’s magic seems to whisper and hush
And all the soft moonlight seems to shine in your blush.
~ Van Morrison, “Moondance”
No doubt about it, fall in Shenandoah National Park is romantic as all get out. There’s something about the way the breezes, sunlight, and moonlight play with the mountains and hollows. The nights are magic; they whisper and hush; it’s so easy to please to the calling of your heart-strings in this spellbinding place.
Trees and shrubs that earlier in the fall overtook the stage – like sassafras and sumac – are beginning to take their leave, ceding the spotlight to hickories, oaks, and maples. Hickory trees, all at once, turned golden yellow. In late afternoon sun they positively blaze, like mutant marigolds, by Skyline Drive, in hollows, and on hillsides. The very tops of some hickories are turning brown, as if caramelized by the sun. Some oaks – those typically late-to-the-scene color changers – are starting to sizzle with chili powder reds and bright pumpkin oranges. Maples have costumed themselves in vermilion and neon orange that will, for a split second, stop your heart. Occasional Day-Glo maples and hickories in lower elevations, seen from overlooks, look like Cheetos carelessly dropped on shag carpet.
But sumacs and sassafras haven’t given up the stage just yet. A patch of sumacs across the road from Stony Man Overlook at mile 38.6 is red as Christmas, like poinsettias out of season and out of place. Sassafras that in the past few weeks glowed bright green, red, and orange now smolder in wine reds and persimmon oranges. Motoring from Bearfence parking at mile 56.4 to South River Overlook at mile 62.4 is a blissful glide through fiery shades of confetti. An open-armed maple at South River Overlook displays leaves of either red or yellow; combined and seen from a distance of just a few yards, the overall effect is visual proof that red and yellow, mixed, become orange. A patch of sassafras on the roadside across from that same overlook embraces every color in a bag of Starburst candy – red, orange, yellow, even pink. On the east side of the Drive between miles 70 and 71, a cool-toned patch of three-feet-high lemon-lime saplings belies the fireside colors of the autumn palette. Rounding the curve south near mile 79, you’ll get to inspect troops of staggered, startlingly brilliant trees – scarlet then tangerine then sunlight gold – one right after the other.
This fall color report is not scientific, nor is it intended to be. This report is one writer’s recording of what she sees going on color wise in this Park this week. If you prefer prediction and percentage over prose, look no further than the Smoky Mountains Fall Foliage Prediction map at https://smokymountains.com/fall-foliage-map/ If you’d like to learn more about what natural forces conspire to create fall color, take a gander at the U.S. National Arboretum’s explanation at http://www.usna.usda.gov/…/FallFoliage/ScienceFallColor.html
A VERY IMPORTANT MESSAGE ABOUT FIRES – We had about 1/3-inch of rain this past week, but it wasn’t enough to eliminate fire danger in Shenandoah. Currently there are no fire restrictions in the Park, but please be very careful with fire – when building campfires and cooking fires, lighting camp stoves, even lighting cigarettes. As always, open fires are not permitted in Shenandoah’s backcountry.
If you haven’t yet visited Shenandoah this autumn, this weekend is the time to come. Because if there ever was a peak weekend for fall color, ladies and gentlemen, this is it.
So come, and be bewitched.
This fall color report will be updated one last time for the season on Friday, November 3rd.
October 20, 2017
Besides the Autumn poets sing,
A few prosaic days,
A little this side of the snow,
And that side of the Haze...
~ Emily Dickinson
They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. (Actually, it was Margaret Wolfe Hungerford who first wrote that, in her 1878 book “Molly Bawn.”) More than once (in these very fall color reports, even) I have counseled that if you look for beauty – if you EXPECT beauty – you will find it. It’s all in how you approach the looking.
There are some beautiful spots in Shenandoah National Park this week, many of which you won’t have to lift a brain cell to find instantly lovely. It will be love at first sight if in the next few days you drive south on Skyline Drive through the Park’s north district just as the sun starts thinking about setting. Pay attention to the view in front of you as you round the curve just south of Range View Overlook at mile 17.1, to how the rays barely outline the ridges that slope and swirl downward toward the Valley to the west. The mountain will be lusciously dark, and those sunbeams kissing its edges will put you in mind of a huge and surreal gingerbread Bundt cake.
Don’t just think color as you travel through the Park in search of autumn glory; also think texture: the way the sun plays with ridgelines, the backlit furriness of a clematis vine gone to seed, how mountainsides mimic the richest fabrics – cashmeres and damasks, velvets and brocades. The view of the Massanutten Mountains from Hogback Overlook at mile 20.9 is horizontal tissue-paper strips of greenish-grayish-blue, nearly parallel precision.
Low Gap at mile 8 is still green, but you can tell those tall tulip trees are starting to think about turning yellow. Next week, perhaps.
Between miles 24 and 26 or so along Skyline Drive you’ll see bright spots of red in stately maples. The view from Jeremys Run Overlook at mile 26.3 in late afternoon was a study in Hudson River School oil tones – brooding forest greens, serious chartreuses, honeys and cognacs, romantic golds. The lone pine smack dab in the middle of that overlook’s vista spreads its arms wide, an art museum docent– “Look this way, and note the brush strokes and tonal virtuosity of these old masters.”
This week’s summer wildflower hanger-on was a daisy – fresh as...well, a daisy – on the Drive’s west side, just south of Thornton Gap, near mile 31.5.
The maple of many colors at Meadow Spring parking, mile 33.5, that last week impersonated an anxious-to-please snow cone is this week dramatically two-faced, an arboreal Phantom of the Opera: approached from the north, the tree shows its cheerier side – oranges, golden-yellows, still a dab of summer green; looked back at from the south, it’s somber dark reds, burnt oranges, and flame yellows. No matter what else goes on color wise in Shenandoah, that little maple never fails to do its fair share to jazz up its little corner of the Park.
A brace of maples in the Thornton Gap intersection (mile 31.5) bedeck that triangle of space with deep, dark plums and grape soda purples.
Play with the time of day you drive through Shenandoah, and the direction in which you go. A colorful tree or vignette you miss in the kind of sunlight that makes you squint will pop when you catch it from a different direction or at a different time of day. Drive one way for a while, then turn around (carefully, as there are lots of other people and wildlife on the road with you) and drive the other way. Stop and lunch or have a picnic, visit a visitor center, and give your eyes a break. Then get back in your car and have another go at discovery.
Beauty is all around you in Shenandoah, this fall, this week. Color is everywhere! Yes, the colors may be a little dusty, a tad duller than in some years, because of the dry conditions of the past couple of months. But mountainsides seen from vistas to both east and west still wear mostly green robes, as if to taunt us with a promise of color yet to come. Don’t compare this fall to falls past; this fall will unfold as it sees fit and it will still be beautiful, no matter what the colors become, no matter how far ahead of or past the elusive “peak” you arrive at Shenandoah. The show ain’t over yet; Shenandoah may still – this autumn, even – surprise the heck out of you.
A STILL-IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT FIRES – Although we have had a little bit of rain here and there during the past couple of weeks, Shenandoah is still very dry. There are no fire restrictions in the Park, but please be very careful with fire – when building campfires and cooking fires, lighting camp stoves, even lighting cigarettes. As always, open fires are not permitted in Shenandoah’s backcountry.
This fall color report will be updated next Friday, October 27. Check back then to see what’s happening with the hues in this gorgeous national park. Even better, come visit!
October 13, 2017
“Winter is an etching, spring a watercolor, summer an oil painting and autumn a mosaic of them all.”
~ Stanley Horowitz
It’s not exactly what you would call riotous yet, but Shenandoah National Park is getting there. Day by day, tree by tree, this beloved national park is becoming the mosaic of color we’ve been waiting for all year.
Some areas of the Park are more colorful than others – and this will continue to be the case – but expect to see plenty of autumn drama as you drive from Front Royal at mile 0 all the way down to Rockfish Gap at mile 105. The happy little maple that oversees Meadow Spring Parking at mile 33.5 is a swirl of cherry, orange, and lime, like a snow cone for a child who couldn’t decide on just one flavor. And sumacs are funny things. You might find a patch of the tropical-looking plants still green as poison growing right beside their brothers and sisters who have turned every color except green – poinsettia red, butternut orange, Golden Delicious yellow. A patch of sumacs at Spitler Knoll Overlook (mile 48) is especially dramatic, exhibiting just about every possible hue, like feather boas on Mardi Gras revelers.
Swift Run Gap is alive with chromatic splendor. A rogue maple just north of the Gap looks like an open box of Crayolas – Red Orange, Scarlet, Burnt Orange, Mango Tango, Sunglow, and tiny polka dots of Electric Lime. A dogwood just south of the turnoff for route 33 displays every color there ever was in the palette of red. Pulling off at Bacon Hollow Overlook at mile 68.9 on a foggy afternoon provided a Halloween vignette of grays, silvers, and blacks: crows flapping around and landing in a dead snag cawed haughtily, perfectly aware that they own the joint. "Keep moving," they croaked. "You have no jurisdiction here." Fog comes and goes, though; by Rocky Mount Overlook just two miles south, the fog was lifting and revealing south-facing mountainsides just beginning to turn maize and pumpkin. Hickories and birches, especially in the Park’s South District, glow golden-orange, one and two trees at a time, little fires of color in the forest.
A single phosphorescent yellow evening primrose hangs on fiercely on the west side of the Drive near mile 85.
The scene-stealer this week, though, is sassafras. Sassafras trees, like sumacs, are the mood rings of the Appalachian woods. In the Park this week you can see the whole gamut of sassafras shades – single trees glittering jewel-tones of both crimson and green, startling as mangoes in every stage of ripeness, or dressing themselves in classic monotones like auburn, paprika, and Velveeta orange. A sassafras near Calf Mountain Overlook seven miles from Skyline Drive’s southern end glowed a luminous light red, like a glass of Pinot Noir on the Thanksgiving table.
Please know that this fall color report is not analytic, nor is it meant to be. If you prefer science over abstraction, you’ve got a friend in the Smoky Mountains Fall Foliage Prediction Map, at https://smokymountains.com/fall-foliage-map
AN IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT FIRES – Although we have had some rain in the past few days, Shenandoah National Park is still very dry. Currently, there are no fire restrictions in the Park, but please be very careful with fire – when building campfires and cooking fires, lighting camp stoves, even lighting cigarettes. As always, open fires are not permitted in Shenandoah’s backcountry.
This fall color report will be updated next Friday, October 20. Check back then to see the color parade that is autumn in Shenandoah. Better yet, come visit this lovely park – the sooner the better – and witness it up close and in person.
October 6, 2017
“October knew, of course, that the action of turning a page, of ending a chapter or shutting a book, did not end the tale. Having admitted that, he would also avow that happy endings were never difficult to find: ‘It is simply a matter,’ he explained to April, ‘of finding a sunny place in a garden, where the light is golden and the grass is soft; somewhere to rest, to stop reading, and to be content.’”
~ Neil Gaiman, “Season of Mists”
Here we are, in early October in Shenandoah National Park, and like corn in a campfire, the colors are popping.
Between miles 12 and 13 this weekend you will find some especially dramatic shades. One tree standing high on the west side of Skyline Drive almost gleams bright chartreuse yellow, and – wrapped with a massive, trunk-swathing, dark crimson, Goth-like Virginia creeper – can make you forget for a split second that trees are supposed to be forest colors like green and brown. North-facing mountainsides rolling down into the Virginia Piedmont, as seen from Jenkins Gap Overlook, are displaying spots of scarlet and peachy orange. Aspect matters. Therefore, as you gaze out east and west from overlooks along Skyline Drive in the days ahead you will find that it is the north-facing mountainsides that autumn’s paintbrush touches first.
Some of the best color right now is between mile 23, near Mathews Arm and Elkwallow, south to Swift Run Gap, at mile 65.5. Here and there, hickories blaze golden yellow, the color of ripe mangoes. Thornton Gap is turning candy-corn colors branch by branch, tree by tree. The Stony Man area around mile 38 is starting to show its colorful side and should be even splashier this weekend. You might remember that last week old Stony Man got himself a henna rinse. Well, this week the old fellow seems to have gone back to the salon for streaks of paprika, cumin, and saffron.
Big Meadows is layered streaks of spice tones – sand art in a huge shallow glass bowl. Driving through the section of Skyline Drive around Lewis Mountain at mile 57 is like walking down the aisle of a cathedral with stained-glass windows in marigold tones. Swift Run Gap is dabbed with yellow and pops of red. Bearfence Trail is gorgeous, flaunting a mix of goldenrod, purple asters, and yellow foliage. A maple at Naked Creek Overlook blazes vermilion against a sea of lime green and lemon yellow.
But dryness is having an impact. Dryness like Shenandoah is experiencing now stresses trees, and their leaf colors exhibit that stress; some trees may shed their leaves before they have a chance to turn the vivid colors that back in early September they wanted to turn. We’re hoping for rain later in the weekend. That hoped-for rain could still resuscitate the colors of some trees.
All this being said, adopting an attitude of adventure and discovery is more than half the battle when you’re looking for beauty anywhere, and the same rule applies when you’re seeking out fall color. If you look for beauty – especially at this most wonderful time of year, when the temperatures are dropping and the very air is refreshing – you will find it. So slow down; take your time. Don’t expect to be presented with huge Technicolor vistas around every curve. Rather, expect this week to see single trees, individual branches, patches of moon-purple asters and mustard-yellow goldenrods that proudly pop up where you least expect them, seeming to vie, one by one, for your attention. For example, near mile 47 a lone sugar maple – so flagrantly florid! – on the west side of the Drive almost made this writer run off the road when I drove south yesterday morning (Thursday, October 5) toward its shocking self. The colors like that tree threw at me are not often found in nature, but there it was, like a giant red-hot cinnamon lollipop stuck into a garden salad.
A gentle reminder: This fall color report is just that – a report of one writer’s observations taken in on a happy drive through Shenandoah. It is not a prediction. It is more poetry (this writer hopes) than science. If you prefer a more scientific prediction of fall color across the nation, check out the Smoky Mountains Fall Foliage Prediction Map at https://smokymountains.com/fall-foliage-map/
A VERY IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT FIRES – We said this last week, and this week it’s even more urgent: Shenandoah National Park is extremely dry. As is true for much of the Eastern Seaboard, we have not had rain in several weeks. At this point there are no fire restrictions in the Park, but please be very careful with fire – when building campfires in the campgrounds and picnic grounds, when lighting your cigarettes, and when lighting camp stoves. As always, open fires are not permitted in Shenandoah’s backcountry.
This fall color report will be updated next Friday, October 13, 2017. Check back then for the next chapter in the tale of autumn in Shenandoah National Park. In the meantime, come seek – and find – your own little pocket of beauty in this magnificent national park. There’s no better time than now.
September 29, 2017
Departing summer hath assumed
An aspect tenderly illumed,
The gentlest look of spring;
That calls from yonder leafy shade
Unfaded, yet prepared to fade,
A timely carolling.
~ William Wordsworth, "September"
The last week in September finds Shenandoah National Park in a state of preparation for autumn. Most definitely, Shenandoah has turned her face to the year’s third season; she is entirely prepared to fade. But summer hasn’t abandoned these mountains just yet.
Predicting fall color, making precise prognostications about how the hues will unfold throughout Shenandoah, is part science and part crystal ball-gazing, but in the end forecasting a “peak” or even a progression of autumnal complexion is even less accurate than predicting the weather. And we all know how frustrating that can be. What follows here is one observer’s description of the current fall color scene in Shenandoah; if you want a scientific prediction of fall color progression in the Appalachian Mountains, visit the 2017 Smoky Mountains Fall Foliage Prediction map site at https://smokymountains.com/fall-foliage-map/
Here’s what’s going on right now in this Blue Ridge Mountains national park.
If you’re seeing the Park via Skyline Drive in the late afternoon, consider driving south to north. Without the sun in your eyes, the colors are more striking and easier to see. In the South District, the 40-mile stretch between Swift Run Gap at route 33 and Rockfish Gap at route 250, green still reigns. As you motor along Skyline Drive down south you might see spots of color – crimson Virginia creeper, a few yellow hickory branches – but gazing out from overlooks into the Shenandoah Valley west or the Virginia Piedmont east, you’ll see that the hollows and mountainsides are still lush, as if someone, unprepared for house guests and hearing the ring of the doorbell, tossed a forest green fleece throw over a pile of toys on the living room floor.
Right now – before the leaves of trees and shrubs really begin to glow with their October brilliance – is a good time to look down. There’s so much color at your feet! Purple asters are at their finest; they will fade as October progresses. Blooming on a shady west bank of Skyline Drive, the amethyst beauties fool the eye for a split second into wondering: What’s this celestial flip-flop? Is the moon shining even in the middle of the afternoon, spattering the ground with dappled fluorescent lavender light? Snow-white asters, mustard-yellow goldenrods, coreopsis the color of saffron, ferns waving from the ground like cinnamon feathers: Even while trees are not yet offering a riotous display, the forest floor sure is.
Things are starting to smolder in Shenandoah. The hillsides in the Park’s Central District remind us of the coming October, treetops just starting to recast to reddish brown, as if Stony Man and his neighboring hills and hollows got themselves a henna rinse. Franklin Cliffs Overlook is always a good spot to view fall’s progression. Already this year, the vista is coming to life there, having just started to apply a little red rouge on its northwest-facing cheeks. Franklin Cliffs is a good spot to watch, if you’re a frequent visitor to Shenandoah; you can see a lot of fall from that overlook. Just north of mile 45, on the Drive’s east side, a hickory blazes yellow-orange – one fire-colored tree in a sea of green, a one-tree show.
Keep in mind that fall color is an ever changing thing, and just as we all do, these mountains have many moods. Shenandoah’s splendors vary according to different factors: the time of year you’re taking it all in, of course, but also the time of day, whether or not the sun is out, the direction in which you’re driving or hiking, the current weather, even your own mood. Take your time. If you drive straight through, without stopping at an overlook or taking a short stroll, or if you hike hastily, forgetting to look around and notice the small things, you’ll miss a lot of the good stuff. What’s your hurry? (Did anyone ever tell you how annoying and boring your frenetic pace makes you? Well, it does.)
A very important note about fire safety: It’s been several weeks since we’ve had significant rainfall, so it’s dry in Shenandoah and throughout the surrounding area. Please exercise great caution when lighting campfires, picnic fires, even cigarettes. Make sure fires are completely out when you leave your campsite or picnic site, as even the smallest live ash can start a wildfire. Currently, there are no fire bans in Shenandoah, but you do need to be more careful with fire than usual. Thanks for your cooperation. (And if you know any good rain dances, now would be a good time to do one.)
This fall color report will be updated on Friday, October 6, 2017. Check back then to see how autumn is progressing tonally in Shenandoah National Park.
September 22, 2017
“Autumn seemed to arrive suddenly that year. The morning of the first September was crisp and golden as an apple.”
~ J. K. Rowling
Autumn has come on rather suddenly this year in Shenandoah National Park – and early, too.
In early September some trees, especially maples in the Park’s higher elevations – seeming for all the world to be already over summer – had dabbled in this new season, daubing onto their outermost branches shocking ripe-apple reds. It’s as if the trees and shrubs of Shenandoah this year, tired of playing second fiddle to the glamor-queen trees of New England, opted for a makeover and ordered the most drop-dead shades of crimson they could find to paint their leafy fingers. “Look!” they told us, even three weeks ago, “I got my nails done just for you.”
Still, it’s early days. Today is only the first full day of fall. Summer has not let go yet in the mountains. Green is the color you’ll see most of if you visit Shenandoah this weekend. Even though the Park’s mountainsides and hollows are still awash in summer’s verdancy, as you gaze out from Skyline Drive’s overlooks, you will see big isolated dots of scarlet, where one tree – a maple or even a precocious oak – has turned scarlet. Fall tends to creep down the mountain, from high elevation to low, and in Shenandoah’s central portion – its highest elevations – you’ll find sumacs, like the eyelashes of giant showgirls, splashed with both kelly green and raspberry red on the same branch. Virginia creeper, always an early turner but this year going for the gold, has wrapped entire trees in the most amazing wine red. If you catch Virginia creeper just right, in just the right light, its blood red will make you gasp. Oaks usually change color a little later in the fall, but this year some of Shenandoah’s are trading in their green in great big spots, as if they’re decorating themselves early with outsized red and orange Christmas balls. Bittersweet is an invasive vine, but right now it seems to be begging for permanent residency in the Park; its leaves are the most stunning yellow! Sassafras is taking on citrus shades of lemon and lime. Poison ivy sneaks up trees and shrubs, flame orange, like a warning. Dogwood trees, mostly at the Park’s northern end, are already deep burgundy and bronze. The section of Skyline Drive between miles 39 and 42 has positively come to life with color, as if, at the feet of a sleeping Stony Man, those trees are trying to wake the old fellow up. The natural rock bank across from Stony Man Overlook at mile 38.6 looks like a selection of paint colors in a hardware store. And just a short ways south of mile 39, on the Drive’s west side, there is an ash tree that glows an otherworldly golden, tinged ever so slightly with lilac. That tree, approached from the south yesterday evening, made this writer’s heart flip.
Even Big Meadows at mile 51 is getting in on the action. Blueberry bushes are already dusted with plums and roses. Something – goldenrods? – blooming in large patches of an unusual chartreuse shade makes it look from Skyline Drive as if someone shattered Vaseline glass over the softly rolling meadow.
True, autumn’s colors are not at their height yet. There will be more color to come. But don’t wait. Come to Shenandoah early, and come often. This park is happy to show off for you. The display of autumn has begun!
This fall color report will be updated next Friday, September 29, 2017. Check back to see how autumn is transforming this stunning national park.